For as long as art has sought to represent, the limits of that representation have been pushed and questioned. From Plato’s concerns that representing something betrays its essential truth, to Adorno’s famous claim that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, it is a debate that has preoccupied artists and thinkers down the ages. Where does one draw the line between what can and can’t be represented? And without representation, how are we to share human experience and history?
In Jackie Sibblies Drury’s sharp, unsettling play, the impulses to represent and to remember repeatedly butt up against one another. Contained within their conflict is an implicit, knotty, unanswered question: is it better to attempt to represent history and risk misrepresentation in the process, or to remain respectfully silent and allow that history to be forgotten?
It is the question, rather than its resolution, that We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 (titles don’t get much more belligerently unwieldy than that) stages. Drury’s play centres on a group of naive actors, engaged in an ill-judged attempt to address the subject matter of the title. As we are informed in a problematically pithy “overview” at the start, the German settlers in Southwest Africa carried out a brutal genocide against the people of the Herero tribe during the period in question, exterminating 80% of the population. Using the evidence that has been passed down to them – the vast majority of which comes from the German perspective – the six actors (three white, three black) spend the remainder of the show fumbling, arguing and improvising their way through this horrific chapter of colonial history.
The performers stage improvisations around letters home from German soldiers, bicker about how to represent the Herero, and increasingly slide into uncomfortable racial stereotypes. There is much debate about who can represent what – can a white actor portray a black character? and vice versa? – and about what does and does not need to be told. The action reveals as much about theatre as it does about history, lightly mocking popular acting technique (“I don’t know what my active verb is!” cries one character) and the pitfalls of collaborative creation. Through this, however, it approaches the difficult questions at its heart, becoming more and more preoccupied with heritage, identity, race and representation. Whose story is being told? Who has the right to tell it? And where do we draw the line between pretending to do something and actually meaning it?
There is, when discussing a play such as this, a danger of latching onto what it is superficially “about”. Michael Billington’s review in The Guardian, for instance, laments the fact that the show ends up focusing more on the theatrical process than on the genocide that is supposedly its subject matter. But I would tentatively argue that the only way this play can even begin to approach the topic it is nominally about is through a frame which acknowledges the impossibility of ever simply creating a piece of art “about” such subject matter. We Are Proud to Present … is not “about” the Herero, or the German settlers, or the genocide, or the impossibility of representation, or cultural appropriation, or the constructing of history, or the process of theatremaking, or notions of truth, or modern identity politics. It is about all of the above, none of which are easily extricable from one another.
Another issue that rears its head is that of relevance, that quality so beloved of theatre programmers, marketers and critics. There is a nagging desire on the part of the actors involved to relate to the story they are telling and to enhance its relevance for modern viewers – an impulse that many adapters will be familiar with. What this production cleverly manages to do, however, is to problematise that process, implicitly critiquing the drawing of parallels. In one sequence, an improvised encounter between a German soldier and a Herero man segues into a series of different accents, highlighting the similarities between this and other conflicts, at the same time as its distinct edge of discomfort reminds us of the dangers of eliding the historical specificity of each invoked parallel. The homogenising of history, to which Drury’s characters all too often fall prey (“they’re all the same – the names aren’t important”), is cast as a constant, dangerous spectre.
This particular production at the Bush adds an unsettling proximity to Drury’s play, particularly as it reaches its conclusion and we are made increasingly aware of our presence as an audience. Although the majority of the action is carefully scripted and (interestingly) does not stray far from Drury’s text, Gbolahan Obisesan’s direction and the performances of the uniformly strong ensemble manage to effectively evoke the unpredictable spirit of rehearsal room improvisation. Lisa Marie Hall’s set, meanwhile, is a versatile playground for the performers – emphasis on playground. With its movable pieces and gradually revealed sandpit, there is something distinctly childlike about the design, bringing in an aesthetic that jars interestingly with the content. Beyond the design, the playfulness of the whole production is at once wickedly entertaining and decidedly queasy.
But it is only in the final, quiet moments, after the action has reached an overblown, feverish pitch of excitement, that We Are Proud to Present … achieves the impact that justifies its early impishness. While the show’s climax is overdone, its wordless aftermath is a swift, unforgiving punch to the gut, leaving its questions hanging troublingly in the air.
Photo: Keith Pattison.