Art at Work

An important article for imaginative workers, writers:

Doc and dram

by David Edgar

The Guardian

Why has this decade seen the rise of a vibrant theatre of reportage? Playwright David Edgar points to a decline in conventional journalism and TV documentary


One of the biggest successes of this year’s Edinburgh festival fringe, Philip Ralph’s drama about the second of four alleged suicides at Deepcut army barracks, has renewed the campaign for a full public inquiry. A play about the third suspicious death at Deepcut opens next month in Newcastle. Other Edinburgh fact-based dramas included Scamp Theatre’s Charlie Victor Romeo (edited from black box transcripts) and Motherland (based on the testimony of mothers, sisters and wives of British soldiers in Iraq). And the radical dance company DV8’s latest show, which plays at the National Theatre from October 29, is based on 85 audio interviews about homophobia.

The war on terror brought politics back on to the world stage, and it’s no surprise that politics returned to theatrical stages as well. But the predominance and resilience of verbatim, witness and testimony theatre needs explaining. The big subjects of this decade appear to lend themselves to traditional, mimetic representation. So why have so many post-9/11 plays presented their research interviews as reportage rather than dramatising them in scenes? Why is the first question for an audience at a contemporary political play not “how have they shown the horrors of terrorism and war?” but “will it be stools or chairs?”

The rise of a theatre of reportage rather than enactment is all the more surprising in view of what preceded it. In the mid-90s, there was an upsurge of plays characterised by the explicit representation of sex and violence. Dominating the repertoires of theatres all over Europe, what became known as “in-yer-face” drama articulated the frustrated agonies of a generation for whom politics was Margaret Thatcher, pleasure was heroin and sex was Aids.

Although biodegrading into a parade of plays about young people shooting up and sounding off in south London flats, the early works of this school confronted urgent political questions. Sarah Kane’s 1995 Blasted moves from a Leeds hotel into a Balkan war zone. Mark Ravenhill’s 1999 Some Explicit Polaroids starts with the release of a 70s activist from a 20-year jail sentence for political violence. Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way is about a group of articulate but incompetent anti-globalisation protesters whose disastrous capture of a company boss is, in part, an exploration of political terrorism.

British theatre thus had a vocabulary to deal directly with an international crisis that started with a terrorist outrage and moved on to shock and awe, a crisis whose most memorable images are of private torture and public executions. The theatre’s response was to place inverted commas round these bloody happenings, reconstructing them through interviews, or recollecting them in the courtroom: from the Tricycle’s continuing series of dramatisations of significant contemporary tribunals (notably, post-9/11, the Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly), via strict verbatim dramas such as Robin Soans’s Talking to Terrorists and Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s 2005 play constructed from the emails and journals of anti-war campaigner Rachel Corrie, to interview-based plays such as Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain’s Guantánamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”. Dozens and dozens of verbatim and witness plays have appeared, many about the war on terror, some about other contemporary issues, following on from Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated (presented from 2000 to 2005 and now televised), a compilation of the stories of six people wrongly incarcerated on American death rows. True, Ralph sets his Deep Cut in an accurate simulacrum of Private Cheryl James’s parents’ front room (so, sofas rather than stools) and DV8’s To Be Straight With You combines verbatim reportage with dance, animation and film. But these are just variations on a defiantly anti-mimetic theme.

It’s worth remembering that we have been here before. In the 1950s and early 60s, the Theatre of Fact movement built plays out of documents, particularly trial transcripts. The best-known products of the school were Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer, a dramatisation of the atom bomb scientist’s arraignment for supposed communist sympathies, and Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, about the postwar trials of the Auschwitz guards. The theory behind these works was not, however, to explain the phenomena they described. The strategy of using documents as opposed to dramatic invention was a conscious evasion: playwrights were saying that, after the enormities of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the old concepts of cause and effect no longer apply. All the playwright can do is present the documents for the audience to make of them what it will. In this sense, Theatre of Fact is the other side of the coin of 50s and 60s absurdism. Both forms sought to express phenomena they could no longer explain.

It’s possible to argue that the anti-theatricality of the Tricycle tribunals, and the minimalism of the interview-based play, get their makers off the hook. Yet far from being an abdication, much journalism-posing-as-theatre is literally and proudly that. In the 2003 play about railway privatisation, The Permanent Way, David Hare and his collaborators did the kind of in-depth, investigative, historically analytical job on a contemporary political story that conventional journalism rarely does any more, occupying space abandoned both by long-form print journalism and by traditional television documentary. In Deep Cut, reporter Brian Cathcart is quoted as saying that “journalism dropped the ball” after the internal inquiry into the four deaths, implying that theatre has now picked it up.

Similarly, you could say Hare’s 2004 play about the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, Stuff Happens, was performing the role that television drama-documentary has performed in the past. Drama-documentary was developed by Granada in the 70s to report stories that could not be portrayed by conventional journalism; since then its priorities have shifted from doc to dram. There continue to be occasional, effective drama-docs about contemporary public events, such as Antonia Bird, Ronan Bennett and Alice Perman’s The Hamburg Cell (about the 9/11 bombers), Peter Kosminsky’s The Government Inspector (about the suicide of David Kelly) and Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo. But they have largely degenerated into the dubious retelling of titbit scandals about government ministers or soft-edged biopics of royal and political celebrities. In 1971, the producers of Granada’s first drama-doc (about a Soviet dissident incarcerated in a mental hospital) assured its viewers that “All the incidents and conversations which follow are exact transcriptions.” The disclaimer for a 2005 drama about Princess Margaret was: “Some of the following is based on fact. And some isn’t.” Journalistically rigorous theatrical drama-doc certainly has space to occupy.

And far from evading polemic, fact-based theatre has tended to make clear where it stands, thereby making an impact beyond the usual audience for political theatre. Long before Sherman Cymru reopened the Deepcut case, the Times mounted a campaign for the subsidised theatre to be obliged to preserve the kind of political “balance” that is incumbent on the BBC. Following an unexpectedly successful West End run, Guantánamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” was an even less expected hit on Broadway (with Archbishop Desmond Tutu making a couple of guest appearances). My Name is Rachel Corrie caused outrage (for and against) when a New York theatre withdrew its production, fearful of Jewish reaction to the story of an American woman crushed under an Israeli bulldozer.

These campaigning achievements have been complemented by something deeper. Fact-based theatre calls attention to, and thus questions, the credibility of the evidence on which we base our view of the world. Unlike naturalistic drama, which invites us to suspend disbelief, verbatim drama wears its sources on its sleeve. At a time when people are highly distrustful of public information, the presentation of witnesses in the theatre invites us to cross-examine. Testimony theatre can be simultaneously reliant on and suspicious of its raw materials.

In this, it’s part of a wider canon of contemporary British and Irish plays. One of the ironies of the past 25 years is that, while the academy has been proclaiming the death of linear narrative, the real world has seen a rush towards it. In the 70s, narrative was one of many ways to convey meaning (along with character, metaphor, argument and theme). Now the dominance in the electronic media of narrative genre has virtually eliminated all bearers of meaning beyond what happens next. Far from losing the plot, contemporary popular dramatic fiction appears to have lost pretty much everything else.

Theatre’s response has been neither to follow nor to reject the narrative urge, but to question its credentials. Sebastian Barry writes memory plays in which the dying bring back their past and present ghosts at the moment of death. Conor McPherson’s 1997 The Weir was about three men who tell fake ghost stories and a woman who shocks them and us by telling what appears to be a true one. My own play about Albert Speer (2000) saw a man constructing his take on his past life in act one, only to have the other characters challenge and undermine in it in act two. Martin Crimp, at the end of his latest play, The City, reveals that the story we’ve been watching was a fictional invention by one of the characters.

Similarly much verbatim theatre is double-coded, not just sourced from interviews but about the interview process, questioning how retrospect recasts the past. Alecky Blythe’s 2003 Come Out Eli, a play about an east London siege in which the actors literally have earpieces on which the original interviews are played as they speak them, was as much about the process as the product. Gregory Burke’s highly praised play for the National Theatre of Scotland about the Black Watch’s tour of duty in Iraq has scenes that represent the interviews on which the play is based, with the “writer” as a character. Increasingly, the Tricycle tribunals emphasised the contrast between the coolness of the inquisitive form and the heat of the events they seek to explicate. The latest and last Tricycle tribunal play – Called to Account – gave the usual editing treatment to a specially mounted, and in a literal sense fake, trial of Tony Blair for war crimes (the witnesses and lawyers were real, but the event was a construction). Dennis Kelly’s Taking Care of Baby, co-produced by Birmingham and Hampstead last year, is a mockumentary, an entirely fictional work about a woman wrongly imprisoned for murdering her baby, which fools the audience for at least half its length that it is a real verbatim drama based on interviews about a real case.

There is evidence that theatre might now be expanding its vocabulary, returning to imaginative fiction to confront the issues that verbatim theatre has made its own. Fiona Evans’s upcoming play about the third Deepcut death – Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale – is conventionally mimetic. And political drama is moving back into history and (often) away from fact: one of the criticisms of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s successful and controversial National Theatre play about the suffragettes (Her Naked Skin) was that its central characters were fictional, allowing Lenkiewicz to explore the tensions between political activism and personal fulfilment.

But despite signs that verbatim theatre has run its course, this year’s Edinburgh festival (in general) and Philip Ralph’s Deep Cut (in particular) seem to demonstrate the renewal of a form that has had consistent dramatic as well as journalistic impact for the past seven years. Its visual aesthetic is increasingly informing conventional, fictional theatre, spreading its influence beyond its own product. While conventional journalism continues to drop the ball, and television drama remains (largely) mired in genre, the stools and chairs may not be finally stacked for a while.

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