Posts Tagged ‘documentary theatre’

NOTE (Added 18/09/09): Maggie, who was in the show, wrote a blog about reading this review. In the interest of free discussion, here’s the link: http://makingmek.wordpress.com/2009/09/17/short-story/


It’s been interesting for me writing this review, because it’s a negative one and I know two people who were in the play (hi Mattie and Maggie!). I think the point in writing these is to say what I think but not get caught up thinking that it matters.

Gitmo was another play in Hatched. As the name suggests it was about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and issues surrounding that. It was run of the mill protest stuff, what I expected from a bunch of young people making a political statement. And for some reason that frustrated me. Maybe I want too much, but the subject is so momentous,  complex and human and Gitmo’s treatment of it was one-dimensional, unimaginative and didn’t touch me emotionally. It  manhandled its material, it neither let the material speak for itself nor brought new light and perspective to it. The idea of documentary theatre, as this show classified itself, is interesting. It prompts the question, why not just write an essay or make a documentary? I’m sure there’s a good answer, but if a production’s answer is to use the theatrical form to ‘grease the message’, it makes me feel I’m being treated like an infant. And I felt that at a number of points in Gitmo.  The intensely earnest performances ran over the cliches again and again. It became one-sided to the point of caricature. The way they portrayed U.S. senators was riduculous, merely regurgitating their negative cliche. And one particular speech made me cringe. It was a speech of a detainee, talking about how he had not done anything wrong. What he said, talking about sticking to his religion etc., suggested he meant that any actions against America were not wrong because they were justified by the Qur’an (which by the way they are, see 8:39). The show, however, presented it as the steadfast stand of an innocent. People complain about the political right wing being absolutist, but it’s opponents, including those many who oppose politicians on proncipal, are just as guilty. Our society is uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, left and right equally. To quote John Patrick Shanley in the introduction to his Pulitzer winning  Doubt:

“We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of conflict and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe because deep down under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know…anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.”

 Overall it lacked any agknowledgement that terrorists do actually exist and what they do ain’t good. I’m not suggesting the show had to support everything that happened at Guantanamo Bay, but if they’re aiming to educate the audience, at least show the whole picture, even if its only to say, ‘even this doesn’t justify torture’. Now of course not every show has to explore all the different perspectives or elements of a subject, not every show is ‘educational’, maybe the focus is just on the suffering of the detainees, regardless of context. But the show didn’t convey the power of this either. When an actor is speaking with such self-righteous earnest, any emotional power the content of her words may have is drowned out. They described shocking humiliating things, but rather than letting them speak for themselves, they REALLY IMPRESSED UPON US THAT THIS IS BAD. And that drove me away. 


John Patrick Shanley continues,

“What is Doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There is a crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you belive in God? Who is your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography. Seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another you. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.”

What I’d hope for in a show that is hoping to convey something like the suffering of the detainees is for at some point the stage, the acting, the theatre of it to dissapear. To leave shockingly raw and undisguised the souls of the actors and the audience, and the reality of the material. For that planet’s crust to be fractured, allowing the fluid interior to show through. When these interiors, of actor, audience members and subject, touch, then the shiver of understanding runs through your gut. Then torture is made more real than watching a trillion news reports could make it. Gitmo remodelled my crust slightly, but was too crusty itself to break through it. Why is it that the word crusty is so funny? 

There were a few moments in Gitmo when the crust began to wobble slightly, but the play itself imposed itself too strongly, holding it steady. Peter Brook says in The Empty Space.

“During a talk to a group at a university I…asked for a volunteer. A man came forward, and I gave him a sheet of paper on which was typed a speech from  Peter Weiss’ play about Auschwitz, The Investigation. The section was a description of bodies inside a gas chamber. As the volunteer took the paper and read it over to himself…he was too struck and too appalled by what he was reading to react with the sheepish grins that are…customary….he began to read aloud. The very first words were loaded with their own ghastly sense and the reader’s response to them. Immediately the audience understood. It became one with him, with the speech- the lecture room and the volunteer who had come on to the platform vanished from sight- the naked evidence from Auschwitz was so powerful that it took over completely…his reading, technically speaking, was perfect…because he had no attention to spare for self-consciousness, for wondering whether he was using the right intonation. He knew the audience wanted to hear, and he wanted to let them hear: the images found their own level and guided his voice unconsciously to the appropriate volume and pitch.

After this I asked for another volunteer, and gave him the speech from Henry V  which lists the names and numbers of the French and English dead. When he read this aloud, all the faults of the amateur actor appeared….he put on a false voice that strived to be noble and historical, mouthed his words roundly, made awkward stresses, got tongue-tied, stiff and confused, and the audience listened innatentive and restless…I proposed an experiment…the audience was to endeavour to…try to find a way of believing that these names were once individuals, as vividly as if the butchery had occured in living memory. The amateur began to read again, the half silence became a dense one…it turned all his attention away from himself, onto the subject matter he was speaking…his inflections were simple, his rhythms true.”

Gitmo was the opposite of this situation. The plain evidence, so near in time, nearer than Auschwitz was to that audience, was treated like the volunteer originally treated Henry V. The actors were ‘actorly’, and impressed the importance and gravitas of their words artificially.  They dominated their words, rather than letting what theysaid be something beyond them. They shoved it into us, using it to cow us with its power, rather than being cowed with us at this evidence which humbles theatrical convention.

The 'detainees'.

The 'detainees'. (photo by Alice Boyle)

 It’s a strange phenomena isn’t it? The more a performance tries to draw us in, the more we superficially go along with them, the more the rawer parts of our being are actually alienated. And when we are alienated in the Brechtian sense, in my experience  we actually come together more. Brecht’s pretty relevant here as his theatre had a social aim and so did Gitmo. Brechtian alienation treats us as adults, giving us the space to make up our own minds, to find our own way. In some way it creates space…a space into which our full being can spread. In contrast, watching Gitmo I felt like it was more about the actors, I didn’t feel trusted. People already hold certain views, have certain images around an issue like this, and I’d hope from a play to have the range of my thinking and feeling pushed outward, and to then be able to find my own place in that.

 Gitmo wasn’t objective enough to be like a documentary, and wasn’t human enough to touch me emotionally. Knowing the people who see things at St. Martins, it preached to the choir. Rather than putting a grain of sand into the oyster, it gave more oyster flesh. And it is only around a grain of sound that a pearl can grow.

I’ve realised this review/pondering colludes in the very thing it comdemns. That confrontational culture. In another part of that Preface Mr. Shanley says (italics are mine): “It’s evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic critisism of every kind, in religious discussion.” Well I guess we’re in this together. I’ll try to get away from that in future. Break through the crust, which in my case here is made largely of such things as references to Brecht and Beckett. Why don’t we all give it a go, and try to bring more Doubt into our minds, when we and our world are used to spitting on it?

N.B: Where the word ‘doubt’ is used here, it is meant in the sense of “The condition of being unsettled or unresolved: an outcome still in doubt.” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/doubt)


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