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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 25 March 2015

Responsibilities of Representation

Tess Berry-Hart is the author of the verbatim plays Someone To Blame, about the wrongful conviction of Sam Hallam (subsequently overturned after seven years in prison), and SOCHI 2014, a journey into the heart of the LGBT community in Russia ahead of the Olympic Games. Odessa Celt’s new double-bill, Game Theory, investigates two controversial medical practices through the lens of fictional stories. Here they compare crafting fictional and non-fictional characters, discuss the audience relationship, and debate what place theatre has in affecting social change.
Tess Berry-Hart

Tess Berry-Hart:  Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration for Game Theory?

Odessa Celt: Of course. Just over two years ago I saw a documentary on Channel 4 called ‘Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life’ hosted by Richard Dawkins. There were two moments that struck me quite profoundly. The first was a segment in which Dawkins reported on hymenoplasty – a cosmetic procedure in which women seek the assistance of a surgeon to repair their hymen. I didn’t know how I felt about the procedure – most of the women interviewed in the segment (though not all women in actuality), were young, Muslim women, who needed to bleed on their wedding night in order to prove they were virgins and to avoid a broad spectrum of consequences. I couldn’t marry this pressure with my belief that every woman has the right to determine what she does with her own body – but that right very much includes this procedure, regardless of the motivation. I shouldn’t impose my values onto someone choosing to do this.

TBH: That’s an interesting point right there – we are all largely a product of our own social background and expectations, so can these women really be said to be acting freely?

OC: That’s one of the questions I ask in the play. A patient who was interviewed in the documentary said something that struck me quite profoundly – she said that, yes, her actions were deceitful, but the (Western) society she lives in is saturated with deceptions and lies, so why would hers be remarkable? This attitude really struck me, and is the basis of the first play, Membrane. In it, a young British woman of Arab descent goes in search of the procedure – from a cosmetic surgeon she has known most of her life. The play explores both deception and cultural values, while also, I hope, de-bunking a few myths about the hymen.

TBH: And how about Mutiny, how did that come about?

OC: Mutiny is actually inspired by the same documentary, from a segment in which Dawkins has his own genome sequenced on the air. I did some research into the procedure, because I think one thing that defines humanity is our quest for knowledge – particularly knowledge about ourselves. We want to know ourselves. Our genes, we think, can tell us things. Or can they? In the course of my research I came upon the assertion that, by 2019, the technology would be in place to sequence a newborn baby’s genome immediately after birth. Once again, I thought, ‘There’s a play in there.’ My play puts two new parents in the pressure cooker of deciding whether to sequence their son’s genome. What will they do with the results? How will society at large treat him? How will they raise him?

A geneticist we met with (and who will be joining us for a post-show discussion on genomics) likened the whole thing to Oedipus, and she was so right. If we know our fate, how do we behave? Can we escape it, or are we destined?

TBH: That’s an interesting mesh of themes you’re using in two quite different ways – how much autonomy can any of us actually have, how much are we formed by our genes and culture?

OC: Exactly – in many ways we’re no further along in understanding ourselves than the Greeks were. The same questions preoccupy us – although now we call it nature and nurture.

TBH: I love theatre taking on scientific and moral issues like those, it’s such a rich field of possibilities and ethical conundrums.

OC: Well, conundrum is definitely the right word for both of the plays. I believe it was David Greig who said that many of his plays are ways of working out how he feels about a particular thing, of posing a question for himself and trying to answer it through a story. I’d say that’s definitely true of me with these plays, and with Membrane in particular – the debate between Paul and Halima is largely the debate I have with myself.

TBH: I know what you mean – I’m always amazed at how, even if I feel that an issue is cut and dried, once I write a character who is passionately arguing the opposite opinion, I almost convince myself.

OC: I think, in some respects, you have to, if it’s going to work. That lends itself nicely to the thing I’ve been wanting to ask you about, which is (nerd alert!) research. I worried that the research I was doing might eclipse the story, so instead I started with the story, to make sure it was solid. I’m really interested to hear about your research process – I am a great admirer of both of your pieces of verbatim theatre. I thought they both had an incredible energy to them. I expect your research was not only different for each piece, but likewise also incredibly different to my own, very fictional, pieces. Could you walk me through your process for Someone to Blame?

TBH: In verbatim, it’s hard not to fictionalise a real situation in search of “the story” – in the same way history is written by the victors, news is what a copy-editor makes it. But in a court situation, the adversarial process is itself a story – ie, which story can the prosecutor or the defence get the jury to believe? To my eyes, Sam Hallam’s story was very clear; he was convicted of murder after an evening gang-fight involving almost twenty-five people, because two witnesses swore they had seen him about to strike the fatal blow. Sam always maintained he had not been in the fight, although he had no alibi to prove it.

OC: So what convinced you that Sam was actually innocent?

TBH: Well, based on an examination of court transcripts and comparison of witness statements, it became clear that the two convicting witnesses had actually changed their stories after Sam’s identity had been suggested to them, while forensic phone evidence (which had strangely disappeared during the police investigation) surfaced which pointed to him being in a pub a couple of miles away at the time. We read in the transcripts that one of the witnesses had actually tried to go back on his convicting statement in court but had not been allowed to do so. David [Mercatali, the director] also interviewed other witnesses to the fight (there had been nearly fifty people watching) who all said that Sam was not there. Our story was therefore that Sam was the victim of a miscarriage of justice based on misidentification, and we could present the facts – taken from certified documents and verbatim witness statements – to prove it.

OC: How did you get hold of all the legal documents that you used for research?

TBH: Well we had joined the Sam Hallam Campaign which was pushing for Sam’s case to be reviewed and referred back to the Court of Appeal, so the campaign actually had all the relevant court transcripts and witness statements that we needed. Because the process took four years, with many leaps forward and setbacks along the way, the draft of the play changed constantly, with more information coming out bit by bit. For instance, the Criminal Cases Review Commission – an organisation whose job it is to review cases and decide on whether they should be referred back to the courts – investigated and came up with more evidence, all of which went into the play. And wonderfully, in a case of life imitating art, six weeks after our production at the King’s Head Theatre finished, the Court of Appeal overturned Sam’s conviction after only three hours.

OC: I remember when that happened – you must have been unbelievably thrilled! That re-write process must have been an incredible amount of work – to not only keep up with the case unfolding in real time, but also to create a play from it. I imagine that the process involved a lot of editing and re-structuring of dialogue in order to make a dynamic piece of theatre.

Someone to Blame at the King's Head Theatre

Someone to Blame at the King’s Head Theatre

TBH: Generally, I tried to keep editing to a minimum, although I often needed to contract the sentences or exchanges somewhat (cutting out ums, ahs, divergences and detours) but I made especially sure that we did not put words into peoples’ mouths or suggest through inference that they said something other than they did. Sam’s case was imminently due to be heard at the Court of Appeal -so saying or doing anything in the play – either through character dialogue, event juxtaposition or merely inference – that was untrue, or which substantially prejudiced the facts, could have landed us in legal hot water and hurt Sam’s chances of being released. I’ve got a law degree so I made sure that everything in the play could be referenced and certified, and that there was nothing included that was libellous or that was not already in the public domain (usually through online newspaper coverage).

OC: In an oddly analogous way, I feel I’ve faced a similar challenge in writing fictional characters and in the attempt to represent them fairly: in Membrane, the character of Halima is very much an individual person with an individual story, but she could be seen to represent a wider group or population. As a British woman of Arab descent, there is a sense in which she could be viewed as representative of her demographic.

To that end, I’ve tried hard to carve out a distinct role for her that defies cultural stereotyping – she loves and honours her family, but also knows exactly how to navigate the world around her. I’ve had strong responses to the *idea* of a fictional character whose world I don’t personally belong to, which has been a challenge as well as something of a blessing – it not only forced me to do my research and understand each of her moments and intentions, but it also made me look inside myself to find how I could relate to Halima. I also come from an immigrant background that is closely tied to its origins, and so once I began to think of Halima’s inner life as similar to my own, I felt a little more freedom in shaping her. When your family really emphasises staying connected to its roots, you feel as though you lead a sort of double life.

Your characters, conversely, are all living, breathing people: what challenges (but also advantages) did you encounter in ‘creating’ characters out of pre-existing individuals, particularly in Someone To Blame?

TBH: All of our characters (although we changed some names to protect privacy) were rooted in real life, we took the essential words from their sworn statements or the recorded court transcripts. This was a “live” legal case so we took our responsibilities extremely seriously. I totally agree with your point about fair representation of people and the judgments made on their culture by extension – for us this actually became more of an issue during rehearsal and in actors’ interpretation – we didn’t want the prosecution witnesses to come across as “baddies” or the judges to be portrayed as “prejudiced” or Sam and his friends to come across as “hoodies”. A lot of David’s direction was based upon each character finding the truth of themselves; it’s totally possible for someone to say something inaccurate whilst being wholly convinced of the rightness of what they are saying, for instance.

Tess Berry-Hart's Sochi 2014. Photo: Nivine Keating

Tess Berry-Hart’s Sochi 2014. Photo: Nivine Keating

OC: I know what you mean. Mutiny is set in something if a near-future, in which parents that have just given birth are given the option of having their newborn’s genome sequenced. Although my characters understand the process, I’ve also given them the freedom to understand it wrong, and to be totally convinced of that inaccuracy – because humans do that, as you’ve just said. In a sense, that’s what makes the idea of genome sequencing intriguing and worrying to me – we’re fallible creatures but we crave information, and having this kind of information in the hands of fallible creatures could work out just fine… or could go horribly wrong. I’ve tried to present both sides of the argument so that the audience can make up its own mind, and that’s true for both plays – the characters make serious choices that I hope the audience will respond to and discuss.

TBH: Wow – as a parent, I don’t think emotionally I could do it, even if logically I thought it might be beneficial to minimise the risk of disease. Interesting isn’t it – leaving things up to fate again. OC: Indeed! Could I ask you quickly: in Someone To Blame, you made us, the audience, a character. How did you conceptualise the audience relationship, and did that change over time?

TBH: To be honest, to start with, the “audience character” was actually me and David listening to campaign leader Paul May telling us Sam’s story. Paul’s voice was incredible – a bluff northerner who had grown up around gang fights in Manchester’s Moss Side, put himself through university and been involved in many human rights campaigns including the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. We needed a strong narrative link to pull the story together, and Paul’s voice provided that link; he was from a similar background to Sam, and he could explain the legal issues and problems in a way that anybody could understand. Later as the play took shape, the audience became the confidante of the characters, the direct mode of address came from the way that much of the first part of the play was modelled on interviews, and finally during the court scenes, the audience itself became the jury, with each lawyer striving to convince them of the “real story.”

The audience became really involved in the play and the feedback we had was incredible – people felt they had really been part of the jury on the case, which, in a sense, they had been; we asked them to play jury and judge, and decide whether, on the facts, they thought that Sam Hallam should have been convicted.

OC: That’s so interesting. I remember that moment when I became a member of the jury – and for my part, I felt culpable, because I knew that the actual jury had convicted him.

TBH: That’s fantastic, that’s what we were striving for. Luckily the Appeal judges saw otherwise.

OC: So to wrap up, because I’ve got to dive back into rehearsal in a minute: David Mamet has said that the theatre is not a place to deal with social issues, but rather to grapple with spiritual ones. Do you think it’s as cut and dry as that, or is the spiritual tied up in the social? Can we have one without the other?

TBH: That’s horseshit, frankly. Theatre’s a wide enough field for all sorts of forms and approaches – I can’t stand people saying “oh, theatre isn’t a place for politics.” One of our more negative reviews for STB – and we had a few who called us biased or a blatant propaganda campaign (they probably felt rather silly after the Court of Appeal’s decision) – said “I’m all for justice, but I’m all for theatre too, and this isn’t it.” (You can’t find it online now, strangely enough). In Sochi 2014, we celebrated the rights of the Russian LGBT community by putting their voices of love and experiences of oppression onstage, and attacked Putin’s policies which effectively criminalised expression of LGBT expression of affection and identity. We protested at the idea that the Sochi Olympics should be allowed to go ahead without criticism, whilst the world’s leaders, international companies and the athletes remained silent. And weeks after the Games, Putin showed his true colours with the Ukrainian invasion and the downing of airplane MH17. Theatre’s about people, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum or on a pedestal, otherwise we could never have helped Sam get out of prison, or raised money for LGBT groups in Russia. It’s for street-fighting, it’s about creating beauty, it’s about examining the status quo and it’s about making changes in the world, otherwise really, what IS theatre for?

Game Theory runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 31 March – 18 April 2015.

‘Staging the Facts: Science in Performance’ – a discussion of the ethics and responsibilities of depicting science on stage – will follow the performance of Game Theory on Thursday 2 April. Chaired by Mary Halton and delivered in partnership with Exeunt Magazine, the discussion will feature Odessa Celt, co-artistic director of Analogue Theatre Hannah Barker, Artistic Director of LAStheatre Barra Collins and LAStheatre collaborator and Lecturer in Biochemical Engineering at UCL, Dr Tarit Mukhopadhyay. The discussion is free to ticket-holders of that evening’s performance.

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