A Tragic Life, Lip-Synched, in The Arbor
Precocious playwright Andrea Dunbar (19611990) spoke for the lumpen abused of her native Bradford, England; The Arbor, video artist Clio Barnards pitch-perfect Dunbar biopic, named best documentary last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, reprises her pungent, profane voice, but from a discreet distance. Barnard revisits the foredoomed career and tragic afterlife of this slum-born self-educated writer to electrifying effect, shooting mainly on location in Bradford, with actors lip-synched to actual recordings of the people they portray.
Barnards reconstruction, like Dunbars first play, written at 15, is named for the bleak housing estate, where garbage is strewn and dogs run free. The playwright grew up here, on the toughest street in Bradford, born into a life her daughter Lorraine characterizes as a tumult of swearing, cursing, and shoutingand drinking. The Arbors wasteland provides the alfresco setting for Barnards restaging of scenes from Dunbars quasi-autobiographical play, just as it served as backdrop for a mid-80s TV documentary that, after the success of her screenplay for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, interviewed the Bradford wunderkind in her natural habitat.
Dunbar had never been out of Yorkshire or inside a theater until The Arbor was staged at Londons Royal Court Theatre in 1980. Success brought disaster; she returned to Bradford, had two more children out of wedlock, and drank up her screenplay money to die at 29 of a brain hemorrhage on a barroom floor. Its a compelling story, delivered here after the fashion of British verbatim theater, which takes trial transcripts, diaries, and other documents as the basis for factual dramas. (Indeed, Dunbars life served as the basis for an early instance of verbatim theater, the 2000 play A State Affair.)
The blurring of reality and representation was essential to Dunbars work, and cinema allows an additional dimension. Barnard compounds the hall of mirrors, using the text of her plays (staged as plays), with her appearance in earlier documentaries (shown as documentaries), and the oral history provided by her children. Their voices, like those of other witnesses, are given to actorsincluding George Costigan, once upon a time the randy male lead in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, who stands in for one of Dunbars lovers.
As Dunbars plays recapitulated her life, Lorraines life might be their sequel. A mulatto child growing up in a virulently racist environment, Lorraine tells us (through the grave, demure person of Manjinder Virk) that she wishes she had never been born. Cut to the Andrea character in The Arbor (Natalie Gavin), standing in the Arbor, insisting that she wants to keep the baby. Midway through, Barnards Arbor becomes Lorraines storya horrendous saga of drugs, abuse, prostitution, and prison rendered all the more affecting for its cool, subtly discombobulated delivery. Creating a moment of communication that could never exist, theres a brief cutaway from Lorraines recollections to the prematurely life-battered Dunbar watching one of her plays in rehearsal, as if looking down from some celestial arbor.
Barnard makes the psychological mayhem Dunbar endured and inflicted tangible. Film Forum also supplies something of her artistry with four screenings of the rarely revived Rita, Sue and Bob Too, directed by Alan Clarke and shot largely in Dunbars girlhood haunts. A garrulous pair of 15-year-old babysitters make a brief, giddy ménage à trois with a married householder over twice their age. Its a sex comedy with an insolent, unsentimental attitude thats more than enough to carry the filmand light another candle for its writer.
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