Meeting theatre persons from across the world at the Women Playwrights International Conference (Stockholm) was to realise once again that the modern stage has evolved a theatre of conscience.
I learnt how her interest in global market trading in the intangible “commodities” of love, childcare and sex, had made Danish stage director Ditte Maria Bjerg highlight gendered emotional labour in her play on Filippino maids in Europe. More recently her Global Stories had collaborated with Theatre Odense and Riksteatern to produce Made in India: Notes from a Baby Farm, showcased first in Sweden, and in its Danish premiere (Copenhagen, November 2013).
Oprah Winfrey made the IVF clinic and surrogacy services in Anand, Gujarat, world famous. But Bjerg’s inspiration came from Dr Amrita Pande’s six months of intense research at the same clinic. Their three years of data gathering, fund raising, video interviews of surrogate mothers and rent-a-womb customers, evolved into Made in India. Three actors — Danish, Swedish and Indian (Pande herself) — bared their souls to raise chilling moral questions. The play knits real stories and video visuals on location. Bjerg notes wryly, “The typical western journalist asks, how can you give your baby away? Indian women answer, but we give our daughters away.
The fantasy in Europe is of brown women bearing white children, whereas many clients are NRIs. And Anand’s Hindu, English, Christian surrogate mothers do not feel exploited, they see the clinic’s director as a matriarchal demigoddess saving two women’s lives.” Bjerg turned research into a performance with the universal leitmotif of a wedding, underscoring the family. The plotless docudrama begins with the market inviting clients, as blogs present surrogate mothers. Part two follows clients.
Finally Pande “lectures”, as pieces of embroidery by the surrogate mothers (their endless real-life pastime) are hung up. Bjerg was shattered more by encounters with clients, whose long-term infertility treatments had made them lose their sense of ethical borders. In the scene where scanning determines foetal reduction, the Indian mother cannot understand why the extra embryo has to be destroyed, why a client who wants twins cannot manage triplets. During this “photographing” session of a made-to-order “medical baby”, she feels something cold on her stomach — the client’s mobile phone through which the “father”, waiting abroad, hears foetal heartbeats.
Some clients did develop sisterly bonds with the surrogate mother, enough to care for her future needs. A Japanese couple even gifted a computer to the birth mother to stay in touch with her child. “Such transparency may reduce heartbreaks,” Bjerg sighs.
How did she achieve directorial distance from the disquieting subject? “I am not alone,” says she, “I’d have never manipulated Amrita’s research without her as my actor and expert analyst.” The play uses technology to both highlight and control emotions. Situational humour is deployed to banish bathos. Nor are the surrogates always seen as victims lying in beds, they also sing a happy chorus. Made in India has been described as exemplary and creative in structure and content, and as a fun performance of collages, providing a “sharp analysis of global capitalism and extreme economic inequality... of people perceived as services and commodities on an assembly line.” Amrita Pande’s strong presence is commended, as also Bjerg’s nuanced direction, which allows the audience to reflect and question.
In our muddled world today, we look to our arts not just to please us, but provoke us into recognising values, often dimmed by the miasma of expediency. We need live performances that shock, move and strengthen our minds to rupture comfortable illusions, to grasp the unchanging, and find the unchangeable.
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature.