I’ve never been someone who was into “true crime” as entertainment, save a Lizzie Borden biography phase as a teen. But lately, I’ve seen a number of stage shows that have sent me into an ethical quandary over their use of real-life murders in the narrative. In some of these shows there has been a strange placement of empathy, with it falling more on bystanders and those impacted by the murders than those actually murdered.
Generally, the tension for me has been about what role I serve in witnessing, relating, and caring about these stories. Where has the artist placed me and do I accept or resent that placement? It comes as no surprise that all the murder victims in these stories are women killed by men who are close to them. It’s an epidemic and our stages reflect this reality. But in tandem, we also have an excess of stories that centre around violence committed against women, but aren’t actually about women.
Theatre company New Diorama, aware of this environment, has set out to try to approach a murder mystery from a different angle in The Incident Room. Focusing on the police investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper, the show tries to look at both the women in the police force who were part of the process, and the victims who suffered at his hands. They stage a police crime drama while simultaneously attempting an introspective self-analysis of this genre.
The focus is on a police incident room where several jurisdictions are working together to try to solve a series of murders across town borders. The play works very successfully as a chilling mystery, unfolding and building tension around whether they will or will not catch this killer. The production is sleek and atmospheric, with a mixture of real news reports seen in projections, recreated events, and authentic details from the era (card catalogues, rotary phones, typewriters).
The Incident Room does go further than a typical detective drama in putting women into the narrative, consciously creating empathy and emphasising their presence. But somehow, the women still get sidelined in the narrative thrust of crime-solving.
The events the story is based on take place just after the integration of women police officers into the force, and Megan Winterburn (Charlotte Melia) is staffed on the case. The lead detective does not trust her and still gathers everyone together by saying “Right, lads.” She speaks up and is ignored. She tries to play by their rules and makes few gains.
Meg is desperate to have her work recognised and get promoted. But it’s within the awkward circumstance of trying to build her success off the bodies of dead women. Personal objects of theirs keep appearing—on her desk, in her mug, in her files— haunting her. She’s sent on assignment with one victim who survived her attack, Maureen Long (Katy Brittain), to try to see if she could spot her attacker and inevitably the two become closer.
While the investigation gets bungled and derailed by in-fighting, lack of leadership, and (in gendered terms) a “pissing contest,” folks like Maureen just wait and wait as the communities in the area become more and more terrified of a madman on the loose, further stirred up by the news reports of the police ineptitude. A female journalist (Tanya Vital) needles Meg for information and mostly just reminds the police they keep failing in all their efforts.
Even the police suggest women should not be out at night or be escorted by men wherever they go. Meg chafes under this patronising approach but she’s still unnerved when she gets a call from a man watching her in the station.
Meg may be the face of the women on the inside of the police force, but Maureen is the voice of the Ripper’s victims. Maureen is desperate, as the years drag on, to take herself out of the narrative of this crime and this media frenzy. She wants to be erased from the narrative so she can just return to her life, but she is forever coupled with him and his crimes. This is the voice we rarely hear, and when judiciously used in the play, it begins to open up some interesting questions about victim narratives and trauma.
While the production uses projections of media footage from the time and colour-saturated overhead projections from Meg’s desk, we don’t see the other women that were killed or assaulted. Unless I missed something, I do not think we ever see their faces.
Ultimately, it’s still a police-driven crime mystery, and the sexism and limits on what Meg can do are galling to watch. We are asked to be witnesses here to Meg and Maureen’s plights and the things that happen to them. This is important and part of the process. But their roles are very reactive. The murderer’s actions still dominate the storytelling and these women never feel like they get to take up the room they deserve.
The Incident Room is on at Pleasance Courtyard at 4.30pm until 26th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.