ON THE RECORD
Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 22 July, 2011
****

Giving a good review to a play about journalists may look self-satisfied, but so far from experiencing pride at being engaged in the same line of work as those portrayed here, I felt ashamed even to consider claiming such an association and to have done so little in comparison. Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen here present portraits of several named investigative journalists from around the world: Lydia Cacho, author of a book uncovering highly-placed child abusers in Mexico; Amira Hass, who reports on Palestinian affairs for the Israeli paper Ha’aretz; Elena Kostyuchenko of Russia’s Novaya Gazeta; American photojournalist Zoriah Miller; and Lal and Lasantha Wickrematunge, founders of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader.
    
The 90-minute play begins in a verbatim style, with the cast of six delivering the journalist-interviewees’ words more or less straight; the only major deviation from this is Kostyuchenko conducting her (invisible) interviewer around Novaya’s internal “museum”, which includes memorials to those of its staff who have been murdered. The approach then switches to a more dramatic mode. We see Cacho’s abduction by police in the abusers’ pay and Miller’s experience of being disembedded from the U.S. military in Iraq for taking pictures of American dead and wounded after a bombing, together with an account of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder and extracts from both the testimony of Hass regarding her experiences and her impassioned speech on being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Women's Media Foundation in 2009. Individual lines ring out: Hass remarks on her position as an Israeli sharing in the benefits of the Palestinian occupation on which she reports that “The taste of privilege is disgusting”, and later we are given the salutary reminder that “Being fair and being objective are not the same thing.”
    
Michael Longhurst’s production adopts a spare style common to verbatim theatre: a desk or two, a few microphones used occasionally, but reliant principally on the words and the performances. In the latter he is blessed to have amongst his cast Paul Bhattacharjee as Lal Wickrematunge and the ever-dignified, ever-committed Kika Markham as Hass. At a time when so much of British journalism may appear to have been involved in crimes and corruption rather than uncovering them, this is a sobering and heartening reminder of why such work also matters in a positive way.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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