Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 11 August 2011

On the Record

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 20th July - 13th August 2011

Journalistic solidarity and international tragedy.

Daniel B. Yates

The shifting media spotlight. Photo by Tom Holloway.

International tragedy plays out differently now. With social media’s rolling connectivity we can travel the link-trail within minutes, getting ever closer to events and the people involved. We pass round tweets from those on the scene, on-the-fly blog posts by witnesses, press releases, youtube footage, the news before the news happens, a whole dissembled experience waiting for our (re)construction. This kind of universe, at its worst, is a tabloid bubble; we can be news-ticker Lenins totting up the dead, soundbyte junkies, sentiment whores, Twitter echoes or Facebook voyeurs. At its best it makes us our own editors, filtering the information we deem to be important, finding new political emphases and contexts, recursively inputting into the news cycle. One of the hopes for this universe is that solidarity might become closer with each click; that with each emergent protagonist, each poetic testimony, each dignified tweet, that this new media corpus might encourage identifications of the heart.

But is this the case? Because where solidarity becomes possible in new connected ways, those same ways also render it suspect. If social media is held to be devaluing real friendships and genuine interactions, if it fosters the pervasive fear that underneath all this “connectivity” countervailing tides of atomisation flow, as modernity accelerates and increasingly fills our lives with people we’ve never met, these extensions to hidden victims become just part of an immaterial experience. And perhaps, while this is in some way a universe of response, where response is its structural imperative, and where response can range from as well as retweets, likes, and links to digitised artwork, personal reflections, tracts, quick monographs — perhaps what is missing is that originating place of the real, a sustained encounter, where solidarity can be evoked, fleshed, and felt. On the Record, with its mixture of Verbatim testimony and theatrical devisement, its inspirational and daring characters, loosens the abstractions of international news tragedy; and over a sustained hour and a half, with a mixture of pathos, brusque levity, and piercing drama, rattles and shakes the audience into the centre of events.

Perhaps with a nod to The Tricycle’s most recent verbatim outing Tactical Questioning, as the audience filters in a lone man sits tapping at a computer. But while the play at The Tricycle used the deskbound image to convey the long bureaucratic drip of a public inquiry, On the Record, with the makeshift desk and laptop, works up the long nights, danger and insecurity involved in investigative journalism at the poorly-funded frontiers. The various stories link, whirl and cohere, like freeform chess, building a solid intricate trellis of an evening. Each story carries gut-punch power. Whether its the story of the brothers Lal and Lasantha Wickrematunge (played with grim élan by Paul Bhattacharjee and Selva Rasalingam) whose radical start-up Sri Lankan newspaper is under seige from authorities, and culminating in a quite unforgettable scene in which the brothers quietly converse, an eerie sense of predestiny hanging above a gut-dragging tragedy. Or Nathalie Armin’s tremblingly stern turn as Lydia Cacho, the Mexican journalist whose role in unearthing a paedophile ring saw her kidnapped and tortured, or as Elena Kostyuchenko, journalist for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, Michelle Bonnard giving a rueful shrugging account of Post-Soviet realpolitik.

On the Record cleverly skirts the pitfalls of sentimentality and hagiography. Far from simply singing the praises of six ethical crusaders, On The Record takes its time to address their concerns, to problematise their work, to flip it between explanatory frames. As the photojournalist Zoriah Miller, Trevor White journeys beyond the personality of adrenalin-fuelled men on the frontline, and shows us a man whose plainspeaking desire to document what he sees comes up against the political economies of media, which dictate the value and legibility of the images he is so wide-eyedly insistent on snapping. As he treads the line between intrusion and document, we are afforded a rare and nuanced depiction of the profession’s impulses and realities. The sophisticated, reflective voice of Amir Hass stresses that conceptions of journalistic integrity and probity cannot naively be linked to plain fact, unpicking the knot of objectivity, and eloquently putting the case for the necessity of political commitment. Across the board a disarming frankness and low-key matter-of-factness make for a subdued confrontation with this kind of work, but one that is all the more powerful for its refusal to grandstand.

Strikingly, Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen’s approach to characterisation is sweeping and political. Theatre’s liveness becomes a connective tissue to political realities across the world, twitching with the electric presence of these characters. As with the NT’s hit documentary musical London Road, here Verbatim is used as the meat to an artistic skeleton, and the effects are profound. The resonance granted to the words through the claim to “reality” lend urgency and poignancy, while the artristry allows for a symphonic acquisition of feeling and form. The dexterous blocking, as six journalists from different continents converge in the technically modest space of the Arcola, tonight bedecked with hanging microphones and a selection of television screens, is a testament to the economy of story-telling that could rival any scissor-happy news editor. And while some reviewers might look to make glib connections with News International, this is really about internationalism of a defiantly opposite stripe.


Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

On the Record Show Info

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Written by Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen

Cast includes Nathalie Armin, Paul Bhattacharjee, Michelle Bonnard, Kika Markham, Selva Rasalingam and Trevor White




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