Andrea Dunbar began her career as a playwright at the age of 15, starting her first play, The Arbor, as a school English assignment. After some encouragement from her teacher, the work was further developed and was first professionally premiered when Dunbar was 18. Her raw, harsh and incredibly frank work garnered her much attention, with her next play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, eventually being made into a critically acclaimed film. With such promise for a long career, Dunbar was also plagued by alcoholism, depression and a tough family life, before being struck down before her 30s by an ailment unrelated to her self-destructive side.
Andrea Dunbar was a playwright who grew up in a broken down Bradford estate, writing two semi-autobiographical plays about her life growing up before dying of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29. He family life was always traumatic, which extended beyond to her children’s lives.
For director Clio Barnard’s first feature length film, The Arbor, she has chosen to tell the story in a very interesting way. The first words of this documentary are the following:
This is a true story, filmed with actors lip-synching to the voices of the people
whose story it tells.
Essentially what this means is that she has interviewed many people about the life of Andrea Dunbar (her children, her brother, her sister, her friends, and so on) and then employed actors to re-enact these interviews as pieces to the camera, lip-synching along with the audio of the actual people being interviewed. Woven into this narrative are segments in which some of these same actors perform scenes from her plays and clips from a 1980 BBC documentary speaking directly to Andrea and her family about her life and work. This is a very bold way of working. It’s also not built without any sort of pre-set basis. Dunbar’s plays were of a deeply personal and autobiographical nature, so for the lines to be constantly crossed between performer as real-life character and their fictional counter-parts is fascinating. Beyond this, as is discussed in the film, Andrea Dunbar’s life was revisited in 2000 in play called A State Affair. This play looked back on how Dunbar and her family were affected by her work, her life and her death, with actors performing the words of the real people by lip-synching on stage, which is the main inspirational template for this film.
What is also very interesting about this film is that only the first half looks at Andrea, who effectively dies halfway through and is rarely mentioned again. After this, the focus shifts onto her children, with most attention paid towards her oldest daughter, Lorraine. Lorraine herself grew up in the same area her mother, but born of a Pakistani father. As well as being abused for being of mixed race, she took heavily to drugs, was involved with a few very abusive partners, suffering a miscarriage, going through a failed marriage, was briefly a prostitute and served some time prison. If anything, her story is so much more harrowing than her mother’s. I won’t really spend too much time talking all about what happens in the film, since you can see it for yourself if you want. What I shall talk about is the form of the documentary.
As I previously said, it’s a very rich and multi-stranded mix of straight performance, straight documentary and a blend of the two. Since Dunbar’s plays talk directly of her own life and experiences, the performances of brief moments from them serve to fill in gaps of her story, effectively told as openly and as honestly as possible by the best person for the job, herself. These fragments of her work as actually performance on the very estate that she grew up on, Brafferton Arbor, which is where both her first play and this film get their name. They show her turbulent family life, fraught with bitter fighting and abuse; they show her awkward first steps in a relationship with men; they show her interactions with friends and non-friends. Just from these pieces, it’s clear her life was, to say the least, rough. It’s an interesting idea that the film does focus on the legacy left by Andrea Dunbar, but looks more at the direct, genetic legacy, rather than on the work she produced. Indeed, her life and her work were so clearly intertwined, it’s impossible to tell the story of one and not include the other. That the pain and anguish that Dunbar wrote about was then experienced with even greater intensity by her daughter is something that only heightens the tragedy and pain of it all.
The bulk of the film is taken up with actors performing along with the recorded interview pieces with the people in Dunbar’s life, continuing this theme of art imitating life imitating art imitating life. Sometimes the actor will walk around the estate, or make a cup of tea in the kitchen, or perform some menial task, all whilst addressing the camera directly, giving body to the disembodied voices telling the story. Other times, the words will act more as a simple voice-over, telling a story about something that happened in that person’s life, which will be acted out as if it is happening then and there.
It’s actually all very impressively staged throughout, and the actor’s do, for the most part, an excellent job of maintaining the pretence, performing all of the tics and stutters and flubs that come as a natural part of these real people talking, as well as giving a proper physicality to it. This could so easily have been a case of the actors trying so hard to maintain the right rhythm of lip-synch that they forget to actually act along with it, but they all do an admirable job. The actual performances of the segments from Dunbar’s plays are equally well handled, bringing the raw emotion and harshness to life in a fine and vivid manner.
If there is one thing to say as a downside, apart from the decidedly bleak nature of what is being discussed and that those at its heart are still very sensitive about it all, it is that the fractured manner in which the story is told makes things, initially, a little difficult to follow. The reality, the performance of reality, the performance of performance based on reality, all weaving in and out of each other… in the first fifteen minutes or so, it’s difficult to pick up on who’s who and at what point the events they’re discussing took place. It’s something you will get used to and be able to follow from then on, but the first steps can make things a little confusing.
For myself, I can’t really say that ever really knew who Andrea Dunbar was until this film walked me through it. I wasn’t really familiar with her work, with the exception of the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, which, if I’m honest, I never really cared for. I had never known that the life of the woman who wrote the film was so fascinating and so deeply tragic, as well as her family’s story. I’d certainly say I’ve come away better informed on Andrea Dunbar as a person and artist for having seen this.
The Arbor is a very interesting film, nicely conceived and staged, though it tells a very bleak tale of very damaged people. Occasionally, the shifting nature of how the film is told makes it a little difficult to follow, but it is something you can adapt to quickly enough. I can honestly say that, thanks to this film, I learned several things about a person that I knew very little about before, which is really what a documentary like this should do.