The Arbor, or How to put words in their mouths

Something strange happens as you watch ‘The Arbor‘, Clio Barnard’s docu-drama based on the life and work of playwright, Andrea Dunbar. The actors perform directly to camera; they look at you, they confront you, confide in you; this is disconcerting. But then you remember it is not the actors speaking: their lips are moving, but the voices are not theirs, but recordings of the people whose harrowing story is being told (Dunbar’s daughters, their fathers, foster parents).

It exerts a strange fascination, this disjunction, simultaneously artificial and authentic, acutely aware of both the quality of performance and the reality, if not the reliability, of the testimony.

(Our desire for voice and body to be unified is persistent. Despite being advised of the lip-synching, I continued to identify voice and actor. When ‘Lorraine’ declares that she has grown up pretty, I nodded, with my agreement based on an appreciation of the big eyes and balanced features of the actress as if she were Lorraine.)

The style is an ingenious correlative of verbatim theatre (in which the script is constructed entirely from the text of interviews with ‘real’ people) and sits nicely alongside open-air stagings of Dunbar’s work, whose dialogue seems to have been pulled straight from her own domestic life, raw and authentic and in your face; real words in an actors mouth.

The Arbor‘ is available on DVD.

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