Dan O’Brien’s award-winning play is the third London premiere in as many years to focus on the photographer, and it’s the best of a very fine bunch. Fiercer and more nuanced than Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, more considered than Vivien Franzmann’s excellent The Witness, The Body of an American is as richly poetic as it is pixel sharp. It’s the document of a relationship that began as art and became something like therapy, it’s a play about violence and the power of the image, and of facing the difficult truths about your privileged place in the world.
The play develops from a correspondence between its author and Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Paul Watson. Emails ping back and forth as the two performers shift in and out of these real-life characters, a formal looseness disguising its staggering precision of effect. Dan wants to dig down into what makes Paul tick, where his work comes from and where it has taken him, but Paul is recalcitrant and elusive. Dan has been writing a play about ghosts, but his new living, breathing subject is proving similarly ethereal and troubling.
O’Brien’s central theme seems to be the responsibility of art, the terrible danger that exists when stories are created or told. Paul has been haunted by the photograph that made his career, he proposes a twisted butterfly effect logic to his feelings, with his captured image a cog in a terrible machine that brought the twin towers crashing down, but in reality the cause seems less spectacular and more sub-dermal. Paul fears he has taken something away with him when he snapped the picture of a mutilated American soldier, that something is clinging onto him. Dan is haunted too, by his motives for writing, the origin of the tropes he sees woven through his work. Dan is keeping something at a distance with his plays about the dusty, fang-free past, Paul’s entire life seems to have that same quality, there’s a film of cliché that he’s drawn between himself and his experiences. When Paul talks about lying on his bed while the girlfriend who sexually rejects him masturbates under the duvet, we detect the same numbing veil that he enjoys from behind his camera.
In between this meeting of exiles, O’Brien allows Paul’s experiences to narrate a history of late 20th century atrocity, where what he twice calls ‘this never-ending war on terror’ is understood as a cruel feedback loop that has emerged from decades of violence. O’Brien suggests images from Watson’s own portfolio as well as the author’s own collection to accompany the text, and these are brilliantly realised in director James Dacre’s uncompromising production. The action and the audience are trapped in a submarine grey ‘bunker’ by designer Alex Lowde, with the performers contained in a narrow traverse and banked by two large video screens that fizz and flicker through images that are often unbearable. Comfort is not an option, physically or mentally, as Lowde rightfully encases the play in what is essentially a machine designed for maximum confrontation.
The challenging text is impressively wrangled by William Gaminara and Damien Molony, who flit between dozens of incidental characters as well as sudden impersonations of one another’s characters with superb clarity. There’s a bone dry wit to O’Brien’s script as well as an excellent eye for oddities of expression which both performers skewer perfectly. The bleak comedy of Dan’s stay with Paul in an Arctic ‘hotel’ is a masterpiece of understated humour. If Dan’s monologues occasionally drift too close to the psych couch, O’Brien’s command of language and Molony’s open performance keep things centred.
The Body of an American is a stunning, complex piece of theatre that refuses to be tamed or drawn into conclusions. There is no moralising or sanding down of rough or difficult edges, there is precious little concern given for the lack of a dramatic arc or the fragmentation of characters and perspective. Its the story of two lives flicking through one another for answers, a record of vital but insoluble moral questioning.