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 The TheatreguideLondon Review

The Body of an American
Gate Theatre  January-February 2014

Paul Watson is a Canadian photojournalist whose picture of an American soldier's body in Somalia won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. Dan O'Brien was a grad student and aspiring playwright who was fascinated by Watson and instigated an e-mail correspondence and eventual meeting. 

This play, first produced in America two years ago, is an account of that relationship, the entire text, we are assured, taken verbatim from reality. 

Despite that assurance, this is not merely a documentary, the 'Paul Watson' and 'Dan O'Brien' of the play presumably fictionalised in some ways, and their experiences shaped to fit the playwright's vision, which is that the living-on-the-edge war correspondent and the cushioned middle-class academic shared some common unease and only vaguely sensed guilt that paralysed them both for years. 

The play's Paul not only has a problem with winning honours for witnessing someone else's tragedy, but fears that his photo, by shocking America and turning it away (at least temporarily) from foreign military involvement, kept President Clinton from intervening in the Rwanda genocide a couple of years later. 

The play's Dan, convinced there's a story here to tell, suffers from writer's block generated in part by a sense of his own pampered inadequacy. (Tellingly, it is only after meeting Watson in Arctic Canada, where the journalist is working, that Dan feels man enough to write his play, which is the one we're watching.) 

This is at its core a deeply offensive play, because the playwright's sympathies are clearly more with Dan than Paul, the would-be writer's difficulty writing his play and overcoming his suburban middle-class angst presented as more worthy of our attention and concern than the journalist's guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder and, by extension, as much more significant than the war atrocities that traumatised the journalist. 

Had O'Brien indicated any distance between himself and 'Dan', any sense of the character's triviality and irrelevance, then we might have had a satire on American provincialism, the kind of thinking that leads to news reports like 'Devastating Earthquake Strikes Turkey One American Injured'. But in fact he invokes the images of 9/11 and Mother Teresa to elevate the stature and significance of his hero's woes.

That it is palatable at all is largely to the credit of actors Damien Molony as Dan and particularly William Gaminara as Paul, who bring a warmth and reality to the characters and hold our sympathy despite the playwright's dubious values. 

Director James Dacre is to be credited for drawing these strong performances from the actors, though his decision to stage the play in the transverse leaves the audience as swivel-headed as at a tennis match.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Body Of An American - Gate Theatre 2014

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