“The Body Of An American” by Dan O’Brien

at the Royal and Derngate, Tuesday 4th March 2014

As we step into the low, claustrophobic bunker which houses The Body Of An American and separates us from the rest of the world, we’re greeted with a message projected onto either end of the long space. It’s the kind of message you get at the beginning of a documentary or a verbatim play, reading: “Every word, photograph or video included in this production was spoken, heard, written, taken or filmed by Dan O’Brien or Paul Watson between 1993 and 2014”. At first, this might seem like a relatively simple and obvious thing to say; after all, this play is based on genuine conversations and discusses real-life events, so it makes sense to mention this in order to signify the play’s veracity. According to that message, we think, the following ninety minutes of conversations and stories shared between war photographer Paul Watson and playwright Dan O’Brien will be ‘factual’, even if it is theatricalised. But look what happens if we change some of the nouns, and imagined we saw this at the beginning of, say, Sea Wall in The Shed last year:

“Every word, photograph or video included in this production was spoken, heard, written, taken or filmed by Simon Stephens or Andrew Scott between 2008 and 2013.”

Now, technically, that’s not untrue, is it? It’s just a slightly distorted version of the truth.

And encapsulated in this idea is the reason The Body Of An American is such a smart and Important (with a capital ‘I’) piece of work.

The play itself focusses – very broadly – on the topic of the perception, recording and recounting of images, stories and ‘truths’ about war, especially by white, liberal, middle-class males. It takes the form of a series of conversations between ‘Dan’ and ‘Paul’ (on whose book the play is “based”), which were initially conducted via email, phone and in real life but are all spoken here by two actors, who also take on the guise of peripheral characters. The whole thing takes place in the aforementioned bunker, with a floor covered in snow and audiences scrunched up in two rows on either side of the traverse stage. So far, so simple.

In that simplicity, however, is a beautiful, complex elegance. As the two men discuss the ethics of war photography – specifically a photograph taken in Mogadishu – you become aware that this play itself is bound up with and connected to those questions of truth and representation. It’s not just a discussion of documenting war, then, but a piece which contemplates its own contemplation of that very issue, giving us a crafted image of the playwright in the eyes of the playwright and of photographs in the eyes of the photographer.

James Dacre’s staging is enviably simplistic, existing as little more than two actors and two chairs. These four objects hurtle through time and space at breakneck speed, reconfiguring themselves with each change of scene or tone. The two actors – William Gaminara and Damien Molony – throw themselves into each character with complete conviction, and still show a clear through-line as ‘Paul’ and ‘Dan’ respectively, with the issues of each slowly consuming the other. In the traverse staging, too, Dacre has found a way of keeping the piece moving and ensuring we are involved by the virtue of proxemics, and as the penny drops where we are in the latter half of the play it becomes apparent that the production itself has found a way of becoming the argument it presents, documenting its own truth and presenting it to an audience.

Like Oliver Townsend’s set for Grounded, Alex Lowde has here come across an idea which perfectly encapsulates the themes of the play. The bunker both puts the mechanics of theatre on show and gives us access to a deeply felt humanity due to our closeness to the actors and other audience members. There’s something enchanting about the tiny birdies hanging from the ceiling which act as a lighting rig in miniature (Charles Balfour), constantly shifting to change our location. We are aware that we are watching something false and produced, but cannot help becoming enveloped by the words of the actors as they stand a foot away from us. The fake snow on the floor, too, adds an element of theatricality to proceedings even as it performs and behaves in a ‘realistic’ way. As with Watson’s photographs, we are presented with a version of this reality, seen through the eyes of the production team, who put the processes of making on show.

The traverse set-up also means the actors are always backgrounded by the projections at either end of the stage, so that as they talk about Watson’s photographs we are able to see them blown-up. Perception is again crucial here, as parts or all of the photos are often blurred in Dick Straker’s video design, shifting the way in which we may interact with the image. Again, however, the chance we may not be getting the whole truth swims under the surface, for though these photos were taken by Watson and/or O’Brien, we never get any more info than the image itself; how many of these were taken purely for the purposes of the show? you wonder.

What The Body Of An American demonstrates so well is the importance and power of shunning notions of ‘representation’ in theatre; there is no attempt here at traditional notions of ‘realism’, as two actors play multiple characters in a setting which is heightened and unreal. We don’t need to see them donning particular clothes or props to signify a shift in persona, and the blankness of the space allows us to be anywhere and nowhere at once. This is crucial to the play itself, too, as we are shown a (relatively) blank slate onto which we place ideas, prejudices, characters, stories and emotions; nothing is free of meaning or implication.

Perhaps more importantly, however, O’Brien’s play makes a searing and serious point about our attitude to war and ‘truth’, questioning foreign policy and how the media reports it. Though it’s an American play by an American playwright, it speaks directly to all of us in an age of US cultural imperialism. O’Brien asks us to question not only how stories and images are selected and presented to us, but also how we select and present them ourselves.

Photo: mesmer.co.uk

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