Andrea Dunbar probably isn’t set to achieve the same sort of general renown as Chekov – there aren’t going to be classes dedicated to her craft. Well, maybe there will be. The truncated career Dunbar led, she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1992 at the age of 29, included only a handful of works, just enough to fill a single volume. It was the woman’s first work, The Arbor, which has remained a controversial and vital work since it was first produced in 1977.
Dunbar’s first work detailed the travails of her relationship with a Pakistani guy and their resultant child. Some of the same problems spurring on the London punk scene contribute to the play’s narrative – there’re pervasive financial difficulties, rampant drug use and a fair deal of racism. This film of the same name, released in 2009 doesn’t exactly follow the play’s narrative, but since the effort seeks to distill Dunbar’s life, there’s a significant overlap. What’s more important than any overlaid material, though, is how the narrative’s related to viewers.
With a handful of television footage dating back to the eighties and depicting Dunbar in her relative prime, the majority of the film includes actors portraying the real life figures in the writer’s plays. They aren’t acting, however. They’re apparent speech is simply matched to archival interviews, making for a sometimes difficult fit. While the sporadic tough-to-watch moments are scarce, the approach also allows for an utter absence of stilted performance. The dialogue’s never wooden.
Since Dunbar’s dead, even if the film’s approach allowed for her inclusion, The Arbor mostly comprises intimate interviews with the woman’s three daughters, all from different men. The most contentious portions of the film involve Dunbar’s one daughter of color. Not to speak ill of the dead, but the half Pakistani woman, apparently had to deal with covert racism in the world and some overt nonsense at home. One of her sisters met with a similar fate as the writer, working up a healthy heroin addiction, neglecting her own daughter and landing in jail.
With all the downer moments here, there’s not much discussion of Dunbar’s talent. The fact that the writer only finished three major works during her three decades on earth and still counts as a major figure in theater deserves more investigation even as The Arbor’s and endlessly engaging film – and an artful one.