Lines, Yard Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As I write this, London is awash with little dots of red. Poppies wink in buttonholes and stare up from boxes in train stations. Men and women in uniform, old and young, suddenly seem to be everywhere in the city, eyeballing the naked lapel of my coat. Usually at this time of year I dutifully buy my poppy and pin it to my chest, more routine than anything else. This year, though, I feel uncomfortable and unsure about the ritual of donning this symbol, skirting around the servicemen and women who have appeared on every other street corner.

I feel similarly ambivalent about Lines, the aptly timed new show at The Yard. But then the show itself projects a complex, difficult ambivalence about its subject matter. The title is a reference to army barracks: lines are where soldiers sleep, change, wash. It’s where they do their living and their thinking in between the action of training and conflict. Pamela Carter’s play, informed by her and director Jay Miller’s conversations with soldiers past and present, zooms in on four new recruits, all signed up for different reasons. It probes – without necessarily judging – their motivations, their interactions and the punishing training they undergo.

Crucially, Lines shows these soldiers at the centre of a world in flux. This is the first year in more than a century that British troops are not involved in a conflict somewhere in the world. Meanwhile conflict itself is constantly mutating as a result of technology and terrorism, moving further and further away from the romanticised Hollywood version of war that these men compulsively regurgitate. Away from the army barracks, conceptions of masculinity are changing, and damaging political and economic forces constrict the possibilities for many young men (and women). As each of the characters here acknowledges, there aren’t a lot of other options open to them.

While the premise is straightforward enough, Lines is a complicated and often intentionally confusing 90 minutes. For a start, its perspective is ever-shifting. In the longer first half, we mostly see the interactions – tentative, teasing, macho – between these four very different men as they are drilled into becoming a team. These exchanges, though, are constantly interspersed with the vocalised thoughts of each of the recruits. It’s often unclear – deliberately so, I think – where private reflection ends and group bonding begins. As they prepare for (possible) war, it’s vital that these trainee soldiers form a unit, each always having the others’ backs. And so as the days and weeks slide by, individual identities blur, all becoming absorbed into the group.

There’s also a sense, despite Alex Lowde’s ostensibly naturalistic design of beds and lockers, that we are inside these soldiers’ minds as much as we are in the barracks. We might be stationed in the one place where they rest, but Miller’s production can’t stay still. The frenetic movement – punctuated with blinding bursts of light and the fierce, distorted commands of the corporal, all the while underscored by Josh Grigg and Manni Dee’s throbbing soundtrack – reflects the adrenaline and anxiety of the men’s internal experiences as their training intentionally overwhelms them. The would-be soldiers might be preparing to fight the likes of ISIS, but Lines reveals their coaching as little more than radicalisation of another kind.

The characters themselves are designed to surprise. When we first see them, changing out of civvies and into uniform, they’re an undifferentiated line-up of aggressive masculinity, all strutting and flexing. But as they change and change again (there’s much taking on and off of clothes, an emblem of shifting identities), more facets of their personalities emerge, often subverting what we’ve been taught to expect from military narratives. Not long into training, Tony Clay’s Locke straightforwardly reveals that he’s gay; neat-as-a-pin Valentine (Ncuti Gatwa) explains that he’s here not to get laid and shoot guns, but for God and honour. Meanwhile Robbie O’Neill’s Mackay might have a more stereotypical thirst for heroism and violence, but he’s also cheerfully accepting of and affectionate towards his fellow soldiers.

Casual racism and homophobia – two more features that we might expect from army life – are both flirted with but then disavowed. Except, that is, in the form of sloppy, bigoted Perk, the weak link in the quartet. His bed always messily unmade, he struggles with army life while directing half-jokey slurs towards his comrades. He needs to be here – what else is there for him, save a dead-end job in Poundland? – but it’s clear from the beginning that he won’t be able to keep up. As played by Tom Gill, he’s difficult to like but impossible to entirely hate. Restless and jerky, he vibrates with pent-up energy, a fidgeting symbol of the directionless frustration of so many young men from whom hope and compassion have been robbed. And when the others finally turn on him, as of course they must, the tension is unbearable.

Then, after an oddly swift and not entirely necessary interval, that carefully mounted tension – along with Perk – disappears. We still seem to be in the barracks, but the text becomes more abstract, more confusing. Locke, Valentine and Mackay are all describing deaths (brave, bloody, triumphant deaths) in conflict. Their own? Other soldiers’? Or those of self-sacrificing heroes in glibly glorifying Hollywood movies? As the scene continues, it appears to be the latter, but once again Miller’s production is calculatedly unclear. The point, perhaps, is that the boundaries between those different deaths have themselves become clouded, as has the distinction between celebration of comradeship and critique of aggression. Watching this sequence, a kind of queasiness creeps over me: a mixture of discomfort at the aestheticising of war in the characters’ language and uncertainty about the many competing politics of conflict at play.

“Peace,” says one of the recruits, “is just a gap between wars.” It’s a statement, like so much of the show, that can be read multiple ways. Peace, in one sense, can only be defined in opposition to war, a truth that to me feels implicitly critical of the violence that constantly seeps across the globe. But for these soldiers, trained and poised for war, peace is just that: a gap, a period of waiting around. I think again about all those poppies. Are they markers of respect and remembrance? Problematic badges of patriotism? Or are they hollowed-out symbols, tools deployed for political point-scoring? Lines might coincide with the annual performance of remembrance, but it isn’t about to provide any answers.

The Body of an American, Gate Theatre

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At the time I saw Chimerica last year, I found myself preoccupied with the idea of the photographic image. A play that promised – in its very title, no less – to be about the relationship between China and America struck me as having many more interesting things to say about the nature of the image and the knotty ethics of photojournalism. Not long after, I read both Susan Sontag’s essays on photography and Vivienne Franzmann’s 2012 play The Witness, which also folds its dramatic possibilities outwards from an image taken in the midst of violence. All ask interconnected questions. What is the currency – both economic and political – of images? What does it mean to bear witness? And is to observe to also and inevitably turn away from intervention?

Repeating those questions, The Body of an American might now be added to Chimerica and The Witness to form a fascinating trio of twenty-first-century plays with photojournalists at their hearts. Like the other two shows, Dan O’Brien’s tense, muscular play is concerned with the haunting legacy of a famous image – as well as much else besides. Taking as its starting point the long email correspondence between the playwright and his subject, Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson, the play painfully dissects the psychological damage of Watson’s work and the personal demons of both men. While there’s certainly something to be written about the relationship between this, Chimerica and The Witness (and indeed the renewed interest that might have provoked all three plays), The Body of an American alone offers so much to process that it feels necessary to narrow the lens for the time being. So where to start?

There is, first of all, an intriguing relationship with authenticity that is persistently pointed to by the Gate’s production. Even before the performance begins, The Body of an American prompts us to engage with questions of veracity. On filing into the claustrophobic, snow-lined bunker that designer Alex Lowde has constructed inside the Gate’s already intimate theatre, our attention is immediately drawn to the two screens bookending the space, both projected with the same statement that everything we are about to see and hear was produced or captured by O’Brien or Watson. At the outset, the show very deliberately announces both its truth and the vantage points from which that truth is to be told.

What becomes clear as the piece unfolds is that the play has been constructed from a combination of the two men’s words, drawing on their long email correspondence, their eventual meeting in the Arctic, and other documentary materials. This is all compellingly delivered by just two performers: William Gaminara as “Paul” and Damien Molony as “Dan”, with both also standing in as the large cast of supporting characters (although Gaminara and Molony effectively portray Watson and O’Brien respectively, they are of course distanced representations of real people, so let’s just assume the quotation marks from here on in). The Body of an American is, essentially, a verbatim show.

And yet O’Brien has sculpted his own form of documentary theatre from these many fragments. The story he originally wanted to tell was that of Watson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who has documented atrocities across the world. O’Brien was drawn to Watson while attempting to write a play about ghosts; Watson, the haunted man, became his new subject. What The Body of an American has turned into, however, is a play documenting the process of documentary theatre, jumping frenetically between emails, conversations, recordings and reflections. The text is lyrical but dense, its restless movement demanding total concentration from an audience.

As well as continually hopping about, the whole thing constantly gestures to its own construction, telling its audience as much about O’Brien’s efforts to write it as it does about the life of the man he has attempted to put on stage. In this way, The Body of an American deftly sidesteps the more problematic elements of verbatim theatre. Despite that initial declaration of authenticity – which I suspect is as much to train the audience’s minds on the idea of authenticity as it is to reassure us of the show’s truth – there is no question of obscuring the process of editing in an effort to pretend to absolute, unmediated truth. The play is, unapologetically, just one version of reality.

The same might be said, rather aptly, of a photograph. Photographic images purport to be snapshots of the truth, images of reality, but someone always has to frame them, to isolate that particular moment in time and decide that it is worth capturing. Paul’s words even refer to this. The most important photograph in the play is the one that sealed his success and his torment, both winning him the Pulitzer Prize and haunting him for life. In the moment of taking the infamous image, which shows a US soldier’s battered corpse on a street in Mogadishu, he talks about framing it better, about getting the right shot. Part of what tortures Paul throughout, perhaps, is the disconnect between the truth he endlessly seeks and the artificiality of how he tries to capture it.

For all that the show’s content is dark, disturbing and infected with a pervasive sense of melancholy, James Dacre’s production delivers this difficult material with a sharp kick of adrenaline. The pace rattles furiously along, sweeping its audience up in the same addictive thrill that keeps Paul doing what he does. In this way, the production is very good at complicatedly recognising both the compulsive excitement of Paul’s work and the gnawing depression that is, the piece implies, both a symptom and a cause of his chosen career. As the show goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the same deadening sorrow eats away at Dan; there are moments when a chilling, identical look of desolation pours out of both Gaminara’s and Molony’s eyes.

As much as anything, it occurs to me about halfway through, The Body of an American is about relationships between men. The strange yet moving central friendship between Dan and Paul is the most obvious of these, but their respective relationships with the men in their families loom large, as does Paul’s unbreakable link with the ghost of the man he ironically immortalised. It is often the damage of these male relationships that binds Dan and Paul closer together, linked by their common losses and their struggle with normative ideas of masculinity. In their depression, their loneliness and their retreat from society, the two men seem more and more alike; two broken individuals in a broken world.

On reflection, it strikes me that the photojournalists in Chimerica and The Witness are also male – perhaps not without reason. All three photojournalists, real and fictional, are observing from a position of white male privilege; their gaze is especially problematic because of the troubling power balance between watcher and watched. In his review, Andrew Haydon brilliantly articulates the significance of choice in the situations depicted by the play, which he argues is a central characteristic of privilege itself. The privileged choose to look on wars and atrocities, to seek them out and capture them for the eyes of people living on the other side of the world. Those caught up in the midst of conflict or disaster simply have nowhere else to look.

The tight, intelligent layout of Dacre’s production also makes an audience’s gaze loaded. Those all-important screens at either end of the performance space play host to projections throughout the show, showing harrowing selections from Paul’s back catalogue of warzone horrors. Because of their positioning, these images never directly confront us, meaning that – like Paul – we have to very deliberately look if we want to comprehend the images in question. Though, actually, this isn’t quite true. There is a choice involved in looking at the photographs full-on, in all their horror, but the haunting fact of their presence is unavoidable, flickering away at the peripheries of our vision. Like the tightly packed ideas in the play, they dance around the edges, framing the electrifying action at the centre of the piece.

As well as the obvious comparisons to be made with Chimerica and The Witness, Andrew links The Body of an American with Grounded, another Gate show that was equally electric, equally intelligent and equally concerned with America. I’d argue that it also demands to be considered alongside No Place to Go, the third production in a season that the theatre pointedly framed with ideas of work and modern American identity. Despite their differences (and No Place to Go is in most respects very different to the other two productions), what I found myself taking away from all three shows was their deep sense of loss – a loss often stained with bitter disillusionment. Which, taken as a collective statement, seems to say a lot about the USA, our external perspective on it and the modern world more widely. A grim image indeed.

P.S. I will, one day, write the essay I have simmering away about photography, photojournalism and the ethics of the image in The Body of an American, Chimerica and The Witness …

Photo: Tristram Kenton.