The call of conscience

Six journalists humble audiences with their collective commitment to a calling above high office, fame, lucre and security. Theatre review.
Jo Tyabji
8 August 2011

A man alone at a desk covered in papers, typing into the night as the audience traipses in from a London summer evening. He rubs his brow, highlights everything he has written, almost deletes it, then changes the font instead. The lights go out. A woman runs to get the door but catches herself, suspicion suddenly hovering in the air between her and us. ‘Who is it from?’ she asks, then ‘just leave it outside’. Suddenly she is terrified: ‘Look I’m not going to open up ok’. We watch her eyes track her invisible interlocutor as she makes a call – ‘I don’t think I should come into work today’.  The man is Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sri Lankan journalist and editor of the Sunday Leader murdered by the state in 2009. The woman is Elena Kostyuchenko, a Russian journalist on the Novayagazeta. From these isolated positions iceandfire’s 'On The Record' reveals a complex world, where safety is always contingent, harm immanent, and vested interests run deep. Yet the play also makes tangible an imagined community: one comprised of people for whom, to borrow words written by Wickrematunge three days before his death, there is ‘a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security … the call of conscience’.


'On The Record' at London’s Arcola Theatre draws together the verbatim testimony of journalists from Mexico, Israel, Sri Lanka, Russia and America. The script was written after interviews with each journalist, most of whom Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen found through the Index on Censorship. They were clear that they wanted to focus on journalists working in countries where repression was overt and routine, says Bacon, but were also interested in how repression functions in ‘so-called democracies’. Lacking an obvious dramatic narrative, the play instead follows a broad thematic move from motivation to experience, reflected in a formal shift from the familiar direct address format of verbatim theatre, to more extended dramatic sequences. ‘The form emerged from the material’ recalls Bacon. The result is a paeon to journalism as an act of conscience.


Each journalist featured has been threatened with death as a result of what they have written or photographed, though the form this has taken varies widely from direct physical violence to the verbally unrestrained arena of internet comment.  This reflects the multiform nature of censorship itself. Censorship which comes from the barrel of the gun is only the most overtly present. The oligarchic structure of mainstream media in Russia and the US, the over-reliance on advertising commissions in the latter, create effective silences before physical violence need be hinted at. People self-censor, says Elena Kostyuchenko, to avoid trouble. They just don’t run the pictures, says Zoriah Miller, the American photojournalist and war photographer. Perhaps there is also such a thing as collective cultural censorship. In Britain, the relentless pursuit by tabloid journalists of detailed information about people’s private lives closed down the space for inquiry in the public sphere. Amira Hass, the Israeli Ha’aretz correspondent who writes out of Ramallah, knows that what she writes about the realities of the Israeli occupation will only reach ‘the people who want to know’. Censorship, then, is a question of what people want to know: even if you can write and publish without fear of death your words can fall on deliberately deaf ears. But active censorship can also have perverse results. A recent article by Kostyuchenko reports that for political detainees in Belarus, the holes in the newspapers they receive in prison are a source of hope. It means that on the outside, people are still writing.


‘Photos lie all the time’, says Miller. What people say about themselves is never enough. Verbatim theatre seldom tells the whole truth. Miller tells us that the job is really hard, that no one would do it if there wasn’t a sense of – and he isn’t happy with this word – mission. The speech comes across as a little messianic: sure, it’s hard being a war photographer, but it’s even harder when warzone and home is the same thing.


It is in the sequences of dramatic reconstruction that 'On The Record' really escapes this, for here we are in the realm of exploration, investigation. The multiple layers of imagery achievable in live theatre place Miller in a complex motivational reality, irreducible to one single aim or moral position. Kitted out in the fatigues of the embedded journalist, wild eyed from a recent close shave with a bomb blast, we understand Miller all the better for knowing he is glad he didn’t miss the patrol to sit safely in a civil society meeting. Perhaps anyone on a mission has to be part adrenaline junkie. 


Michael Longhurst’s staging and Chloe Lamford’s design create of theatre a probing, investigative act. The fourth wall (the imagined disjunct between the world onstage and the world of the audience) is broken numerous times and in numerous ways. At times this feels clumsy, so blatant a breaking of theatrical convention that it fails to make the audience truly complicit in the world before them. This is true despite prior knowledge of the verbatim form: when we do not recognise the names of the Mexican government officials implicated in Lydia Cacho’s exposé of a paedophile ring, what prevents us from assigning them to a reality other than our own? While watching the dramatic realism of her abduction on the orders of the governor of Mexico, how do we remind ourselves that it isn’t only pretend? The use of footage live-relayed from the stage to screens behind the actors, re-frames the media event of Cacho’s release as a theatrical event that we know is true, and in so doing shows us our own reception of televised news as an activity: refusing to allow form to fictionalise is an effort of will.

As Artistic Director of iceandfire, Christine Bacon is also the inspiration behind the Actors for Human Rights network, which provides rehearsed readings of verbatim texts around human rights issues to diverse audiences. In November 2010 Actors for Human Rights performed ‘Asylum Monologues’ for UK Border Agency staff. Bacon is pragmatic about the ability of a play such as 'On The Record' to intervene in the world it holds up for inspection, but she does hope it will encourage people to understand the importance of independent media, and seek it out. At its best 'On The Record' is a reflection upon the relationship between media, power, and – necessarily – the watching public.

Information on all the journalists featured in 'On The Record' can be found here

Photographs taken by Jon Holloway http://www.jonholloway.co.uk/

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