Commodity Quay, London E1
Opened 8 September, 2011
There is both a vast amount and virtually nothing to say about this presentation… as, perhaps, befits the diffuseness of a production with a cast of 12 (plus a child) but 20 writers (although material from only[!] 15 is presented onstage). First the virtually nothing: Rupert Goold directs for his Headlong company with his customary flair, though fewer audio-visual fripperies than one associates with him. The basement space in St Katharine Docks is dressed up as an elegant restaurant atop one of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre; for the decade in question is the one since September 11, 2001.
The foreword to the compendious playtext talks about Headlong’s theatrical mission in terms of examining big subjects, asking questions. But I think very little examination or questioning actually takes place here. Goold was clear from the start that the dramatic approach to such a watershed event had to be collagiste, in order to avoid seeming excessively narrow in focus or tendentious in perspective. But what we get is a three-hour evening that looks at 9/11 and its War-on-Terror penumbra from all angles (except, curiously, that of the airline passengers – are they still considered too sacrosanct?) but sees nothing in particular. What is it saying beyond the obvious, that this was a big and important event? How was it important? Why? In some ways it is too obvious for words, in others too arcane. Simon Schama, in his mini-essay delivered here as a monologue, explicitly repudiates that kind of take-away significance, “wisdom as cheeseburger”. But without something to gnaw on, what is the point of the project, beyond a vaporous commemoration and a kind of mutual, communal affirmation that we all lived through this moment in history and experienced its… then the questions begin again: its what? This is the vast amount, and it remains unsaid in the production as in this review.
Lynn Nottage’s snapshot of multicultural life in the shadow of the Towers is mature in its complexity, as characters move repeatedly towards and away from racist generalisations; Mike Bartlett’s ultra-Mamet scene imagines the Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden explaining the realities of his own motivation. In some ways Matthew Lopez’s series of scenes is a microcosm of the whole, as a group of widows meet on the anniversary of the event, in reverse chronology from 2011 until 2000. In the resolute Alice especially, we see a determination that September 11 be preserved as a defining moment, but no actual definition other than the date itself.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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