One of the first things, dear reader, that I did in those early days at that Oxford place what I went to study at, was to join the University Dramatic Society. In those days (not sure if this still applies) there wasn’t only the famous OUDS, but also a little fringey society alongside it called the ETC (Experimental Theatre Club). You could join either and both gave you access to the activities of both societies, but you kind of set your mark in the sand by whether you took the traditional or experimental approach. I found myself instantly attracted to the ETC, so I joined them. And that interest in the more experimental, daring, unorthodox side of what you can put on a stage has stayed with me all my life. I’d much sooner see a bold, experimental failure than a lazy easy success. So it was with great delight that I saw that the Royal and Derngate were to stage Dan O’Brien’s Body of an American, a two-hander drama-documentary multi-media production, in the largely neglected space that is the Underground in Northampton.
Not that this production is in any way a failure, quite the reverse. As an audience member, you face a number of small challenges when you go to see this play, all of them insignificant in themselves but en masse they mentally prepare you for something out of the norm. You approach the Underground space from a different door than usual. You have to take your coat off and hang it on the rail because you are told inside it is hot and there simply isn’t any room to put your coat under your seat. You walk in and are plunged into darkness. You enter the auditorium to see two long benches either side of the acting space, in traverse, and the floor covered in stage snow, which you will find sticks to your shoes and your trousers, subtly, subliminally, drawing you closer to the action ahead, making you part of the set. The seating is unreserved but it isn’t obvious where the best place to sit will be. There are video projections on the far end walls – both sides. You check left and then right to see if they are identical. It feels a bit claustrophobic. When everyone is seated, there isn’t a lot of space on which to perch your bottom. You get the sense of a forthcoming shared experience that is going to be much more than simply watching a play.
In a way, the whole performance starts when you enter the room. It’s exciting, but a little unsettling. The lady behind Mrs Chrisparkle apologised in advance for being a fidget and that she will probably knee her in the back on and off during the performance. The fact that she felt comfortable about telling her that, and Mrs C’s generous “oh that won’t matter” reaction back to her, again underlines the fact that somehow, we’re all in this together. How very different from the traditional atmosphere where you only interact with the proscenium stage in front of you. In traverse, you not only focus on the actors but also the audience on the other side. If you sit in the front row, as we did, other audience members are facing you probably less than six feet away. You notice what aspects of the play are particularly intriguing them; which audience members are focussing on one actor, who is darting their eyes and head all over the place, who concentrates by looking down and listening more than watching; who’s finding it funny; who’s leaning forward to get as close as possible; who’s tuning out because they’ve had a hard day at the office and it’s requiring more attention than they can give. It’s all a very shared experience. Added to which, it’s a very narrow acting strip – no hiding place there, as one member of the audience pointed out during the post-show discussion afterwards – and that also helps unify the audience and the cast – both the givers and the receivers of the play become one experiential entity. You can’t have one without the other, as this setup makes abundantly clear.
The play itself is based on the true story of Toronto Star War Reporter Paul Watson, who, when covering the Somalian war in 1993, took a seminal war photograph – indeed a Pulitzer Prize winner – of the dead body of American Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a baying mob. At the moment he took the photograph, he heard the voice of Cleveland saying to him in his head “if you do this I will own you forever” – one of those moments in one’s life where you know that if you go down a certain path, your life will never be the same. But it was a golden opportunity, professionally speaking, to show the world the horrors of war, and he had no choice. And for sure, that one – actually two – clicks of a lens did change everything for Watson, and he fell into a path of mental instability and substance abuse. Some years on, the writer Dan O’Brien, struggling to complete a play about ghosts, emailed Paul Watson after hearing him in a podcast because there was just something about him, his voice, his story, that fascinated him and he knew he just had to contact him to find out more about him. Again, it was one of those moments where he knew he had no choice. This developed into a wish to interview him and write a play about him. And through the course of this play, as the two men start to discover more about each other, they also learn about themselves and their own demons on a physical journey that takes them around the world but also an inward journey that examines their hearts and souls.
It’s an astonishing theatrical event. First, the play itself; intricate and exquisitely written, yet extraordinarily robust and powerful. As I was listening to the actors’ voices in the first few minutes I began to realise that this was poetry. Not the rhyming style, nor the plodding mid-20th century poetic drama of T S Eliot or Christopher Fry, but with that eloquence and dignity that you associate, even though it’s modern day language, with the Jacobean or Elizabethan age. And it’s true – at the post-show discussion Artistic Director James Dacre (what a great start for him at the R&D) pointed out that each line in the text has ten syllables. The two actors ostensibly play Dan and Paul but in fact there are about thirty roles in all. Nor do they just play their own role – both actors play Dan and both play Paul at different times or for different lines in the play, giving you a sense of the two characters merging. With many of the words being delivered at a fast and furious pace you don’t have time to assimilate absolutely everything that’s said, which very successfully helps convey the confusion, clamour and mayhem of a war environment. The inclusion of photographs actually taken by Paul Watson during the course of his career projected on the walls, together with the extraordinary sound and lighting plots which have to be enacted with laser surgery accuracy, make the whole event an extraordinary feast of visual and audio stimulation. So many images, both pictorial and verbal, assault your senses, that the production demands your full attention and alertness. All this with the aid of just two simple chairs, brilliantly working on our imaginations to suggest a full range of locations and props.
This is also one of that small body of creative work where one of the main topics is about creating the work of art itself. Think of the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where the Victorian story is interspersed with scenes of the modern day cast actually making the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Think of Spandau Ballet’s True, a song about the complexities of writing a truthful song – “why do I find it hard to write the next line”. To this you can add Dan O’Brien writing about writing this play – discovering his subject matter and assessing his involvement with it. Not mere autobiography – something much more revealing.
Then you have the performances. I can’t imagine how two minds can come together to perform this play with such verbal precision and dexterity as carried out by William Gaminara and Damien Molony. The way they allow Dan O’Brien’s flow of words to absolutely convince you of the reality of the characters’ situation is awe-inspiring; and the trust between them must be immense. William Gaminara as Paul at first seems laid back, savvy and in control; until fear, uncertainty and anguish creep into his tone to suggest Paul at his lowest ebb, haunted by that photograph. Damien Molony’s Dan is often polite, with that self-consciousness you have when you know you’re taking a liberty, but also terse and a little irritated when things don’t go his way. But because the two actors almost perform as one, it’s very hard actually to differentiate between them. They both use their considerable vocal talents to give individual identities and characteristics to all the roles. There are also some stand-out scenes – I loved the meeting between Paul and his very unsettling shrink; and also the scene where Paul finally tracks down Cleveland’s brother, an essentially selfish act to rid his own mind of any vestiges of guilt whilst not giving two hoots about how it would affect Cleveland’s family.
A stunning production that we are very lucky to have in our town. A tight, exciting play performed with immense conviction and skill in an experimental setting that both challenges and excites. There seems to be a move towards using the Underground for more experimental theatre in the future to which I would certainly raise my glass. In the meantime, when you reflect back on the play in the days afterwards, you are struck by how you have come to understand something of the raw nerves and emotions behind the people that went into the creation of a one-off iconic war image. One snap changes everything.