Documentary theatre: beyond information

Documentary theatre: beyond information

While documentary theatre is typically concerned with staging events that have actually happened, it usually seeks to mediate those events rather than to re-present them. In other words, the performance-as-document acts as a conduit through which a creative construction of reality is presented to an audience. Most likely, spectators will already know something of the material that the document indexes. Rather than just supply information, however, for documentary theatre to be meaningful it must establish a critical relationship between the event in the past and its reception in the present through a process of filtering and reorganization like any other artistic practice. Somewhere between the event and the audience there must still be a space of tension, uncertainty and unknowability, so that the performance can provoke inquiry rather than simply memorialize or disseminate information.

What we recognize today as documentary theatre can be traced to the politically invested experiments of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, mostly carried out between the 1920s and 1950s. From the 1960s onwards, we can identify a range of performance artists who take up and modify this impulse, usually by revealing their bodies as sites of cultural brutality and personal possibility, such as the Viennese Aktionsists, Marina Abramović and Chris Burden, to cite a few examples. Throughout the 1990s, a new strain of documentary performance came to the fore. Notably, the Tricycle Theatre in London spearheaded the production of tribunal plays, based on verbatim reconstructions of public inquiries, such as Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Freedom (2004) and Bloody Sunday: Scenes From the Saville Inquiry (2005), which also transferred to the Abbey stage.

This week, the Abbey launches The Darkest Corner, a programme intended to cast light on abuse in state funded and regulated institutions. The series includes three pieces of reality-based work, at the Peacock: Gerard Mannix Flynn’s James X, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2003; a rehearsed reading of The Evidence I Shall Give, which was written by Judge Richard Johnson and first staged at the Abbey in 1961; and, the only new commission among them, No Escape, a piece of documentary theatre based on the findings of the Ryan Report, compiled and edited by broadcaster Mary Raftery, who lifted the lid on abuse with her States Of Fear series for RTÉ in 1999. It is directed by Roisín McBrinn, with a cast that includes Lorcan Cranitch (above. Photo: Ros Kavanagh). 

It is laudable to see the Abbey host this initiative [which will be reviewed in its entirety by ITM later in the month]. However, in different ways, Flynn and Raftery have been exposing corruption for well over a decade now, and it is somewhat disappointing to see that they are only being drawn upon in this way now that their previous endeavours have been authenticated by government reports. Another cause for surprise is that the programme succeeds rather than precedes Thomas Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us!, which, while not documentary theatre, clearly resonated with the release of the Murphy and Ryan reports. In Kilroy’s play, Fr Seamus draws the action to a close by telling one of the school boys that “Ignorance is the start of everything…That’s what drives us forward, Questions. Always questions.” We can interpret this to mean at least two things: 1) we must question everything and 2) we must accept that we know nothing in order to carry on. Marrying the two terms together, Kilroy also suggests that the trauma must be artistically reworked, becoming knowable in its poetic estrangement. This is its Brechtian inflection. Whatever Kilroy’s play says about moving forward, however, the fact that is play is followed by The Darkest Corner would seem to suggest that we are not quite ready to do so yet; that a more direct response is required, one which is perhaps closer to the experience of victims so that we can bear witness in a different way.

It has to be said that we have heard quite a lot of victim testimonials in recent times, if not in the theatre then in newspapers, books, on television and radio. Where the public conversation seems to be stuck is on the matter of attributing and assuming blame. Ten years before Brian Cowen spoke about the State’s ‘darkest corner’ in 2009, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern offered an apology in the wake of Mary Raftery’s television series in 1999. In May of that year, he said: “On behalf of the State and of all citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue.”

Despite State acknowledgment, the Church’s response is grossly inadequate to many, and thus remains a constant point of tension in the nation’s ability to process this legacy. It is unlikely that any theatre production will help solve this. And the Vatican is a theatre unto itself. Years after the steady release of information, the current challenge for the Abbey is not simply to provide another platform for the reiteration of familiar accounts, but perhaps to convince us that this trauma can be re-worked through artistry in the national theatre and beyond. As most people are only too familiar with the horrors inflicted on some people in State care, it’s hard to say if further reporting will be of any use. For the performance-as-document to be efficacious in this instance and at this point in the national response, it must have an affective force that moves us, emotionally and intellectually, beyond the sharing of information. It must still be good theatre.

Fintan Walsh is a post-doctoral researcher at the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin.

No Escape runs at the Peacock, Dublin, until April 24. The Darkest Corner series will be reviewed in ITM at the end of April. 





Leave a Comment

  1. (required)
  2. (required, will not be published)
  3. (optional)
  4. Subscribe to Comments

  5. Security code