Features Published 6 July 2015

London Road: On Ethics in Verbatim Theatre

Alice Saville discusses the work of Alecky Blythe and the perils of translating documentary theatre to the screen.
Alice Saville

London road film

The precise moment I lost faith in the authenticity of London Road was when its director Rufus Norris explained to a sympathetic, chuckling audience at a post-screening discussion that he and writer Alecky Blythe had traipsed back to Ipswich late in the production process, exclusively to tape Julie (or rather, the real woman whose words she speaks) saying two words: “Come in.” They’d realised they needed a scene between her and a fellow community organiser, so went to great lengths to source one.

The anecdote was meant to demonstrate their obsessively meticulous artistic process and loving devotion to “the truth”. But to me it did the opposite – if they’re contriving scenes from a cut-and-paste of dialogue snippets, they’re collecting intonation, not reality. I started to see their verbatim approach as a pulpy papier mache that takes whatever form they want to, given substance and texture by real people’s stories, but not shape.

London Road’s first outing was a vastly successful 2011 National Theatre production in which playwright Alecky Blythe used characters and words directly harvested from hundreds of interviews to show the recovery of an Ipswich street in the aftermath of the 2006-7 murders of five sex workers. The recently-released film version steepens the play’s gradient of gritty, miserable opening to cathartic flower show finale. It emphasises the surge in community spirit after sex workers left the area by literally saturating the screen in colour, after a monochrome start that’s enlivened only by the blood-red of a twirling shopping centre Santa. Whatever Alecky Blythe intended, the film has the inappropriate loveliness of bouquets at a crime scene: a bittersweet, heartwarming docudrama that saves all its love for its interviewees, not the women brutally murdered in their midst.

It’s no coincidence that verbatim theatre tackles subjects that aren’t normally allowed in the theatre until they’re at least 100 years old. To write a musical about the Ipswich murders would be appallingly tasteless: even the layer of camp surrounding the story of Jack the Ripper is only skin deep. Verbatim theatre gets around this discomfort by acting as a kind of performative journalism, a powerful way of sucking the audience into the whirling vortex of stories and characters that surround major news events. One of the first big successes of verbatim theatre was American playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith’s Fire in the Mirror, which gathered 26 testimonies about the Crown Height Riots in Brooklyn in 1991: she performed them herself. Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed Wyoming locals about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in 1998, the year he died, to produce The Laramie Project. Again, the writers performed the interviews themselves, and became characters in the piece too – explaining their own experiences as outsiders and documentarians.

True to stereotype, the current British wave of verbatim theatre practitioners are more self-effacing – to the point of rubbing themselves off the page altogether. The playwright as journalist is invisible. A decade ago, David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the National Theatre used real words to cut through the spin of Blairite Britain, but at least the narrative sophistication and rapid-fire verbal jousting made it clear that this was well-polished pebble, rough edges lost. Playwright Michael Wynne’s Who Cares at the Royal Court amped up the realism in a bewildering look at the NHS, with borrowed words combined with a promenade through rooms decked out like their hospital counterparts, right down to the peeling public health posters – but the hubbub of voices never came together in a single chorus.

By contrast, Rufus Norris and Alecky Blythe’s film of London Road leads you on a clear, emotive path through real events, swept along by Adam Cork’s incongruously beautiful score: you’re left singing “Begonias, petunias, um, impatiens and things.” Blythe’s use of verbatim is distinctive for its exactness, for retaining every one of theses “um” and “err”s from her original interviews. In both play and film the actors rehearsed with headsets to exactly replicate their sources’ accents and intonation, with a level of perfection congratulated by the original, real voices being played at the piece’s end.

But this implicit boast of authenticity when applied to product that’s been crafted with as much an eye for a nice narrative arc as for the truth seems, at heart, as contrived as a ‘wildflower meadow’ in a carefully planned municipal planted scheme.And there’s the problem of bias, as well as artistry, too. London Road looks at the aftermath of the Ipswich murders almost entirely through their impact on the residents of the ordinary street where the murdered women sold sexual services. Alecky Blythe has said, at interview, that “I wanted to know what it was like to live a few doors up from a serial killer. They were like: ‘Yes, we’ll tell you about that, because it’s been a fuckin’ nightmare.'” But the reason these residents were so happy to chat is because they saw the women as some kind of suburban scourge – feral and swearing – and like it or not, we see the murders through their uncompassionate eyes.

The post show Q&A at Peckhamplex brought out all the tensions between the film as a dramatically satisfying work of art on the one hand, and a slickly-produced but essentially biased piece of incomplete reportage on the other. The first few questions faltered around the production process: by no means evident from the title cards used in the opening credit. Olivia Coleman and Rufus Norris seemed ill at ease – Coleman cracked jokes, Norris blustered. Then Cari Mitchell, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes stood up. “I don’t know where to start,” she began, but her takedown of the film’s politics was fluent and devastating. As she explained, a majority of women go into sex work to support themselves and their families, rather than to maintain drug addictions, as depicted in London Road. Most are mothers. The reason they are forced to work on the streets is the ban on brothels, which rules out safe, collective ways of working. Before the murders, the Ipswich police had embarked on a series of arrests and crackdowns (full story here) on prostitution which had forced the women into the London Road area – and, perhaps, encouraged them to rely on murderer Steve Wright as a friend who’d let them use his spare room to see clients.

The dismissive tone of Rufus Norris’s answer suggested he’d barely considered the politics of a work that allows the story of five murdered woman to be told by the community that desperately wanted them gone. He argued that since the police weren’t allowed to publicly comment on their work, it was wrong to expect them to be included. He mentioned that some of the families had given their blessing. He suggested that the most important thing, here, was Alecky Blythe’s artistic achievement – even as he used the verbatim nature of the performance as a kind of cloak for her creative autonomy.

Olivia Coleman didn’t try to hide behind the same artistic immunity. In London Road’s most disturbing moment, her character Julie says “Y’know, they, they’re better off 10 feet under “¦ That’s a horrible thing to say, isn’t it? But I’d love to shake his hand and say: ‘Thank you very much for getting rid of them.'” Asked by an audience member how she felt about delivering the line, she quaked, and talked about her own discomfort with it.

Well she might – in the film her character is unapologetically loveable, less anti-hero, more hero aunty who bolsters the whole street after the murders, then benevolently superintends a climatic flower festival that has all the quaint flamboyance of a horticultural Great British Bake-Off. The remaining sex workers watch, more isolated than ever, from the steps of a water tower as the street party unfolds.

One, played by Kate Fleetwood, who took the substantially more vocal part of Julie in the National Theatre, mutely releases a balloon into the sky as a little girl down below stares up at her, in the most hackneyed of visual metaphors for lost innocence or wistful loneliness. How much more powerful it would have been to have let her speak (Rufus Norris explained that many more interviews with sex workers were gathered than used) – and to let the film end by commemorating the women who died, not the social cleansing of a suburban street.

When something huge, violent and incomprehensible happens, suddenly everyone it touches is forced to explain themselves – to interrogate their own existence, their role in the unfolding drama. The residents of London Road saw their area stigmatised as a red-light district, their characters raked over. They were ready to rant. But journalists and playwrights alike shouldn’t take the easiest straightest road – and if they do, they should be able to explain why. When murder’s involved, no one’s above suspicion.




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