The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Tunnels July 2010
American writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen specialise in verbatim theatre, interviewing people connected to a real-world story and shaping their testimony into a script performed by actors.
Their previous piece, The Exonerated, gave voice to convicts wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, and this new work is based on interviews with displaced Iraqis in a Jordanian refugee camp.
Unsurprisingly, their stories are all unhappy ones - you don't meet too many jolly people in a refugee camp - though it may be mildly surprising that they are not unrelentingly anti-American.
Alongside the imam held in Abu Ghraib prison for over a year on trumped-up charges are the couple who just got caught in the middle of Sunni-Shia fighting among their neighbours; next to the woman whose family were killed by an American bomb sit the theatre director and the artist who ran afoul of resurgent fundamentalists.
They aren't even unrelentingly tragic - aside from having to leave Iraq, the artist and director seem happy enough, and Blank and Jensen include a playboy dermatologist whose biggest complaint is that the bombing of Baghdad forced him to do some real doctoring for a few days.
Of course the Western invaders are ultimately held to blame for everything, if only for turning loose the home-grown horrors, and in one of the most forceful passages of the script the imam warns that, in a culture built on long memories, it will be generations before the West is forgiven.
The purpose of a theatrical event like this is to put human faces on the victims and break through our built-up immunity to TV reports and newspaper statistics. But the stories presented are so generic and predictable that I suspect many will find their immunity intact, and your response to this production is likely to depend on your politics.
Those who enter sympathetic to the compilers' position will have their emotions reinforced, but I doubt if many others will be significantly enlightened or converted.
Production and staging are minimal, with the cast lined up in chairs and taking turns stepping forward to tell another piece of their individual stories, and the characters are generally too static and single-dimensional for the actors to do much with them.
Demosthenes Chrysan gives the imam considerable energy and moral force, mainly by speaking louder than anyone else, and Fajer Al-Kaisi takes a translator on a journey from glib joking to being sobered by the tales he has to relay.
The show is being performed in a cavern directly below the tracks of Waterloo Station, evidently the most inconvenient, theatrically inadequate and unpleasant location the Old Vic could find for its satellite venue.
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