Writer-director Clio Barnard’s The Arbor takes its title from a semi-autobiographical play written by the late Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, who grew up on the deprived Buttershaw estate in Bradford. Dunbar was just fifteen when she began writing The Arbor, which was staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Tragically she died in a pub aged 29 of a brain haemorrhage, leaving behind three children from three different fathers, and two other plays, Rita, Sue and Bob Too (filmed by Alan Clarke) and Shirley.
Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Barnard’s film revisits Dunbar’s life and work, but it also explores the legacy she passed on to her offspring, particularly her mixed-race daughter Lorraine (Manjinder Virk). Barnard draws on archival material from 1980s TV arts programmes in which Dunbar can be glimpsed, and scenes from The Arbor script itself, which are performed by today’s Buttershaw residents.
Yet the most interesting formal device at play here is having actors lip-synch the interview testimony of real-life people involved in the Dunbars’ lives, whilst often looking directly at the camera. Partly this gives relatives and friends an element of privacy, given that their own faces remain unseen, but it also sets up an interesting tension between what is real (the words) and what is artificial (the performances), reminding us of the constructed nature of our own memories and recollections.
Increasingly the work concentrates on the tragic events which have befallen Lorraine, who was just 11 when her mother died and who subsequently spiralled into a nether world of hard drugs, prostitution, and physical abuse, culminating in a court case investigating her role in the death of her baby son. Interestingly, while Lorraine blames Andrea for her misfortunes, her half-sister Lisa presents a far fonder picture of her mother. What’s particularly haunting is the discrepancy between the calm delivery of Virk’s testimony as Lorraine and the horrifying experiences that are being described: rather than being distanced by Barnard’s formal experimentation, we end up engrossed.
GFT, Glasgow; Cameo, Edinburgh, from Fri 22 Oct.