Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present

Over the past two decades, theatre makers have frequently turned to documentary modes of performance to explore social and political realities. Tribunal theatre, verbatim theatre, auto/biography, and documentary film rank among the most familiar terms for this kind of work, while a questioning of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are recurring points of focus.

In this collection, editors Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson aim to give shape to this development by offering a loosely chronological volume of essays that explore work from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East. While chapters 2 and 3 look to examples drawn from the 1930s and '40s, chapter 4 leaps to 2005, and from here on in the book is dedicated to contemporary theatre and performance practices.

Silver Stars by BrokentalkersWhile the origins of documentary theatre are often traced to the work of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s, in her opening chapter Janelle Reinelt anchors the debate in the political realism of Ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Closer to home, the form gained attention in the 1990s on account of work emerging from the Tricycle in London, in particular. These recent trends have already been critically responded to by Alan Filewod, Attilio Favorini and Derek Paget, for example, all of whom have chapters in the book. Interestingly, at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival alone, a number of productions can be seen to fall into this broad category, including DV8’s To Be Straight With You, Hotel Modern’s Kamp, Broken Talker’s Silver Stars, thisispopbaby’s A Woman in Progress, Rimini Protokoll’s Radio Muezzin and Force Majeure’s The Age I’m In.

The collection does not so much reframe established thought on documentary process or significance, but it devotes considerable attention to reading politically motivated new work, and this is its greatest strength. To this end, Carol Martin’s essay ‘Living Simulations: The Use of Media in Documentary in the UK, Lebanon and Israel’ is particularly interesting. In this entry Martin examines My Name is Rachel Corrie (2005), edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner next to Three Posters (2004), a video performance by Raibh MrouĆ© and Elias Khoury, and Signals (2005), Victoria Hanna’s performances about the contemporary sonic sphere of sacred texts and digital sound in Jerusalem. Juxtaposing work from different cultural contexts, Martin weaves a layered discussion on the relationship between technology and the political possibilities of documentary theatre.

In ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji: Telling Aboriginal Australian Stories’ Maryrose Casey offers an illuminating analysis of responses to Indigenous Australian theatre, in particular Career Highlights of the Mamu (2002) and Ngapartji Ngapartji (2005). Casey reflects upon how the critical reception of these works problematically functions to erase difference and actually construct Indigenous peoples as generalised representatives rather than individuals or members of distinct communities.

I Am My Own WifeSomewhat unusually drawing on sophistic rhetoric, Nels P. Highberg analyses Doug Wright’s I am My Own Wife, which was staged at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2005, and tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite living in East Berlin who survived both Nazi and Communist rule. In ‘When Heroes Fall: Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife and the Challenge to Truth,’ Highberg considers how the play’s performance style (one performer plays 30 characters), in addition to its documentary premise, creates a dynamic relationship with the audience that radically questions ‘singular notions of truth,’ which encourages audiences ‘to recognise the damaging effects of singular impositions of truth within society.’ (p. 165)

Also of interest is Carol-Anne Upton’s ‘The Performance of Truth and Justice in Northern Ireland: The Case of Bloody Sunday.’ In this chapter, Upton addresses the construction of authenticity in the public inquiry into the events of 1972, as well as documentary and verbatim plays which subsequently emerged - Scenes from an Inquiry (2002), Heroes with Their Hands in the Air (2007), and Bloody Sunday: Scenes From the Saville Inquiry (2005) which was also staged at the Dublin Theatre Festival the same year. Moreover, Upton considers how theatre ‘has provided an important open space in which to commemorate, investigate and legitimate counter-narratives, framing and re-framing them in a public site of private memory. (p. 193)

The reader coming to this material for this first time will feel confused to learn that documentary is old, but new; concerned with representing reality, but also troubling the idea of 'truth'; interested in producing witnesses, but also questioning the status of the spectator. Those more familiar with this genre and its critical discourses will know that this is precisely the semantic tease that documentary theatre engages us in. Reality restaged is hooked on quotation marks, and by default, so too is the form.

Of course, once you accept that documentary theatre is essentially involved in the re-presentation of ‘reality,’ almost anything could fall into the category. This is part of its seduction and frustration. While we cannot blame the editors for this conceptual slipperiness, it seems shortsighted to take the history and terms of documentary theatre for granted by not including a more substantial introduction that might tease out the semantic, aesthetic and political ramifications of these distinctions. While some of this occurs incidentally within individual chapters, and Paget’s final installment goes some way to historicise practice and scholarship, a little more input by the editors in the introduction would have been welcome.

Fintan Walsh is a post-doctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin.

Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present
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Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present

Edited by Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson

Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

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