Writer: Dan O’Brien
Director: James Dacre
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
At the Royal and Derngate’s wonderfully intimate underground studio we are treated this week to poet and writer Dan O’Brien’s The Body of An American, a play based on the experiences of war photographer Paul Watson, in particular his disturbing photo of the body of US soldier William Cleveland as it was dragged through the streets during the battle of Mogadishu. O’Brien and Watson began emailing after the appearance of said picture, continuing to do so for three years, and this haunting piece is the result.
The year is 1993 and we are in Mogadishu where Paul, a Canadian photojournalist, is on the point of taking that special shot that he hopes will win the Pulitzer Prize. In Princeton in the U.S.A in 2007 Dan is a writer who is really finding it hard to complete the play about ghosts which he has been writing as well as dealing with his own family issues. The meeting via the ether for these two guys living so far apart sets off a beyond ordinary connection that sees the two travelling to some of the most life-threatening parts of the globe (Khabul and the Canadian Arctic) while exploring and plummeting the depths of despair and guilt. The Body of An American sees our two actors moving with incredible facility between a host of rôles (more than twenty) in this almost docu-drama. They play out the private and public battles between Paul and Dan, who share their ghosts, their confessions and sometimes their innermost thoughts and feelings, as well as a trip together in the end. All this against a backdrop of some of the world’s most iconic images of war flashed against the side walls of the studio.
The part of grey and disgruntled Paul is played by William Gaminara and how well he portrays the maturer man who is haunted by his job, that photo he has taken and the fact that he needs to continue to do this sort of work in order to support his family. He reminds Dan and us so often how he ‘heard’ Cleveland’s words, “I will own you” just before he took the picture. The impact both of the photo and those immortal words are felt throughout. Gaminara truly shares his character’s guilt and trauma with us, all the more powerful in such a close setting. He is made to face his feelings so much more because of his relationship with Dan and also because of its competitive edge. Their rapport is strange but very believable.
Taking the rôle of keen, young Dan, a man full of inner doubts and demons, is Damien Molony who is utterly convincing. You are there with him all the time, feeling his angst as much as his desire to understand Paul. But the two play the many other characters equally well and subtly, even speaking for one another at times. This is an incredible feat of acting which makes for very compelling drama. The ninety minutes whizz by and the actors must surely be exhausted by the end! The staging of the piece in this small, almost claustrophobic and very warm space, which feels like and quasi resembles an Anderson shelter, is very effective. Alex Lowde’s design is simple with sawdust strewn across the floor. The props are two chairs and the actors and Dick Straker’s superb video footage do the rest.
Director James Dacre has achieved a clever and accomplished piece of theatre which makes the audience consider its involvement in wars as well as our oft voyeuristic attitude to these events. Well worth the visit – a thought-provoking evening.
Photo: Simon Dutson | Runs until Saturday 8 March.