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.

Chimerica, Almeida Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The photograph has always been something of a paradox; a record of ephemerality, the fleeting present moment arrested for posterity. It is a document of disappearance, the deceptive capture of something already lost, a lie and an irrefutable truth wrapped up in one. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger even suggests that the invention of the camera irrevocably altered our mode of perception, therefore changing the status of the image itself: “the camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless”. Yet still we cling to photographs as incontrovertible vestiges of the past, investing one image with the weight of an entire event – an entire ideology, even.

In Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood fixes her lens on just one of these historically burdened snapshots. In fact, that’s already a lie; there are at least six known versions of the iconic image that provides Kirkwood’s inspiration, implicitly refuting its uniqueness and by extension the irreproachable “truth” it is assumed to offer. The photographic catalyst for Kirkwood’s play is the ubiquitous visual encapsulation of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre by the Chinese military: the image of a man standing defiantly and defencelessly in front of a line of advancing tanks. It’s become one of the most hauntingly familiar images of the twentieth century, a symbol of non-violent protest and of the chilling opposition between the fragility of man and the might of machinery.

Around this one recorded act of heroism and the enduring mystery of the anonymous “Tank Man”, Kirkwood has crafted a taut, complex and nuanced thriller, with exhilaratingly ambitious scope. Her imagined American photojournalist, Joe, is fixated on this unknown icon of defiance who he photographed 23 years ago from the window of his Beijing hotel room. Spurred on by hints from his Chinese friend Zhang Lin and a cryptic clue in a Beijing newspaper, the quest to discover this man and the story behind the photograph quickly takes on the character of an obsession. It’s a detective story, of sorts, but set against the backdrop of a nation developing at frightening, breakneck speed. As one character puts it, this is a country that has gone from famine to Slimfast in the space of one generation.

If the glorious mess of Three Kingdoms queasily exposed the British view of Europe as Other, then Chimerica goes a long way towards skewering the hypocritically exoticising Western view of China. Although the title (borrowed from Niall Ferguson’s study of the economic dominance of this pair of superpowers) might inextricably link China and the USA, the play itself repeatedly demonstrates that we equate the citizens of these two nations at our peril. While consumer insight consultant Tessa highlights the pitfalls of treating Chinese shoppers like their counterparts in the West, Americans bemoan the Westernisation of Chinese culture in the same breath with which they sigh relief that the Chinese are becoming more like their capitalist cousins. They want authentic Chinese cuisine, but only if there’s a credit card machine at the till and a Starbucks round the corner.

The idea of the photograph, beyond providing the plot’s primary impetus, also reflects these strained perceptions that nations cultivate of one another. It’s all about how we see things. This currency of images decorates Es Devlin’s exquisite set, a revolving cube that recalls Tom Scutt’s brilliant design for 13 at the National Theatre and conjures similar ideas of being boxed in – by a restrictive state, by the photographic ghosts of history, by a consumer culture that would slot individuals into neat, easily targeted pigeon-holes. The surfaces of this cube become screens for various projected photographs, creating a constantly shifting backdrop of visual truths, lies and suggestions. These ever-present images also hint at the pervasive infiltration of visual media into our homes and lives, creating a world in which, as Joe cynically puts it, photographs of atrocity are no more than “clip art”.

For all its richly layered interrogation of economics, politics and the culture of images, the play remains motored throughout by a constantly engaging narrative. In his dogged mission to track down “Tank Man”, Joe increasingly jeopardises his job, his friendships and his burgeoning relationship with Tessa, yet somehow his obsessive investigation remains unfailingly compelling. This is largely down to the riveting precision of Lydnsey Turner’s tight production and the absorbing performance of Stephen Campbell Moore, who preserves a shred of empathy for Joe even at his most self-centredly illogical. His argument that “people need to know there’s heroism in the world” is an appealing one, but as journalistic curiosity morphs into unhealthy fixation, Joe’s pursuit is one of a strange kind of personal redemption rather than any real public interest.

As Joe races across New York and racks up his long distance phone bill on the trail of “Tank Man”, his disillusioned friend Zhang Lin, played with compassion and poignant weariness by Benedict Wong, faces mounting difficulties in Beijing. Alongside the central pairing of these two men, Kirkwood and Turner build a sophisticated cast of supporting figures, often achieving vivid characterisations in just a few quick strokes. Claudie Blakley’s blunt, businesslike Tessa has an edge of vulnerability and a nagging but never simplified social conscience, while Joe’s newspaper colleagues resist being wrestled into generic boxes. The evidence of the play itself would seem to counter Tessa’s glib assertion that in the age of mass communication and sophisticated consumer profiling there’s “no such thing as an individual”.

While focus is inevitably drawn to the impressive scope of Kirkwood’s writing, it’s equally hard to deny the visual beauty of Turner’s sleekly revolving production, bringing more excitement to the stage of the Almeida than it has witnessed in years. The staging is striking in a cinematic rather than a visceral sense, however, placed at an elegant remove from the audience. With its rapid succession of often short scenes and its gripping thriller plot, it is easy to see Chimerica working on screen, a medium that this production already seems to have at the back of its mind. If early whispers of a future life are realised – as they deserve to be – it would come as no surprise if a film adaptation is not far behind.

Resisting the cinematic vocabulary of the whole, the production’s one sharp injection of thrilling theatricality comes courtesy of a ghost from the Tiananmen Square massacre. Puncturing the realism of the scene, this figure unfurls from Zhang Lin’s fridge in a way that immediately brings to mind the performer springing from a suitcase in Three Kingdoms, providing a similarly startling physical interruption. At the close of the first act, this fragile, bloodied form bears a glowing red orb, passing the pulsing sphere from performer to performer in a sequence of captivating yet ominous beauty. This lingering moment recalls the poisoned apple of fairytale – a sinister metaphor, perhaps, for a deadly political fruit that Chimerica suggests is just waiting to be bitten into.