Documentary Theatre is its own unique beast. While narrative drama can act like a blunt instrument, bludgeoning our emotional cortexes into teary submission, documentary and verbatim theatre feels more like a scalpel: sharply and expertly dissecting its subject, examining our experiences, appealing to our heads as much as our hearts. When done right, documentary theatre has a potency that should chill us to our very bones.
On paper then, Chilcot is just what the doctor ordered. Fifteen years after September 11, the findings of the Iraq Inquiry are finally due to be released. Chilcot compiles testimony from the inquiry to investigate exactly why Britain invaded Iraq, and examine the consequences of that decision across Britain and the wider world.
Unfortunately, at such a timely juncture, this production lacks any of the punch I would expect from a journalistic dramatisation of such rich material. Comprised of a number of interrogations that often felt more like lofty, theoretical chats, Chilcot is an altogether pedestrian affair, focusing on discussions of military boot shortages without ever really answering the question at the heart of the piece: Why did Britain go into Iraq in the first place?
The traverse staging invites us to anticipate a tennis match of verbal sparring between the accused and the accuser, but the tension never dares to reach such heights. Often, I was more captivated by the snoozing gentleman in the front row opposite me than the decidedly unhurried on-stage conversation. The performers are positively amicable in the inquiry scenes, and these are punctuated by melodramatic monologues which never quite work: performers are literally stuck ‘on the fence’ by the divided staging, telling their stories to the wall while attempting to address both sides of the traverse at once.
One of the most exciting aspects of this kind of verbatim theatre is the opportunity to explore the space between the words and their performing. It’s often in this disconnect that we are invited to find meaning, truth and perspective. Chilcot appears to be more interested in reconstruction than examination. It’s clear that the cast have spent time studying the expressions and mannerisms of the various players in the inquiry, but at the cost of examining what lies beneath the surface.
There is menace lurking deep within this play, breaking through in the startling sound and video design that undercuts the action. However, this menace is never really addressed in the performance, and it becomes much like MI5’s description of the Iraq threat at the beginning of the piece: like drinking tea in the parlour with a python lurking in the corner.
Chilcot is on until 10th June 2016 at the BAC. Click here for more information.