Reviewed by Mark Brown
There was much excited anticipation when the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) announced that it was staging Girl X, a production directed by Pol Heyvaert of acclaimed Flemish theatre group Victoria. Veterans of Tramway in Glasgow, the Ghent-based company has presented such extraordinary productions as üBUNG (2002), Aalst (a co-production with the NTS in 2007), Nightshade (2007) and That Night Follows Day (2008).
Heyvaert directed both Aalst (a resonating piece based upon real life events in Belgium in 1999, in which a young couple murdered their own children) and Nightshade (a witty and thoughtful piece about striptease, performed by professional striptease artists). His capacity to broach controversial and provocative subjects with great originality, and without a trace of polemic, has been deeply impressive.
Inspired by an idea from Scottish theatre-maker and actor Robert Softley (who has cerebral palsy), Girl X focuses upon the debate (highlighted by recent cases in England and the United States) over who decides upon the rights of severely disabled people. Girl X, who has a severe form of cerebral palsy, is 11-years old, but doctors say she has a “mental age” of five months. Her family are asking the medical ethics committee of their local hospital to agree to the removal of the girl’s womb on the grounds that menstruation will cause her bewilderment and distress. The family is also asking for the girl’s breast buds to be removed and for hormones to be administered which will prevent her from growing to the size of a woman.
At face value, this is a troubling and fascinating subject for a public debate or one of those ethical discussion programmes on Radio Four. Only Heyvaert’s excellent track record of making highly creative drama out of incendiary, socio-political subject matter gives one confidence that it can also make for great theatre.
Sadly, for the first time in a decade of delighted interaction with the work of Heyvaert and his company, I find myself deeply disappointed. Despite the best efforts of the director, Softley and dramaturg Bart Capelle, there is very little going on in Girl X which could be described as genuinely dramatic. Drawing upon internet debates on its vexed subject, the piece (which is performed at the mouth of Martin McNee’s inexplicable, quasi-abstract concrete tunnel or underpass) pits Softley (who argues against the surgery to Girl X) against the “choir people” (a Greek-style chorus of mainly, if not entirely, amateur actors, who side instinctively with the family, sometimes patronise Softley with pity and, even, descend into a vulgar form of disablist abuse).
The debate itself is occasionally thought-provoking and often disquieting, but it is never more than a debate. Every self-consciously ‘dramatic’ device – from the projected imagery to the cliqueish, homogenising behaviour of the “choir” – appears, unusually in Heyvaert’s work, to be almost an afterthought, rather than an integral part of an aesthetic whole.
One may be stimulated into ethical contemplation by this piece. One might even find oneself, as I did, in broad agreement with the uncompromising argument pursued by Softley’s character. However, one is unlikely to find in Girl X a satisfactory answer to the age old question, “but is it art?”
Girl X ends at the Traverse, Edinburgh today; transferring to the Citizens, Glasgow, Wednesday until Saturday; then touring until April 20. For further information visit: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 13 2011
© Mark Brown