Thursday, 30 January 2014

Theatre review: The Body of an American

The Gate's "These American Lives" season concludes with a piece of verbatim theatre that looks at the work of a war photographer and the effect this kind of life has on a person's mind. The Body of an American explains its title early on, with one of the more graphic of the images to be projected onto the theatre's walls over the course of the evening: Canadian photographer Paul Watson's photo from Mogadishu, of a dead American soldier who'd been almost stripped by a baying crowd about to tear it apart as some sort of grim trophy. The photo was credited in part for America's withdrawal from Somalia, but Paul feels haunted by the man whose death was at the centre of it. Playwright Dan O’Brien is fascinated by the effect on the man behind the camera and contacts Paul to propose writing this play about him, but the photographer proves elusive.

Damien Molony and William Gaminara play all the characters in James Dacre's production, with Molony predominantly playing the playwright and Gaminara his subject, although even these lines occasionally blur as we jump around in time and place.

The Body of an American allows Big Favourite Round These Parts Damien Molony to demonstrate one of his strongest talents as an actor.

No, not that one - I mean his facility with accents1. He confidently gets through the American playwright, various Canadian and South African characters, as well as the tricky task of negotiating African, Middle Eastern and Asian accents without resorting to racist stereotypes. Gaminara also demonstrates a lot of range in his portrayals, although for the most part he's required to provide the solid, thoughtful but still somehow mysterious figure who so fascinates the playwright.

As I mentioned there are some upsetting images projected during the show - all the footage is real and sourced from O'Brien and Watson. It's projected onto the sides of Alex Lowde's traverse set, a sort of tent filled with artificial snow (the audience is given plastic shoe coverings before going in to the space; although since they're reusable and reversible, they're already so full of the stuff I'm not sure how much they help) that reflects the location where Dan and Paul finally meet - a remote part of Northern Canada where the photographer's been banished to after getting on the wrong side of his publisher.

And this is the heart of a show whose real purpose seems a little vague to start with: Although we do get a glimpse into the head of a man affected by an adrenalin-packed, often traumatic job, the play ends up being about the relationship between the two men, both of whom have issues with depression stemming from childhood family trauma, but who are reticent to talk to anyone about them. It takes one of them wanting to write a play about the other to make either of them confront their problems. So an interesting, somewhat unexpected play, powerfully performed.

The Body of an American by Dan O'Brien is booking until the 14th of February at the Gate Theatre; and from the 27th of February to the 8th of March at the Royal and Derngate Underground, Northampton.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

1Ian said the post-show Q&A was the first time he's ever heard Molony speak in his own Irish accent

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