This much is true and I’m not pulling any punches.

This Much is True picture

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.


3 thoughts on “This much is true and I’m not pulling any punches.

  1. I have responded to your piece on THE GUARDIAN blog but also want to get to grips with you here. First, lets just get over the bandwagon. I was walking to the tube in Stockwell the morning Jean Charles was shot and then spent three years trying to make a film about what I understood happened. I believe I have spoken to most of the people involved in the tragedy – that includes the family, and the campaign, but it also includes Police, lawyers, witnesses and so on. We started the play before the excellent STOCKWELL appeared and while we were very excited about that production knew that its scope was tight. It was based solely on the inquest.

    So, we continued. This wasn’t a case of the National Theatre and Royal Court put on two plays at the same time about the subject but two tiny pub theatres both within a mile of the shooting itself! Hardly over-kill.

    Now in your blog you snarl at us for not having the material. This implies that we are some kind of novelty store and so utterly misses the point and the politics of what we are trying to do. We do tell our audience a great deal they could not have known before seeing the play. If you knew it you are obviously a long range mind reader. Much of it is detail but nonetheless significant. I could sight – the hotel in Kingston, what the role the coroner played in the myth of Jean Charles running and jumping, why precisely the two armed policemen fired. And further what the life of the family has been before, during and after the shooting. And further what Andy Hayman thinks happened to the IPCC. None of this has been in the public arena to date.

    You also get yourself all uptight about our style of play and we are sorry that you didn’t like what we are doing. However, it was not done capriciously as you imply.

    The play is staged and written, in part, in response to verbatim drama to date. We feel too often the form has become dishonest claiming to express what the subject has said but disguising the editorial, dramaturgical, hand of the play-maker. We decided not to do that. Learning from true Brecht we wanted the mechanisms to be visible. We wanted the audience to understand our relationship to the source material and see how we had been hindered and also what choices we were making. It is theatrical but then, hey, I thought 503 was a theatre.

    Kind regards

    Paul Unwin

  2. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for your response. I wanted to write a slightly more measured one here because the virulence of my reaction to your piece originally came from a direct sense of being emotionally manipulated by it. In this way you did not present it as Brecht would have wanted, even though you showed all the backstage machinations and playmaking decisions. My heartstrings were being played, not my intellect.

    Having had some time to cool off and think about it, I now feel that you weren’t jumping the bandwagon but that it was still a deeply misguided way to present your new findings. This Much Is True could have been much more powerful and successful if it had gotten rid of all the presentational hoopla and gone to the heart of your own personal experience within your research. I’m not saying it should be a ‘dry’ replica of it with no theatrical skill and maybe I was wrong to assume that there was no new material within this piece. But the fault for this misconception lies in the fussy, unfocused and overplayed style which made it difficult to discern these new voices from old knowledge. By doing it this way you may have made a point about making editorial processes obvious in verbatim theatre, but you prevented any new information from being powerfully imported to an audience, leaving just emotional and easily missed (although undeniably technically brilliant) performances and experiences which should have been centre stage.

    Stockwell’s scope was tight but that is what made it such a potent piece of theatre about this cloudy incident. As you say, people are still under the impression that Jean Charles de Menezes jumped the barrier and ran away from the police. Sadly this is just one of the many misconceptions about this incident that still prevail. A lot of this confusion is thanks to a media who baffled us with constant and conflicting reports that all muddled together in one big mess. Some critics have said that the busy nature of this piece and wideness of scope that you employed was a comment on this media role but it seemed only to perpetuate this bombardment and confusion. You may feel that a certain hypocrisy has developed around verbatim theatre, but instead of highlighting and facing that in This Much Is True you simply covered whatever truth there was in theatrical bells and whistles.

    Of course I understand that theatre is theatre and therefore should be theatrical. But it can’t just be theatre for the sake of theatre; it has to have a reason to be made in whatever style is chosen. In this case the form seemed to completely outweigh the function to the point where sadly it negated it.

    Honour Bayes

    • You claim to want theatricality but then say we muddy our message. I haven’t been involved in theatre for nearly twenty years. I worked for a long time as a writer, Artistic Director, director and producer but since about 1990 my work has been in film and TV however I went back to the theatre with this subject PRECISELY because I felt we could cover a huge amount of ground; more than we could in film and certainly TV.

      I have seen two drama docs’ about the shooting and also the movie Jean Charles. None managed to draw together the personal experience of the family with the much larger forces at work around this event. I, and Sarah Beck, therefore took our ambition in our hands and tried.

      Strangely the biggest argument we had was about emotional pitch. We wanted the audience to experience what we had felt talking to the family (in particular) but neither wanted to make it an emotional sob-story, nor separate them from the larger picture. If, as you clearly felt we did, we manipulated the audience I think we not only failed, but also, surprisingly, failed our own intentions.

      On STOCKWELL, which I very much enjoyed. I think we have to be clear here. STOCKWELL told you about the shooting. Eloquently and dramatically it staged moments from the inquest and gave a very graspable portrait of what happened. It didn’t contextualise that, and it didn’t tell the audience about anything more than the shooting. So, yes, obviously, it was a simpler experience.

      However that, in itself, doesn’t – and should not – reduce our ambition. Indeed, if we failed totally – and I passionately believe we didn’t – it still wouldn’t make THIS MUCH IS TRUE the unhappy event you describe.

      So, perhaps, it comes down to taste. I like Tim Roseman’s production because it engages brilliantly in the play we wrote. That play is expansive and does use ‘theatre’ to get its story across. For most people it doesn’t seem too taxing or confusing and we have had some very positive reviews and responses. Equally we have had some carping. To my mind the “it’s too fussy and complicated view” leads to a theatre that is earnest and dull. Not automatically, but certainly eventually.

      I think why THIS MUCH IS TRUE is so good is that it is full of passionate energy. I don’t buy that if we had been less bold our message would have been stronger. Rather, I think it would have been earnest and any polemic transparent.

      And finally on Brecht – do you really think he didn’t tug heart strings: Kattrin on the roof, the Little Monk in Galileo, even The Mother and the Measures Taken all have moments designed to make you weep!

      So, come again – look at tHIS MUCH IS TRUE with fresh eyes. Its not us showing off with technical wizadry. Rather it is a group of theatre workers trying to raise the bar.



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