“Life is a gamble, at terrible odds,” wrote Tom Stoppard in his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “If it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the high-stakes lottery of assisted fertility treatment. And I speak as someone who has spun that wheel a few times.
Based on screenwriter Julia Leigh’s 2016 memoir and first seen in the London Barbican Centre’s inaugural Fertility Fest, Avalanche: A Love Story is one woman’s experience of trying to conceive through IVF.
The Woman (played by the British actress Maxine Peake) begins her journey in her mid-thirties after settling down with an old flame. The prognosis is good, she’s told by her clinic, roughly a 40 per cent chance of conception with each cycle of treatment. Not great odds, arguably, but she takes them.
Time passes, her relationship crumbles. A screenwriting project comes to fruition and a film in competition at Cannes, which diverts her from her fertility path for some months. The clock ticks, the odds worsen.
But in much the same way casinos offer inducements to their whales, The Woman’s fertility doctors (who frequently have financial stakes in the business, she observes) keep reeling her in.
For just a little more money, there are experimental tweaks and procedures that may nudge the process along. Sure, the efficacy of these add-ons is not entirely proven, but when you are down to your last roll of the dice, why wouldn’t you bet your shirt?
You wouldn’t want to quit knowing that you hadn’t tried everything, would you?
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Adapted by Leigh, the script has the directness of a first-person magazine feature. Her recollections of six rounds of IVF treatment are frank and detailed. She’s not one for flowery turns of phrase or metaphors.
Director Anne-Louise Sarks and designer Marg Horwell take care of the latter, in a production that looks exceedingly simple to begin with until the walls of the set start to rise, almost imperceptibly, giving the impression that the floor is slowly falling from under The Woman’s feet. There’s more, but it would be a spoiler to even hint at the surprises the production has in store.
That said, the Roslyn Packer feels like a very large venue for a story that might be more directly touching were it performed in a studio space. Peake is a fine actress with excellent technique but there is an unavoidable element of stage telegraphy involved in getting the story to the rear stalls.
Leigh’s script blends dryly humorous observation (of her doctor’s Bentley, parked outside the clinic, for example) and predictable heartache and occasional glimpses over the abyss of disappointment.
How involving you find it will depend on your feelings for The Woman and her predicament. Sympathy isn’t begged for in this well-governed production, but neither is it wholly earned.
As part of a broader discussion on fertility issues – as it would have been in the Fertility Fest – Avalanche has some interesting if not entirely surprising things to say about human nature, and the interface of profound need and commerce. On its own, however, it seems a little isolated from wider concerns.
But with one in 25 births across Australia and New Zealand resulting from IVF procedures (and you can nudge that stat northwards in Sydney), this show speaks directly to the lives, hopes and travails of many people. Those who have been through the process will find old wounds teased open, no doubt.