Saturday, May 30, 2009

UOW Review: Talking To Terrorists


Written by Robin Soans
Directed by Mark Haslam
Assistant Director Emma Mcmanus

Verbatim theatre is a strange thing. To my mind it is the antithesis of what theatre aspires to, in that it (often under the guise of being objective) uses the words of real individuals or documents to present a kind of overview of a particular subject; a presentation of reality. To me, theatre is much more about an aesthetic and visceral engagement with the world than a summary of situations or people that exist in it. Surely that is the domain of the documentary and the nightly news, not the theatre. As Simon identified in Version 1.0’s Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue, objectivity in verbatim work is highly suspect. Simply by framing it as theatrical, the work loses any pretence to objectivity, seemingly undercutting itself. So in light of this, what is the deal? Why bother? What does it offer us?

Talking to Terrorists, in Mark Haslam’s hands, offers us a human connection. The performers relate this text directly to us, looking us in the eyes and sharing the experience with us; something a documentary or interview could never do. It is staged simply in a beige box and the performers are mostly static throughout their monologues and scenes, entering and exiting either from a door upstage or a second level staircase above it. It has no pretense to high aesthetic ideals, the focus is purely on the performers and their communication with us. To quote the program…“though the space, actors and production might all be built on artifice, the truth of the experience remains.”

And the truth of the experience is distressing. Talking to Terrorists is the product of 12 months of interviews with individuals involved with or having some experience of terrorism. In a broad sweep this covers child soldiers in Uganda, British politicians and ambassadors, members of the IRA and UVF, Palestinian Miltia, Kurdish separatists and aid workers. The complexities of the subject matter are done away with in favour of the emotional core of the experience, the consequence being that some of the most affecting moments are not driven by horror but by recognition: giving a face to something that is usually represented as faceless. It is the domestic insight as someone slops a cup of tea, accidently picks up the wrong wine glass or has a tiff with their partner that really brings terror home to us.

The nuances of the text are handled gracefully by the cast (my year); it is delightful to see a university production where every single performance is on the same level, since usually it is a bit of a mixed bag. It is incredibly exciting to see how they have progressed through this process and full credit to Haslam for bringing this out in them.

In relation to my own practice, Talking to Terrorists reminded me that theatre is a two way street, a shared experience and, while I am still wary of verbatim theatre, a beautiful way to be informed and learn.



Jana said...

Hey Mark, just a little comment. I am intrigued by verbatim theatre, and I wonder if it's taken to be too uniformly one thing, when it could be many. Rimini Protokoll, for example, do some amazing stuff with the form - and so did, incidentally, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, whom I hope you guys have caught at the Sydney Fest earlier this year.

Verbatim animation, if we can call it that way, is possibly the most exciting cinematic form developing today. I am thinking specifically Waltz with Bashir, but also this amazing Swedish omnibus (Swedish? Danish? I think it was Swedish) titled Never Like the First Time. It animated short audio interviews with people retelling their first sexual experience, and was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in the cinema. Just on the strength of these examples, I wonder if theatre isn't too modest with its claims to the verbatim form.

To my mind, theatre of this, let's call it Sydney-verbatim kind (there's a curious lack of it in Melbourne), makes the mistake of trying to cut and chop its material and make drama. Both Rimini and Oklahoma succeed because they make decidedly post-dramatic theatre. It is as aesthetic and visceral as the Robert Wilson next door (to use the most aesthetic aesthetic I can think of).

The Perf said...

I actually missed Nature Theatre of Oklahoma because I was down in Melbourne. Perhaps I'd feel differently had I seen it. It'd definately be a change to see verbatim text treated in such a way, as yes I think I balk a little at the concious dramatic structure in some works too.
Talking to terrorists, was saved by its focus on communication as opposed to information in this respect.


jenni said...

Mark, I'm sure you are aware and I can't remember if you said you'd seen it before, but My Name is Rachel Corrie is on at the Seymour Centre for the next few weeks if you haven't seen it. It's a similar style of verbatim theatre but is really interesting. I was never a fan of verbatim theatre either but these two pieces have changed my mind...

Rachel said...

I think one of the main problems I had with project:ALICE was that I felt there was an ill-fitting 'conscious dramatic structure' within their use of verbatim text. Particularly because the work was devised and often based on the personal experiences of the performers/creative team, I balked at the use of stories I had hear before 'from the horse's mouth' being used as a means of creating 'drama'. An example would be the story Cook'n'Kitch tells regarding a trip to England, watching a man contemplating jumping off a building, while traffic piled up below him. Having heard this story from its original source, my gut reaction when hearing it as part of the dramatic content of a performance was to reject any relationship that it was trying to form with me. I know my opinion here is tainted by the fact that i had heard that story before - but the same reaction of rejection occurred with other stories throughout the performance. It may have had something to do with the 'blanket term Generation Y' feeling that you (Mark) discussed in your project:ALICE review, as well as my rejection of verbatim/personal experience used as drama.
Talking to Terrorists, however, struck a completely different chord with me. Same director - different reaction. I agree entirely that the uncluttered focus on the performers and their communicating with the audience created a human connection that I felt was lacking in project:ALICE. I was completely open to allowing the experiences to affect me (helped by the fact that my friends were performing) and was very thankful for the lack of preaching - especially considering the subject matter.
I can see a difference between something being 'verbatim theatre' and something being 'verbatim as drama.' Verbatim is intriguing enough on its own - I don't think it needs to be treated as drama (or, I haven't seen it done well yet. I sincerely regret not being able to see the National Theatre of Oklahoma last Sydney Festival.)
There is a tantalizing voyeurism in hearing the personal experiences of another, and i believe that this experience is heightened when the audience is separated from the subject - in the case of Talking to Terrorists, the actors functioned almost like a mask that the real-life people could wear while they told us their stories. We feel as though they are opening up even more, giving us the gritty details, because they can wear a mask. The text was originally recorded onto tape - the tape in itself is a kind of mask for the storyteller. Other examples I can think of are ITV's Creature Comforts, and Never Like The First Time (I haven't seen it Jana, but it sounds very interesting). The person speaking into the tape, the transcribed words, and the actors communicating those words to us - that was enough for me in Talking to Terrorists. The only dramatic structure I could sense whilst I was seated in the audience was simply the placement of stories - grouping certain characters or incidents together so the recounts would compliment each other. And I was ok with that.