The photo of a badly burned Kim Phuc running naked and screaming as napalm rains down on her destroyed village turned the American public against the Vietnam War and is still shocking now. In one frozen moment it captures the human cost of conflict in a way that no statistic ever could, distilling bloody pages of history into a child in horrendous pain.
But Kim Phuc kept on running, and lived. Following years of rehabilitation, she was used as a propaganda tool by Vietnam’s new Communist government and expected to fulfil her duties as a symbol of war while studying in Cuba. The visceral potency of her childhood image was co-opted to support someone else’s agenda.
Vivienne Franzmann’s assured and morally complex follow-up to Mogadishu – her debut play – explores the same issues of meaning and manipulation that dog the history of Kim Phuc’s picture. In doing so, it asks hard questions about the purpose of such imagery, the self-serving ways in which we view it and what gets cut out.
The Witness tells the fictional story of another little girl immortalised by an award-winning photo of atrocity, taken of her clutching the hand of her recently-murdered mother in a church in Rwanda. Skip forward 18 years and the child is now a woman, Alex, rescued and adopted by Joseph, the man behind the camera.
A split-level set – which deposits the audience haphazardly throughout Joseph’s scruffily arty Hampstead home – and the camera clicks and flashes that frame each act create a sense of being behind the scenes. One row of seating looks like the public gallery in a courtroom. Before a line is uttered, we are primed not to take anything at face value.
We don’t have long to wait for the first revelation: Alex has come home not because she is on vacation, but because she has dropped out of Cambridge. An unpleasant and racially-charged encounter with another student and the distressing appearance of her photo during a lecture has left her questioning who she is and where she belongs.
Alex’s angry account of the girl who cried during the lecture because the photo was sad and made her think about a recent break-up cuts close to the bone. After all, feeling bad can be narcissistically ennobling. We flick through the faces of victims of war and famine in the Sunday supplements and dazzle ourselves with our capacity for concern.
Pippa Bennett-Warner is excellent as Alex, portraying an intelligent, vulnerable and precocious young woman who maintains our sympathy while teetering on the edge of being unlikeable. Her early confidence that she can understand her Rwandan heritage simply by reading the right books smacks of the same educated arrogance that so riled her at university.
She has great chemistry with Danny Webb, who is similarly impressive as shambolic widower Joseph. Their relationship is spiky, affectionate and never straightforward. His bluster and cheerily foul language becomes an increasingly threadbare cover for his fear that someone will turn a lens on him – revealing secrets he has hidden like the slides that Alex finds in the basement, while trying to persuade him to accept an offer to exhibit his work.
In these unedited negatives Alex discovers what Joseph has cut out of the picture of her life: the boy he left behind when rescuing her. After she confronts him, he tells her that a man called Simon has emailed claiming to be the boy and, crucially, Alex’s brother. In spite of Joseph’s protests, Alex invites this stranger to visit. She is desperate to anchor her un-tethered life to something concrete.
What follows is a tussle between past and present, as Joseph struggles to hold on to his daughter as she forges a connection with Simon. The script’s glut of contemporary references – Alex and her father talk about everything from Grazia and Innocent Smoothies to Homes under the Hammer in the first half – becomes a flood as the characters draw cultural battle lines in language.
Director Simon Godwin uses the blocking to reflect the characters’ slip-sliding relationships, positioning Alex with Simon in the second half in ways that mirror and subvert her interaction with Joseph during the first. As each character takes their turn to act as parent or child, the stage is set for a revelation from Simon about the day that Alex’s mother died.
It is a testament to the wit and sharpness of Franzmann’s writing elsewhere in the play that the character of Simon is a letdown. David Ajala is an imposing presence, combining quiet dignity and determination. But after the multi-faceted messiness of Alex and Joseph, his cipher-like role of plot-mover is disappointing.
Any suggestion that Simon may not be who he says he is falls by the wayside in favour of a point about the lengths the media will go to for a picture. As a result, we get the outline of a character but little substance. Simon is suborned to being a catalyst for Western guilt – a problem for a play so preoccupied with the nature of representation.
But if Franzmann sometimes gets in her own way as she layers on the twists, she has written a gripping and thought-provoking piece of theatre. It seamlessly combines big ideas with a personal story to bring home the fact that photos, whatever their appearance implies, are never just an open window into the lives of others.