In Avalanche: A Love Story, Julia Leigh’s 2016 memoir about the struggles to conceive using IVF, the author writes: “But what if my period hadn’t arrived? What if the test had been positive? My whole life would have changed. Just like that.”
And yet her life doesn’t change, at least not in the way she wants. By the end of the book Sydney-based Leigh had undergone no less than six rounds of IVF. At times, she got close to having a much-wanted child. But as she put it: a near miss is still a miss. At one point her sister – a mother of two – takes her aside. “You need to find another way to be happy,” she tells her.
Leigh has since turned her memoir into a play of the same name. Avalanche: A Love Story, a co-production between Sydney Theatre Company and the UK’s Barbican Theatre, premiered in London earlier this year at the Fertility Fest, which pegs itself as the world’s first arts festival dedicated to reproductive science.
As in the UK, the Sydney leg stars accomplished English TV actor Maxine Peake, of Shameless and Dinnerladies fame. Alone on stage, she performs a one-woman monologue. With brutality and honesty, she regales her character’s journey: from falling in love in her late 30s, to marriage, to the joint decision to have a child, to divorce, and then, finally, the resolution to forge ahead and become a single parent.
Most narratives about hardship end in triumph of some sort. But Avalanche reeks of unhappiness and an accumulating sense of dread. It is painful. Raw. Exhausting. Resentful. Even the jokes – and there are many jokes – are bitter.
It’s lucky, then, that Peake has the talent, as well as the experience, to navigate such source material. Peake, 45, has been open in interviews about her own attempts at IVF and her ambivalence about motherhood (she went through three rounds before deciding to stop). In Avalanche, she so wholly embodies Leigh’s character of Woman that it is hard to believe she isn’t telling her own story up there, solitary and vulnerable.
Driving the action forward are medical procedures: not least, the sheer physicality of IVF. On a mostly exposed, stripped stage, Peake, with words alone, conjures up the messy reality of hormones. How she feels her stomach bloat as she is filled with eggs. How she spreads her legs for examinations. The injections she gives herself. And then, throughout it all, her confusion at the terminology, at obfuscating doctors who tell her, when she is faced with difficult choices and yet more bills: “It’s up to you.”
Subtly woven through the play are pressing questions: why does Leigh want to become a mother so badly? Part of it, she admits, is that it just might give her, in middle age, a reason for her existence, “an inviolable reason for being”. Can she even juggle her creative life with that of a child? Her mother and her ex-husband don’t seem to think so: both call her too selfish, too self-involved, to be a parent.
Then there is the cost of the fertility industry in peddling dreams. Leigh is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to freeze her eggs and to undergo treatment. She won’t use an egg donor: she doesn’t want to take advantage of a woman poorer than herself by buying body parts.
Conversely, there is an unsaid fear that her desperation – especially in the face of an ageing body and increasingly low odds – is funding the lives of others. That the more she spends, the more her doctors benefit (one, she notices, drives a Bentley). Then there is the whiff that such desperation is selfish: why does the world need another child? Why does the child need to be hers? Can’t she love those children, of friends, of relatives, of strangers, that already exist?
Australian director Anne-Louise Sarks lets Peake shine, unhindered on the whole, by distractions. That said, there are missteps. A boy and a girl periodically turn up on stage, running across the set or playing with a dollhouse. They represent the ghosts of lives never lived, but their presence is clunky, awkward even, and the message heavy-handed. Then there’s the Sydney setting (all the talk of Leigh’s Australian family and swimming in the harbour) which jars with Peake’s northern British accent.
At one point, late in the play, Woman finally poses the question she should have asked all along but perhaps never wanted to. How many women of her age, 44, from this particular clinic have given birth to a healthy baby after IVF? The answer is stark: 2.8%.
“After the avalanche, the bare face of the mountain,” Leigh writes. Towards the end of her quest, she realises there are very few miracles. Instead, a metaphorical avalanche comes, sweeping away her inward-looking claustrophobia and her exhaustion.
That avalanche is realised here by a dusting of white snow, or perhaps ash, that settles on the stage. As flakes fall on this woman and she is flooded with dashed hopes, the set suddenly looked less to me like a barren landscape and more like a snow globe. Shaken up, it was magical – redemptive, even.
For the character, too, there is a hard-won realisation: the world doesn’t owe her a child. Instead, she finds what seems like a compromised peace: channelling her affections into her niece Elsie, shifting her love from an obsessive “I” to a more collective “we”. In the process, she turns Avalanche into the love story that had always been promised.
• Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Avalanche: A Love Story is showing until 14 September