This week’s blog comes from Holloway United Therapies who have shared their thoughts on [BLANK] and explain the parallels between the play and the work they carry out with women with experience of the criminal justice system.
Clean Break’s powerful production of [BLANK] at the Donmar Warehouse perfectly illustrates the need for services such as ours. We’re Holloway United Therapies (HUT), a charity established by members of the former psychotherapy team at HMP Holloway, we provide specialist psychotherapy outside prison walls to women affected by the criminal justice system.
[BLANK] is a series of vignettes encapsulating some of the predicaments that women in the criminal justice system face or have experienced, and that we at HUT encounter in our sessions with our clients. To us, the title of the play suggests the idea of women as nameless statistics within a system, endlessly asked to fill in the blanks on official forms.
The hallmark of Alice Birch’s writing is that she does not shy away from the horror of human interaction, and the reality of cruelty and trauma. When watching [BLANK] for us four scenes stood out for thematic reasons;
When we meet Kate in the opening scene, Arms, she is desperate to communicate her excitement about her new partner, ‘Richard’, whose very name seems more than she can believe or conceivably deserve. She wants to be held in his long arms. She asks her daughter in a later scene, Scar, to confirm that Richard ‘gives good hugs’ but the child is wary. She is used to having to summon up her own defensive weaponry, as her needs have always been subjugated to those of her mother. When someone first comes to therapy, they want to be held symbolically and wonder whether they can trust the support – an authentic containing presence - the therapist is aiming to provide.
In Magnolia, a foster mother sits outside, as she always does, on the last night of a child’s stay, and in sharing a peaceful moment with her foster daughter, she evokes a parallel between her relationship to her charges and that of a gardener to a magnolia tree.
"That’s a magnolia tree ….. It only flowers for one week…. Isn’t that incredible? … You tend to it for a whole year and then it only blooms for a week. … But it’s so so so so beautiful for that week."
Together they are relishing the beauty of the present; but again Birch allows the ugliness to emerge, as the foster mother gives vent to her frustration about the fact that she has tended over time to this child, but that it might be her biological mother, who eventually sees her bloom.
In Carrier Bags two young girls are meeting for the first time in their foster home bedroom. Both girls have brought their own ‘stuff,’ in more than one sense. But they do not wish to be affected by the other’s stuff – not even their name. Children whose boundaries have been violated, constantly test them or seek them out in other less positive ways. This is why the boundaries of therapy, known as the therapeutic frame, are so key.
Salt, the final scene is about a woman trying to make amends for her long absence during her daughter’s childhood. Dissociating from the feelings her guilt and pain bring up for her, the mother tries to share in happy memories. But her adult daughter disabuses her of the reality of the idealized seaside outings. Both characters say ‘OK’ to break silences. But for both, OK is a fill-in for loss – loss of what they can find to say, and loss of all that could have been. It’s as if ‘OK’ is short for ‘out of kilter’ as the two women are so misattuned in their recollection and interpretation of their relationship.
Therapy is about working alongside the client to break down defences that hamper development. Some defences seem inappropriate; yet they may be adaptive and essential to survival in a difficult world. We see our clients for up to a year at HUT and once that time is over, we are left, sharing the feelings of the foster mother in Magnolia, with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the growth we have witnessed in our clients will continue to bloom.
You can find out more about HUT's work here.
[BLANK] runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 30 November click here to book your ticket.
Image Helen Maybanks