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“Theatre’s Other: Event and Testimony in British Verbatim Plays”

Clare Finburgh


A la fin du 20e siècle, une nouvelle forme de mise en scène de notre réalité éphémère se fait jour et domine la scène anglaise : le théâtre verbatim. Il s’agit d’une modalité de théâtre documentaire qui met en scène l’autre du théâtre, c’est-à-dire, l’événement tel qu’il est vécu par les gens dans le « monde réel », puis rapporté sous la forme de témoignages retranscrits mot pour mot, réagencés et joués par des acteurs sous la forme d’une pièce de théâtre. Cet article examine quatre variations sur la forme du théâtre verbatim : Taking Care of Baby (2007) de Dennis Kelly, et trois pièces d’une série écrite à plusieurs mains sur les attentats du 11 septembre 2001 aux Etats-Unis intitulée Decade (2011): Recollections of Scott Forbes de Samuel Adamson, Epic de Simon Schama et My Name is Tania Head d’Alexandra Wood. Ce corpus permet de s’interroger sur ce qui arrive quand l’  « autre » du theatre – le « réel » -- est mis en scène. Alors que Adamson et Schama utilisent le verbatim pour réduire l’écart entre le théâtre et son autre (ici, la réalité des attentats du 11 septembre), Wood et Kelly au contraire soulignent l’irréductibilité de cet écart. Alors que pour Adamson et Schama, le témoignage est présenté comme un matériau historique fiable, Wood et Kelly dénoncent cette supposée fiabilité, semant le doute sur la « réalité » de l’événement lui-même. Je conclus cette analyse en décentrant la question : il n’incombe pas au seul théâtre verbatim de s’interroger sur la nécessité d’une impossible coïncidence entre l’événement « réel », le document et la fiction : toute pièce de théâtre s’inscrit dans cette espace de négociation entre le fait « réel » et sa représentation, ce dont les spectateurs ont bien conscience.

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I extend my grateful thanks to Sam Haddow, whose ever-acute and rigorous perspectives on historiography have contributed towards making this an altogether better essay.

  • 1  Delculvellerie, 2006, my translation.
  • 2  Henceforth I place “reality’ within quotation marks in order to emphasise this contingent, relativ (...)

1The etymology of the English term witness derives from witan, “to know”. The Latinate term testimony is more nuanced than its Old English counterpart. Testimony originates in the Latin testis, stemming from tres, “three”. Tertius in Roman law designated the third party responsible for witnessing and certifying a contract between two other parties. Etymologically, the person who testifies witnesses a situation taking place between other people, but does not partake in it. Any testimony is therefore related from one particular point of view. In the words of Jacques Delcuvellerie, director of one of the most important pieces of testimony theatre in recent years, Rwanda 94 (2002), “whatever the quality of the testimony, it never testifies to anything except itself. It expresses what the witness is capable of explaining about what s/he has lived, nothing more, nothing less. It neither establishes the exactitude of the facts, nor their intelligibility.”1 The etymology of the term martyr enables further light to be shed on this partiality of witnessing. Deriving from the Greek μάρτυς (mártus), martyr also means “witness”. As a testimony of faith, the martyr sacrifices her/his life. Today, the various meanings attributed to witness have been brought together, and into sharp focus. As suicide bombers, casting themselves as latter-day martyrs, bear witness to their ideological beliefs, they depend on witnesses in order to disseminate the message that their violent act is intended to publicize. At the same time, these witnesses can but speculate on what this message really is, since its intentionality has been taken to the grave. The acts of being sacrificed as a martyr, and of witnessing, therefore implicitly declare the testifying subject’s self-positioning in relation to the reality they witness, and of which they provide a provisional, contingent version. Witnessing attempts to account for lived events and experiences, whilst inevitably de-realizing them, rendering them other than that reality. Not only the neutrality of the witness must be placed under scrutiny, but also that of the “reality” being witnessed, which itself can only be perceived in terms of a set of ideological claims, rather than an absolute given.2 Experience and its narration, the event and its witnessing, real events and their rendering in history, are linked, yet distinct, categories.

  • 3  See Rykner, 2011, p. 169.

2When testimony is then staged theatrically, the relationship between “fact” and discourse becomes yet more remote, since witnessing as document is transposed into witnessing as theatrical sign. Witnessing is “reality”’s other– a narration – and theatre is witnessing’s other – a fictionalisation. Theatre has placed documents, or elements of real life, on stage since at least the 1920s, where the German political theatre-maker Erwin Piscator included graphs, photographs and film. However, by its nature, theatre places the historical document – itself part of an ideological archive that either includes or excludes elements from lived realities – for example the witness statement, between artistic quotation marks. Therefore, the witness statement, already itself a repositioning of “reality”, is repositioned when positioned on stage. No matter how convincing and accurate a witness statement, and no matter how convincingly theatre reproduces a mimetic copy of this historical document, words, images and scenes become real in theatre only by replacing lived events and experiences, by becoming other than these “realities”. Testimony and theatre thus share a common dispositif, since both negotiate the divide between narration and its other: lived events and experiences.3

  • 4  Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965), entirely composed of testimonies by defendents and victims (...)
  • 5  Many excellent works have been written on the theme of verbatim theatre including Paget, 1990; Ham (...)
  • 6  Paget, 1990, 60.
  • 7  Directed by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares, premiered at the Tricycle Theatre, London.
  • 8  Directed by Lloyd Newson, premiered at the National Theatre.

3A particular kind of remembering and staging of our transient contemporary “reality” has become prevalent in the UK since the end of the twentieth century: verbatim theatre.4 This is a form of documentary theatre where witness testimonies are transcribed word-for-word, edited into a play, and performed by actors.5 Derek Paget, UK specialist in documentary theatre, proposes that verbatim theatre is more a mode than a form, since the style in which it appears can vary enormously.6 Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, 2004), that comprises letters from British prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp and testimonies by their families and legal experts, was presented with documentary realism;7Can We Talk About This? (DV8, 2012), concerning UK attitudes towards Islamism was, on the other hand, a dance-theatre piece.8 But the different manifestations of verbatim theatre share in common their representation of theatre’s other – events and experiences as they are lived by actual people.

  • 9  Kent, 2008, p. 164.
  • 10  I argue against a position that I have previously upheld, where I criticize the claims of verbatim(...)

4This essay examines four permutations on the verbatim mode: Dennis Kelly’s Taking Care of Baby (2007); and three pieces from a co-authored series of short plays on the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA (9/11), Decade (2011) – Samuel Adamson’s Recollections of Scott Forbes , Simon Schama’s Epic, and Alexandra Wood’s My Name is Tania Head. Together, the plays enable an interrogation of what happens when theatre’s other – lived events and experiences – are staged. According to Nicolas Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor, co-authors of a number of verbatim plays staged at London’s Tricycle Theatre during the first decade of the twenty-first century, verbatim theatre can offer more precision and “objectivity” than press and media coverage, which tend to saturate society with 24-hour airplay, yet over-simplify events.9 Whereas Adamson and Schama seem to employ verbatim in an attempt to narrow the gap with more precision and “objectivity” between theatre and its other – the reality of the 9/11 attacks –, Wood and Kelly appear to insist upon the impossibility of such an endeavour. Whereas for Adamson and Schama the historical source material of the witness testimony is presented as credible, for Wood and Kelly this credibility, and the “reality” it purports to describe, are thrown into doubt. And yet, I conclude by arguing that too much is perhaps made of the fact that verbatim theatre might aspire towards an impossible coincidence between “real” events, document, and fiction. Regardless of the verbatim author’s and director’s intentionality, any play is a negotiation between “real” events and their representation, a fact which I feel spectators witnessing the theatrical presentation, probably “know” (witan) by virtue of the fact that theatre places its own veracity, as I have stated, within quotation marks.10

  • 11  Directed by Anthony Clark, premiered at the Birmingham Rep. For an account of Kelly’s works, see R (...)
  • 12  Kelly, 2007, p. 29.

5Dennis Kelly’s Taking Care of Baby (2007) exposes the non-causal relationship between fact and account.11It centres around Donna McAuliffe, who lost a nine-month-old, then a five-month-old, baby. A psychologist, Dr Millard, diagnoses Donna with “Leeman-Keatly Syndrome” (LKS), a condition where mothers kill their babies to spare them from the horrors of modern life – “global warming, terrorism, tsunamis, hurricanes, new imperialism, Islamic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism”.12 Donna is imprisoned for her alleged crime. However, LKS, and Millard are subsequently discredited, leading to Donna’s release on the grounds that there is no evidence that she killed her babies.

6The play takes the form of a series of transcribed interviews with witnesses including, amongst others, Dr Millard, Donna, her ex-husband Martin, and Donna’s mother Lynn – an ambitious local councillor who exploits the publicity gathering around her daughter’s case to bolster her own electoral campaign. The UK premiere of the play took place on a bare stage featuring just a single table, some chairs, and a couch. Emphasis was thus placed on the interviews, which at times almost resembled interrogations, for instance when a lone chair occupied by Donna was singled out by a spotlight and the interviewer’s increasingly present voice interrupted her over a loud speaker.

  • 13 op. cit. 2007, p. 15.

7The first scene is prefaced with a statement that seeks to guarantee the play’s veracity, and which in the production appeared simultaneously on the sixteen television screens behind the actors: “The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence. Nothing has been added and everything is in the subject’s own words, though some editing has taken place.”13 Moreover, the interviews contain hesitations typical of natural speech and often of verbatim theatre, as Donna’s description of her first day in prison demonstrates:

  • 14 ibid. p. 16.

the girl above me, er, […] she said, erm, she said “Don’t speak” she said, erm, “Don’t speak because I’m trying not to hurt you. I’ve got six months left so I’m trying not to hurt you, so if you make me hurt you, I’m really, really gonna fucking hurt you.”14

  • 15  In Clark’s production, the stage was bare except for a toy baby suspended in a box with an ornate (...)
  • 16 op. cit. pp. 41, 71.

8Readers/spectators familiar with Kelly’s writing might be perplexed by his claims that he has taken his dialogue “word for word from interviews and correspondence”, since the speech in this play bears his hallmark muscular expletives, which concatenate into almost poetic rhythms. Their suspicions are confirmed when the stuttering hesitations of the first few pages cede to more fluid speech and interview monologues give way to dialogues, soon revealing that Kelly’s play is faux verbatim.15 The second scene is prefaced with the statement, “The following has been word from taken word for interviews and correspondence. Everything is in the subject’s own words and place, nothing has been added though some has taken editing”. And the third, with, “The taken word for following word has been correspondence from an interviews. Nothing has been everything and words added in the subject’s is own, though taken editing has pomle sace.”16 Like these increasingly garbled cautionary remarks, Kelly’s parody or pastiche of verbatim theatre shatters the possibility for this genre to conflate theatrical representation with its other: lived events and experiences.

  • 17 ibid. p. 52, Kelly’s emphasis.
  • 18  ibid. p. 75.
  • 19  Premiered at Paris’s théâtre National de la Colline. See théâtre National de la Colline, 2011.
  • 20  Werner, 2011.

9The interviewer, who bears the same name as the author, Kelly, even reveals the tricks of the verbatim trade, admitting to Donna, “Sometimes I’ll ask direct questions that I know the answers to because it helps to shape your answers as a statement when I take out my questions. […] It makes it more dynamic.17 The interviewees in Kelly’s play ostensibly edit and shape their testimonies. Dr Millard exclaims to the fictional Kelly, “Look, don’t put that in. […] I know I said it but I don’t want people to know I said it.”18In Kelly’s play, facts thus become an elusive abstraction both at the level of subject matter, where it is never clear how Donna’s children died, whether LKS exists, whether Lynn’s support for her daughter is genuine or self-interested; and from the perspective of the vertiginous dialogue – a “verbatim” transcription of fictional speeches by an interviewer and interviewees who calculate, shape and slant their every word. In the French production, Occupe-toi du bébé (2011), the director Olivier Werner played Kelly, emphasising the fact that the verbatim interviewer/playwright is a dramaturg who subjectively interprets and stages the world around us.19Werner set the play in a television studio where, throughout the first half, interviewees were filmed by an on-stage camera, their faces projected onto a huge screen. This dramaturgical choice exposed before the spectator’s eyes the means by which lived events and experiences are mediatized, how lives become news stories.20

  • 21  For further analysis of the play’s self-reflexive exposure of the processes of reporting and recon (...)

10As the behaviour of some characters, notably Millard and the mother, becomes increasingly exaggerated and implausible, and the play takes the shape of a medley of montage jump-cuts, Kelly transforms a serious investigation into the tragic issue of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and a potentially wrongful sentence, into a playful indictment of any truth claims that verbatim theatre might make.21His play and its stagings thus highlight, self-consciously, the intervals between lived events and experience and their witnessing, and between witnessing and its staging – categories that bleed into each other, yet are separate bodies.

11Kelly’s play stands apart from the others to which I now turn because, to varying degrees, they all treat “reality” via verbatim techniques, whereas Kelly’s play treats and critiques these techniques themselves. The three verbatim plays I analyse, feature in the Decade cycle. Each in their own way either serves to endorse Kelly’s ambivalent position on verbatim theatre – My Name is Tania Head – or to contradict it with truth claims – Recollections of Scott Forbes and Epic. Decade is a series of nineteen vignette plays commissioned from authors based in the UK and USA to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 by Headlong theatre company, at the time directed by Rupert Goold. The collage comprises playlets of uneven quality ranging from pure fiction to documentary reconstruction.

  • 22  Allain and Harvie, 2006, p. 148-50.

12Instead of featuring in the National Theatre’s home on the South Bank, Decade was staged in Commodity Quay, a nineteenth-century trading hall in - Saint Katherine Dock -on the Thames in East London. Site-specific performance generally aims to enhance the relationship of the non-theatrical reality of a site to the performance and to its audience.22 However, the scenography, designed by Miriam Buether, did nothing to throw into relief the specificity either of Commodity Quay, or of Saint Katherine Dock. The entrance to the auditorium had been transformed into a mock airport security area, with retractable tape barriers indicating to audience members where to queue, and actors in US border guard uniforms conducting visa interviews. After passing through “airport security”, we descended a plush red staircase that swept into a large space, where we were shown to our red velvet chairs and linen-covered tables by smiling, neatly presented waitresses and waiters. We were on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the WTC, in the Windows on the World restaurant. At either end, huge windows looked out onto the Manhattan skyline, crowned by the Empire State Building. This azure backdrop reproduced the all too recognizable brilliant sky against which the two planes collided into the WTC on 9/11. First, the décor highlighted the great paradox of Naturalism: to stage theatre’s other – the real world around us – in as convincing a manner as possible, theatre’s full arsenal of artificial means must be enlisted: backdrops reproducing the Manhattan skyline, restaurant napkins, cutlery, breakfast menus... Second, the production’s scenography masked the specificity of this potentially resonant site – Saint Katherine Dock, failing to exploit the potential relationship between the destruction of what had been the world’s most recognizable emblem of commerce – the World Trade Center (WTC) – and the east-end docks that had been a hub for London commerce until they were bombed during the Blitz, and that had been home to the London World Trade Centre, badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1996. The production thereby shielded spectators from the political violence that had taken place only steps away, in a manner that prevented the matters that arose in the Decade cycle from being readily associated with issues of terrorism and capitalism that constitute London’s history and contemporary reality. I shall return to the relevance of this hermetic sealing-off of London’s “reality” in my conclusion.

  • 23  Whereas this is the first play to appear in the published playscript, in which playwrights appear (...)

13The first play from the Decade series I discuss is Recollections of Scott Forbes by London-based author Samuel Adamson. This is conventional verbatim theatre in the sense that it transcribes, word-for-word, an eye-witness account, which it presents in a realist manner. The other verbatim pieces I discuss present variations on this format.23 Adamson’s play takes the form of an interview with Forbes, an expatriate UK national who had worked as a systems analyst in the WTC. He describes how he had fortuitously not gone to the office on 9/11 because the power supply had still not been reinstated in his part of the building after maintenance work that had taken place the previous weekend. He witnessed the attacks from the safe, nonetheless terrifying, distance of his apartment:

  • 24  Adamson, 2011, p. 6.

It sounded like a big juggernaut jumping in the road like it hit a block. I went to the window and looked down and there was nothing. Then I looked up, and I remember it was a Spielberg moment, it was that boom-boom-boom.24

For philosopher and film theorist Slavoj Žižek, so many witnesses of the 9/11 attacks expressed a sense of déjà vu because our only means with which to comprehend the “reality” of the attacks was via Hollywood movies:

  • 25  Žižek, 2002, p. 15.

For the great majority of the public, the WTC explosions were events on the TV screen, and when we watched the oft-repeated shot of frightened people running towards the camera ahead of the giant cloud of dust from the collapsing tower, was not the framing of the shot itself reminiscent of spectacular shots in catastrophe movies, a special effect which outdid all others […]?25

  • 26  Jackson, 2005, p. 30.

14The cognition with which television viewers assimilated the indiscriminate, illogical, terrifying reality of the attacks was shaped – framed – by the scenes of apocalyptic destruction visited upon US cities and citizens in Hollywood disaster movies like The Towering Inferno (1974) where helpless victims are trapped in a burning building resembling the Twin Towers, or Deep Impact (1998) where a mega-tsunami unleashed by a meteor obliterates most of the world’s coastlines, knocking down the Twin Towers. According to Forbes’s experience, this visual matrix provided by Hollywood was mobilized not only by television viewers, but also by eyewitnesses such as himself. Richard Jackson, author of Writing the War on Terrorism, quotes a bystander at the New York attacks who also resorts to the disaster movie trope: “I looked over my shoulder and saw the United Airlines plane coming. It came over the Statue of Liberty. It was just like a movie.”26 Forbes was in fact simultaneously an eyewitness and a television viewer, and recounts how he observed fire-fighting planes over his apartment and saw the collapse of the first tower, whilst watching these scenes unfold on television. Adamson’s play does not consciously throw up the fact that “reality” comprises positions and perspectives rather than certainty; or the uncertain status of testimony in relation to the events and experiences it represents. Indeed, Adamson’s realist, literal transcription of Forbes’s words masks these ambiguities, rather than highlighting them. However, Forbes’s mention of a “Spielberg moment” inadvertently illustrates the manner in which witnesses construct and narrate testimonies of experience via pre-existing frameworks of consciousness and comprehension, in this case, Hollywood movies. The play thus underscores, undoubtedly unwittingly, the fictional foundations upon which testimony is predicated. Citing witness statements verbatim does not necessarily bring readers and spectators any nearer to the “reality” of the event, since testimony itself is a version of “reality”, whatever that “reality” might be.

  • 27  Bush, 2001a.

15In Headlong’s production, Forbes was played in quiet, contemplative tones by Tobias Menzies, as four performers standing behind him looked up in amazement and terror, as if witnessing the planes soaring overhead and the Twin Towers being engulfed by balls of flame. Two of the performers wore casual urban wear – body warmers, baseball caps –, another wore grey trousers and a shirt and tie, and another, barefoot, wore a long African robe. Forbes himself wore work-from-home slacks and a cardigan, reiterating the fact that his life had been saved because he had not attended the office that day. The staging thus set the attacks against the backdrop of a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious New York, where every hue, belief and class had come under attack. A week after 9/11, a speech delivered by the then President George W. Bush sought to portray the USA as a “great country” founded on respect, dignity and the human worth of “brothers and sisters of every race”.27 It thus becomes clear that both Forbes’s testimony, and Headlong’s staging, provide subjective perspectives on the event, whether this be the depiction of the day as a disaster movie, or the city as a metropolitan melting-pot. Whether consciously or unconsciously, witness, play and production demonstrate the inevitable partiality of testimony, and of theatre.

16Like Recollections of Scott Forbes, Epic is a monologue. Written by British historian and television personality Simon Schama, who at the time of the attacks was working at Columbia University on Manhattan, Schama’s piece differs from Adamson’s, which is a verbatim transposition of a witness testimony, in that it appears in the register of a lecture that Schama himself has written. Schama, who casts himself as the “lecturer”, begins by asking, “So… how Historic is [9/11], then?” To which he replies:

  • 28  Schama, 2011, p. 199.

Well, since you ask, I’d say it fits the bill wouldn’t you? Bona fide Historical ENORMITY. Up there with the überbaddies: Sarajevo, 1914, Black Death, Fall of Constantinople, assassination of Lincoln, Treblinka. You name them. Ticks all the Turning Point boxes… Life not same afterwards; never will be; fate of world irrevocably changed; beginning of the end of something (say, American solo superpower ascendancy), end of the beginning of something else (jihadi annihilations) […].28

  • 29  Halliday, 2002, p. 29.

17Schama does not elaborate on the reasons why he elects 9/11 as one of the most “mega-epic” moments in global history, which is perhaps surprising given that he is an eminent historian. Many theorists would deem problematic his identification of 9/11 as the “beginning of the end of something”. Despite its sensationalist title, Middle-Eastern political specialist Fred Halliday’s Two Hours that Shook the World attempts to de-dramatize the significance of 9/11 by locating it within a broader historical context. Beginning with the Christian Crusades against the Muslim world that started in the eleventh century, Halliday cites a host of examples illustrating how 9/11 was not a “turning point”, since the historical realities from which it arose date back nearly a thousand years.29 Schama’s biased position forecloses on the geopolitical realities that Halliday develops, instead attempting to preserve intact the spectacle of “jihadi annihilations” that was relayed across the world.

  • 30 op. cit. p. 200.

18Schama seeks to justify himself. Contrary to what might be expected of a historian, his intention, he insists, is to provide “Not history”, “Just memories”, “the flotsam and jetsam of recollection”.30 He was in New York during the attacks, desperately trying to contact his wife, whose laboratory overlooked the WTC. He thus declares his incapability, perhaps understandably, to gain the intellectual distance required to construct an academic argument or to take a rational approach:

  • 31 ibid. p. 201.

Lesson Time. What did we learn? Expressions of horror at the evil man can do, too banal? Time for a disquisition on the calculus of American power? On the socioeconomic contexts of jihadism? Time to put together cause and effect? Get the perspective that distance lends? Well yes that’s entirely reasonable. Trouble is, I’m not.31

  • 32  Brecht, 2001, p. 46.

19Events can render eyewitnesses dumbstruck, capable of reacting only in emotional, subjective ways, and unable in the first instance to comprehend wider historical, political or economic contexts. However, it is unclear why Schama, writing ten years – a decade – after the event, does not opt for calmer, more detached reflection that might provide new or alternative perspectives on the attacks. At least he admits to his insistence on drawing from “memories” rather than “history”, although this binary opposition is fallacious, since decisions to include or exclude documents from the archives of history are as subjective as the affects and experiences that create our memories. It is deeply ironic – not intentionally so I suspect – that Schama’s play is entitled Epic, given the associations of this term with Bertolt Brecht’s theatre. Epic theatre, for Brecht, deconstructs an Aristotelian linear narrative which, for him, is incapable of containing the complexities of modern political, economic and social realities. He writes, “Today, when the human being has to be seen as “the sum of all social circumstances’ the epic form is the only one that can embrace those processes which serve the drama as matter for a comprehensive picture of the world”.32 Brechtian epic comprises a diffuse series of independent episodes, a jolting montage without a single unitary representation of the world, which enables spectators to envisage multiple possibilities and outcomes. Given its probably unwittingly Brechtian title, the highly polemical nature of Schama’s play, with its single authorial position, is therefore paradoxical. Concurrently, however, could Schama’s controversial and conservative partiality not highlight to the spectator that his version of reality is just that: a version?

  • 33  See Benedictus, 2011.

20Headlong’s staging choices added another level of subjectivity to the representations of 9/11 depicted in the nineteen plays. In their production, Schama’s lecture was edited into episodes that were inserted between other plays. Slick transitions between the playlets that each lasted around ten minutes were also generated by dance, movement and sometimes song, choreographed by Scott Ambler and performed by the cast, who doubled as dancers and actors of multiple roles. Routines were performed cabaret-style among and around spectators, on tables, on a raised oval dais in the centre of the theatre space, and on platforms at either end. Movement was at times slow and mournful, at times energized by New York City’s hip-hop vibe, at times frenetic and panicked. For example, Part Two opened as air stewards stood in a circle around a man wearing a Middle-Eastern keffiyeh headscarf and putting on a backpack, presumably filled with explosives. The safety procedures they demonstrated in unison became increasingly frantic. Press critics were almost unanimous in their praise for this exuberant theatrical flair, whereas I struggled to find a justification for the song and dance, which appeared little more than facile illustration of the text, or diverting entertainment.33 Having said this, Schama’s lecture and the choreographed movement that accompanied it were juxtaposed in illuminating ways. As actor Tom Hodgkins delivered the lecture, performers danced on the central platform. During one extract from the lecture, two women in dark office wear and heels, the dust on their shoulders a poignant reminder of the Twin Towers’ collapse, were joined by Forbes. The three danced to the aggressive chugging of electric guitars, office papers or newspapers in hand. The predominance of grey suits, and the fact that the lecture was delivered in imperious tones and an American, rather than Schama’s own British, accent, by a middle-aged, greying man in a grey suit, seemed to cast Schama’s words in a neoconservative light. It appeared that Headlong was emphasizing Schama’s distinctly right-wing subject position. The subjectivity implicit in any rendering of real events is inadvertently indicated in Adamson’s play with the reference to the disaster movie tropes mobilised by onlookers in order to make sense of 9/11; this subjectivity is more overtly demonstrated by Schama, whose Epic is an unashamedly prejudiced and patriotic, self-avowedly “unreasonable” account of the attacks, that Headlong’s staging seemed to recognize, and to throw into relief in ironic tones.

21My Name is Tania Head, a piece contributed to Decade by young British playwright Alexandra Wood, brings this discussion of verbatim theatre full circle by throwing into serious doubt, like Kelly’s Taking Care of Baby, this dramatic mode’s truth claims. However, whereas Kelly’s play is faux verbatim, Head’s appears to employ authentic verbatim, but the source material itself, which is supposedly based on a real-life event – 9/11 – is later revealed to be faux. Wood’s play is the monologue of a real-life survivor of 9/11, though with a perverse twist. Tania Head, who worked for Merrill Lynch investment bank, was on the seventy-eighth floor of the WTC’s South Tower when United Airlines Flight 175 struck. Only nineteen people from this, or the floors above, survived. Head’s fiancé, Dave, who worked in the North Tower, perished. Head went on to become President of the WTC Survivors’ Network – a support group for tens of thousands of people –, was prominent as a Ground Zero tour guide, and was the media face of the catastrophe, recounting tales of horrific experience and miraculous survival.

  • 34 Cutting Edge: The 9/11 Faker, dir. James Bluemel, 2008. My thanks to the author, Alexandra Head, fo (...)
  • 35  Chéroux, 2007, 2009.

22Wood reconstructed Head’s monologue from the witness testimonies she had heard in a television documentary on the “survivor”.34 Head’s/Wood’s accounts of the atrocities she witnessed while escaping from the WTC are significant for their inclusion of graphic scenes of the actual events that were often censored out of the press and media. Sociological studies of 9/11 testify to the media’s homogeneous, limited, narrow coverage. Photo-historian Clément Chéroux explains that, while the first images of the attacks included graphic scenes of the horror, the overwhelming majority of newspaper front covers around the world the next day featured the more anonymous spectacles of the planes lodged in the burning towers, or of Ground Zero.35As Žižek notes with no little sarcasm:

  • 36 op.cit. p. 13.

no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of dying people … in clear contrast to reporting on Third World catastrophes, where the whole point is to produce a scoop of some gruesome detail: Somalis dying of hunger, raped Bosnian women, men with their throats cut.36

  • 37  Wood, 2011, p. 227-33.

23To conform reasonably with accepted norms of public sensibility, the bodies of killed or maimed nationals from any given country (the USA, the UK or France, for example) are presented intact, their faces serene. Wood’s evocation, via Head’s monologue, of the choking “smell of burnt skin”, the “burning clothes and flesh”, the sight of “people’s insides”, is significant in that it demonstrates how theatre can candidly include dimensions of theatre’s other – the horror and devastation left by violent attacks – that are often carefully calibrated by the media in order not unduly to disturb the spectator’s viewing experience, and not, in the case of warfare, to interfere with feelings of patriotism.37

24Head’s description of her traumatic experiences becomes increasingly elliptical, faltering, illogical:

  • 38 ibid. 2011, p. 231.

Yes his name was Dave, as I’m sure you know from any number of sources. I’ve done interviews before. Three’s nothing new to say.
Fighting over a cab, yes, it hasn’t changed. And it’s hardly going to now, is it.
I’ve spoken to the parents of Welles Crowther.
Why? Is there a job at the paper you have me in mind for?38

Žižek makes the important point that the reality of trauma cannot necessarily be recounted in logical, grammatically coherent speech:

  • 39  Žižek, 2009, p. 3.

If the victim were able to report on her painful and humiliating experience in a clear manner, with all the data arranged in a consistent order, this very quality would make us suspicious of its truth. The problem here is part of the solution: the very factual deficiencies of the traumatized subject’s report on her experience bear witness to the truthfulness of her report, since they signal that the reported content “contaminated” the manner of reporting it.39

25However, Head’s story does not fall apart because the reality of trauma might have intervened into her ability to narrate, but for another reason.

  • 40  Fisher and Guglielmo, 2013.
  • 41  Dunlap, 2012.

26Journalist Robin Fisher and filmmaker Angelo Guglielmo reveal in their detailed book that Tania Head was in fact the Spanish citizen Alicia Esteve Head, who was in Barcelona, not New York, in September 2001.40 She never worked for Merrill Lynch; she never had a boyfriend called Dave. The revelation of this hoax resulted in Alicia Head being dismissed as President of the Survivors’ Network. In 2008, the Network then received an e-mail from a Spanish account, informing that Alicia Head had committed suicide. As if the subterfuge were not already dizzying, on the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks one of the authors of the book on Tania Head spotted her in New York.41 At the end of Wood’s play, Head declares:

My name is Tania Head and on the fifth of February two thousand and eight I committed suicide.

Two days later, would they need longer to, no, one day later, on the sixth of February two thousand and eight an email appeared in the inboxes of various members of the WTC Survivors’ Network informing them of my suicide.

  • 42 Wood, 2011, p. 232.

I set fire to myself and went the way I should have gone.
I threw myself from a building. Like Dave did. Perhaps.
No, I set fire to myself. In the middle of a field, so no one.
They’ve stopped reading.
They think this is lies. Perhaps.42

27Whether or not spectators of Decade were aware of the real-life scandal of Tania Head’s hoax – there was nothing in particular to indicate this to the audience in the Headlong production – they become aware, by the end of Wood’s play, that something is up. Inconsistencies surrounding her suicide – did she die from self-immolation or self-defenestration? – are irrelevant: the fact is, she even faked her own death. Any rendering of “reality” has been replaced by a catalogue of “lies”, as Head herself calls them.

  • 43  Edited and directed by Alan Rickman, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre.
  • 44  Hughes’s argument would not be applicable to the partisan nature of Schama’s play, since he presen (...)

28For scholars or spectators familiar with verbatim theatre, the title My Name is Tania Head immediately evokes one of the first verbatim plays to make an impact, My Name is Rachel Corrie (2005), edited from e-mails and letters written by the eponymous protagonist, a US activist killed by an Israeli tank in Gaza.43 UK performance theorist Jenny Hughes states that, while this play was deemed undemocratic by some owing to its partial and partisan nature, its articulation of the stark realities of the Israeli occupation that habitually remain outside mainstream coverage, meant that it partook in democracy’s commitment to a plurality of voices.44 In My Name is Tania Head, language apparently relates the graphic, horrific reality of the victims’ and survivors’ experiences with more veracity, more candour, less concern for propriety and decorum, than the press did at the time. However, rather than pluralising the perspectives on 9/11, My Name is Tania Head draws attention to the problematic relationships between experience, language and “truth”. Etymologically, fact originates in the Latin “facere”, meaning “to do”. Facts – for example historical facts – are “done”, made, constructed. Wood’s play presents itself as verbatim in that it appears to quote from a witness testimony, but it is dialogue fabricated by the playwright. Unlike Kelly’s play, however, Wood’s is based on actual lived events, people and statements. Yet, on 9/11, Head was four thousand miles away from New York, and her statements were the product of her perverse imagination. My Name is Tania Head thus takes to the limit the notions proposed by Kelly: that a witness’s “facts” are but a fictionalized version of “real” events and experiences, themselves ambiguous and uncertain.

29I end by vindicating, tentatively, the virtuosity of the spectator. In Kelly’s Taking Care of Baby, a character states:

  • 45  Kelly, 2013.

We live in a world […] where everyone seems to be screaming at us that they’re telling us the truth and at the same time we believe less. So it has the opposite effect. Someone telling you, “This definitely is true” actually makes you think, “Is it?”45

  • 46  Phelan, 1997, p. 33, Phelan’s emphasis.

30It is paradoxical, but perhaps not surprising, that in a world increasingly sceptical about truth claims, UK theatre in the twenty-first century, notably verbatim, attempts to stage the “realities” it perceives around it with credulity. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories, Performance Studies scholar Peggy Phelan’s important meditation, written before 9/11, on private and public grief and healing, emphasizes the particular part played by performance in these processes. Performance can revisit, restage, rehearse the past, in ways illustrated by the three pieces from Decade. Concurrently, Phelan highlights the impossibility ever really to represent the other, namely the “reality” of past trauma: “The point is not so much to “find” the Other, but rather to play the drama in such a way that the stand-ins come to reveal that the kernel of the drama of the Other is that the Other is always a stand-in.46 Phelan recommends that we perform the absence of the “Other”, that we underline the inability of representation to contain real past experience.

  • 47 Tomlin, 2013, p. 12.

31Adamson’s and Schama’s forthright and unfaltering accounts of the 9/11 attacks afford the impression that they seek, with confidence, to “‘find’ the Other”, in Phelan’s words. Wood, however, like Kelly before her, reveals that “the Other is always a stand-in”: our presentation of “real” events or experiences is always haunted, yet never fully inhabited, by them. By troubling the epistemological categories of truth and authenticity in ways I have described, Wood and Kelly actively invite contemplation both on the fluidity of “real” experience, and on the impossibility of staging it, an impossibility that Adamson and Schama fail to acknowledge. Kelly’s and Wood’s self-conscious exposure of the fabrication of fact, their demystification of the ways in which any “reality” is morphed into narrative – whether testimonial, theatrical or both – is vital in theatre and in other cultural manifestations in the extent to which it encourages and facilitates informed, scrutable interrogations of how “reality” is ideologically constructed, presented and disseminated both in theatre, and elsewhere, in the media. Both Kelly and Wood reveal the essential truth, that we can never entirely get a grip on reality. In an important recent publication on the staging of reality in contemporary theatre, Acts and Apparitions: Discourses on the Real in Performance Practice and Theory, Liz Tomlin emphasizes the political significance of this self-reflexivity in the destabilization of any claims to authority.47

  • 48  Reinelt, 2011, p. 9.

32However, in a world increasingly saturated by twenty-four-hour news cycles that supposedly provide us with unlimited news coverage of the whole story; by the infinite cyber sphere that seemingly gives us the full picture of the intimate lives of celebrities and reality TV stars; and by the constant spin by governments who put theatricalized self-promotion before policy... as Kelly suggests, we are becoming more discerning as spectators. Seeing is no longer believing. Taking Care of Baby or My Name is Tania Head publicize the breach between “real” events, witnessing, and theatre, more openly than the other two plays. Recollections of Scott Forbes and Epic do not demonstrate the same level of sophisticated self-referentiality. However, I should like to argue that we cannot on the one hand credit the general public with becoming more discerning with regard to the mediatization of “reality” in their daily lives, and then assume that they will automatically be duped in the theatre. Do fairly informed spectators not know (witan) that as soon as they take their seats in the theatre, which advertises its fictionality precisely by calling itself theatre, any statement, however great its claims to documentary accuracy, is a negotiation between representation and the “real” world, between theatre and its other, “reality”? It is not so difficult to identify, as I have illustrated, that, whether they intend it or not, Forbes’s rendering of 9/11, Adamson’s reshaping of his account, Schama’s hyperbolic diatribe, and Headlong’s staging of the pieces, provide partial, subjective perspectives on the “reality” of 9/11, which are inflected by disaster movie imagery, ideologies of multiculturalism, conservative politics, or a parody of these politics. Moreover, no matter how much the Headlong production of Decade might have sealed spectators off from the “realities” of London beyond Saint Katherine Dock, it could not forbid them from drawing associations, as I did, between the 9/11 attacks and the UK capital’s status, like that of New York and Washington, as a centre for financial and military domination. As performance scholar Janelle Reinelt states, belief is as fluid and dynamic as the authenticity of documents.48Verbatim theatre, as with any theatre, can solicit our belief, but cannot guarantee it.

33Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books, 2009.

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1  Delculvellerie, 2006, my translation.

2  Henceforth I place “reality’ within quotation marks in order to emphasise this contingent, relative status.

3  See Rykner, 2011, p. 169.

4  Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965), entirely composed of testimonies by defendents and victims of the 1963-5 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, is often credited with being the first verbatim play. In the UK, Half the Picture¸ for which Richard Norton-Taylor and John McGrath edited testimonies from the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry, was the first of the Tricycle Theatre’s “tribunal plays”, which condensed public inquiries into verbatim plays. For broader discussions of the different theatrical responses to political violence in the twenty-first century, see Finburgh 2011 and 2014.

5  Many excellent works have been written on the theme of verbatim theatre including Paget, 1990; Hammond and Steward, 2008; Forsyth and Megson, 2009; Martin, 2010; Claycomb, 2011; Tomlin, 2013 (Chapter Four).

6  Paget, 1990, 60.

7  Directed by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares, premiered at the Tricycle Theatre, London.

8  Directed by Lloyd Newson, premiered at the National Theatre.

9  Kent, 2008, p. 164.

10  I argue against a position that I have previously upheld, where I criticize the claims of verbatim theatre to “objectivity” and “absolute truth”(Finburgh, 2011b).

11  Directed by Anthony Clark, premiered at the Birmingham Rep. For an account of Kelly’s works, see Rebellato, 2007.

12  Kelly, 2007, p. 29.

13 op. cit. 2007, p. 15.

14 ibid. p. 16.

15  In Clark’s production, the stage was bare except for a toy baby suspended in a box with an ornate border, surrounded by bombs and television screens. With this shrine-like symbol of infant mortality, the realism typical of documentary theatre was shot through with a more expressionist aesthetic.

16 op. cit. pp. 41, 71.

17 ibid. p. 52, Kelly’s emphasis.

18  ibid. p. 75.

19  Premiered at Paris’s théâtre National de la Colline. See théâtre National de la Colline, 2011.

20  Werner, 2011.

21  For further analysis of the play’s self-reflexive exposure of the processes of reporting and reconstructing events, see Young, 2009.

22  Allain and Harvie, 2006, p. 148-50.

23  Whereas this is the first play to appear in the published playscript, in which playwrights appear in alphabetical order, the actual production began with Matthew Lopez’s The Sentinels, a fictional piece about three widows coming together each year to commemorate the deaths of their husbands, killed in the attacks.

24  Adamson, 2011, p. 6.

25  Žižek, 2002, p. 15.

26  Jackson, 2005, p. 30.

27  Bush, 2001a.

28  Schama, 2011, p. 199.

29  Halliday, 2002, p. 29.

30 op. cit. p. 200.

31 ibid. p. 201.

32  Brecht, 2001, p. 46.

33  See Benedictus, 2011.

34 Cutting Edge: The 9/11 Faker, dir. James Bluemel, 2008. My thanks to the author, Alexandra Head, for this insight.

35  Chéroux, 2007, 2009.

36 op.cit. p. 13.

37  Wood, 2011, p. 227-33.

38 ibid. 2011, p. 231.

39  Žižek, 2009, p. 3.

40  Fisher and Guglielmo, 2013.

41  Dunlap, 2012.

42 Wood, 2011, p. 232.

43  Edited and directed by Alan Rickman, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre.

44  Hughes’s argument would not be applicable to the partisan nature of Schama’s play, since he presents a dominant, rather than a marginal, voice.

45  Kelly, 2013.

46  Phelan, 1997, p. 33, Phelan’s emphasis.

47 Tomlin, 2013, p. 12.

48  Reinelt, 2011, p. 9.

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Référence électronique

Clare Finburgh, « “Theatre’s Other: Event and Testimony in British Verbatim Plays” »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 18 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Clare Finburgh

Clare Finburgh est maître de conférences en études théâtrales à l'université de Kent. Son domaine de recherches se consacre aux théâtres moderne et contemporain britannique, français et francophone. Elle prépare actuellement une monographie sur la notion de « spectaculaire » dans la représentation de la guerre et du terrorisme dans le théâtre britannique depuis 2001, qui paraîtra chez Bloomsbury. Sur le théâtre français, elle a coédité Contemporary French Theatre and Peformance (Palgrave, 2011). Elle a coédité aussi un recueil d’essais sur le théâtre et la politique de Jean Genet, Genet: Performance and Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) et coécrit un livre sur la mise en scène du même auteur (avec David Bradby, Routledge, 2010).

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