at the Traverse Theatre, Thursday 7th August 2014
Before I read Andrew Haydon’ review of Horizontal Collaboration, I had no idea it was based on a pre-existing narrative, let alone one with such a rich history of adaptation and appropriation. When watching David Leddy’s new play, I was entirely responding to this particular story as if it were the first time I’d ever heard it. Yes, I picked up the odd quote or intertextual reference, but this was a narrative which was falling on fresh ears (blame my cultural ignorance). I presume this is the case for lots of people in the audience, but I have no stats to verify that so it’s impossible to know. Either way, this is a poetic, sparse piece of writing which reaffirms Leddy’s ability to get inside our skulls and twist them about a bit.
Let’s talk about the form first, though, as that seems to be the show’s USP. Before the piece begins, we’re told that none of the four actors who are about to appear have seen the play before and will be reading blind off computer screens. In previous performances, we’re told, there have been four men, four women, and any number of other combinations. This time round, the show will be performed by four men, who enter the space in robes and sit down at a Forced Entertainment-esque table with lamps, wires, microphones and laptops.
In the world set-up by the play, they are (they tell us as they read from the script) “reserve lawyers” and will be reading from a series of transcripts which have been given to them just no, so forgive them if they slip up. What’s so interesting about this is that it means what we are watching is essentially ‘naturalistic’, in that four people are sat in the way they would be sat were it the actual situation being talked about, and will be talking in a similar fashion. Going further than this, we then play the public gallery sat in front of them. Aside from the shift in lighting throughout the show, this is pretty much as it would be were this case genuinely real.
The story itself, however, is simply recounted to us, and is viewed through the lens of the people whose testimonies are written in the transcripts. It describes a warlord – General Blaubart – from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with pinpoint descriptions of the violence he commits on his own people, specifically women. Overall, you get a sense of the way in which a conflict zone under the tyranny of warlords performs disgusting, horrific acts of physical and sexual violence on the way who get in the way.
There’s also a running theme of good people doing bad things, and vice versa, with Leddy questioning the structures of power in conflict situations and the possibility of ever doing a good thing. Is it justifiable, for example, for warlords to give hope to their people if that possibility presents itself? Well, probably not, no, but sometimes people who we might define as ‘evil’ give hope to people and may do ‘good’ things by accident.
It’s difficult to work out why exactly Leddy has chosen this form in particular, but I suspect it’s something to do with the responsibility we have when recounting the speech of others. The four actors, for example, read descriptions of graphic violence and by doing so put these images in our heads. They have not had time to think through what they’re saying, and I imagine a lot of the time they aren’t even thinking about the meaning behind what they’re reading (as often happens when you read stuff cold). Violence is thus committed through the act of reading, meaning the audience and the performers become complicit in the story.
All of which brings it back to the title. In relation to the story, Horizontal Collaboration describes the way in which sexual favours are exchanged in wartime, but it also refers to our own involvement with this narrative. We may not be directly related to the stories of Judith K, Jacob K and Blaubart, but in this space we are nonetheless collaborating in their creation.