Sally Stott has written an interesting and seemingly controversial blog asking the question already buzzing around my own head since seeing This Much Is True. The Theatre 503 show is the newest play to deal with the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Sally posits the idea that, in the light of the two productions already surrounding this topic, it’s time for leftwing playwrights to broaden their scope and tackle a new subject. She has been quite strongly reprimanded for her comments but I feel that hers is a completely valid and pertinent assessment propose that she was actually a little too kind to the newest edition to this canon.
I had an incredibly strong reaction to the ‘in yer face’ nature of Peter Unwin and Sarah Beck’s play. Dazzling as it may have been, with it’s over theatricalised stage dressing and genuinely impressive and versatile performances, overall it smacked of a desperate knowledge that they didn’t have enough new material to justify the creation this show. The term bandwagon springs lightly to mind. Maybe it was this slightly vacuous feel to the work, or the high level of emotional manipulation that upset me but I really felt its stylish yet wide reaching and unfocused approach made the whole thing seem gratuitous and consequently in bad taste. Style won over substance and when you’re dealing with life and death that just can’t be allowed to happen.
Unwin has responded to Sally’s piece and Lyn Gardner’s review vehemently, saying they did in fact have reams of new material. It’s funny how it really didn’t feel that way. True, we did hear more from the family but it is hard to know how this enlightens our understanding of the tragedy which unfolded here except to make us feel more emotionally connected with him as a person. I for one felt this human connection to Jean Charles de Menezes strongly enough through watching his actual family on television speaking about him; how does copying it word for word, using an actor as a mouth piece and adding some gratuitous theatrical wizardry really help?
This could be seen as a bigger issue with verbatim theatre as a whole. It can clearly be a powerful tool as the seminal Black Watch, the amusing The Girlfriend Experience or the touching Caravan have proven. But using people’s real words is so en vogue that people seem to be using it willy nilly now in order to simply sell a show. It should be used to give voice to those whose issues can’t be heard any other way. By repeating what has already been spoken in a truer, less jazzy sphere, Unwin and Beck’s seem to be doing nothing but treading old ground to try to glorify their own artistic ambition and very little else.
That’s incredibly tough of me, but for some reason I feel the need to be extreme in this situation. I wish that Unwin and Beck had taken their considerable talent and turned it elsewhere to tell stories that aren’t really vocalised yet. Then maybe I would have felt that their integrity matched their prowess and turned my concentration away from the spectacle to listen to them a bit more.