Theatre / The Break of Day Royal Court, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Earlier this week, I complained that the new Iain Heggie play about a woman who is pushing 40, and in a relationship with a youth half her age, maintains a bizarre silence on such topics as biological clocks, baby substitutes, and the wombs-versus-work debate. The balance is redressed with a vengeance in The Break of Day, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, premiered now in Max Stafford-Clark's production for Out of Joint. Written as a companion piece for Chekhov's Three Sisters (which the company is also performing), the play focuses on three women who are sisters by virtue of feminism rather than blood: a high-powered journalist (Catherine Russell); a university professor (Anita Dobson), and a fading singer-songwriter (Maria Friedman).

Constellated round the cafetiere rather than the samovar, the first half is a country house/state of England play, full of talk like Chekhov, though without his ear for the eloquence of the unsaid. All still childless, these old female friends, along with their spouses or lovers - who, conveniently for the wooden-sounding discussion, include a consultant whose NHS hospital is being closed down and an actor who is about to play Vershinin in The Three Sisters - have met to celebrate the 40th birthday of the journalist.

By the end of this act, it has emerged that two of the women are desperate for a baby and unlikely to achieve that ambition without great pain and effort. Switching from leisured debate to quest-story, the second half intercuts scenes in eastern Europe, where the singer and her producer husband are shown battling against bureaucracy in an effort to adopt a sick baby orphan, with scenes tracing the journalist's desperate, obsessive endeavour to get pregnant in a not-so-subtly exploitative fertility clinic.

Dismayingly inorganic in form, adept at raising oh-so-smartly phrased points but not at developing them, the play's a curious piece on several counts. "Chekhov seems to believe in the future. I'm not sure I do," announces Nigel Terry as the actor, pointing up what for Wertenbaker is a key difference between the Russian's characters and hers, as they contemplate the end of their respective centuries. But The Break of Day fails to highlight the irony that, for a character like the female journalist, science now holds out the kind of hopes that can, in the end, destroy you. It's odd that, in a play much pre-occupied by our lack of faith in the future, this version of progress and its double-edged nature aren't debated.

Also peculiar is the way the play's song-punctuated detour into eastern Europe has the effect of sidelining the female academic who is the one woman in the piece prepared to settle for a life of the mind without partner or children. This character's victory is a sad one. "I think I live with dignity and some grace... I feel lonely sometimes ..." cue violins, under close-up of a really happy woman with a baby plugged to the breast.

The play is strong on how the maternal drive can cause women to betray orthodox feminism; you could argue, though, that its deep empathy for the plight of infertile women tempts The Break of Day to patronise its lone example of the admirable childless female intellectual.

n Booking (0171-730 2554) to 6 Jan

PAUL TAYLOR

Comments