Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bairbre Ni Chaoimh's (and Robin Soan's) Talking To Terrorists

What do Norman Tebbit, A Uzbek belly dancer and a former member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades have in common? Quite a lot, it turns out. But mainly, they have all taken part in interviews with Robin Soans, the English actor and playwright behind the surge in "verbatim" theatre.

"Verbatim" or documentary theatre, is as the label suggests, a brand of performance in which the words spoken are exactly those used by the real people represented in the drama. Obviously, the words (often culled from interviews) are selected, ordered and juxtaposed by an author, but the words remain only those spoken by the real people involved.

Perhaps the best example of the genre seen so far in Ireland was Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Enquiry, Richard Norton-Taylor's brilliant rifle through the mountains of evidence presented to the latest enquiry into the events of that day. More recently, Aidan Quinn and a host of other stars performed in Dublin in The Exonerated, speaking the words of victims of miscarriages of justice in the USA.

According to Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, the director its Irish premier, Soans' latest show, Talking to Terrorists, is not quite like either of these previous productions.

"When people think of verbatim or documentary theatre, they think of people sitting in a row reading. Well, I just don't find that sort of thing interesting theatrically at all. This show is much more about trying to bring the audience into the world of the people we are listening to…"

Talking to Terrorists deals with the contentious words "terrorist," bringing in as "witnesses" those who have been labelled terrorists, those who have been victims of terrorism, those who try to explain it, to deal with it, and draw attention to its roots.

"If sit and watch the news all the way through it's like my head is going to explode," says Ni Chaoimh. "Well, what Robin does it sit down and sift through all that material so that it isn't just overwhelming. He sits down and works out which interviews relate to each other, which comments can be juxtaposed to show the common denominator…"

One of the witnesses who testimony turns up is Jihad Jara, a Palestinian who was involved in the siege at the long-running occupation of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, but who now lives in exile in Dublin, followed the EU-sponsored deal that ended the siege.

"It is strange to think that the interview that appears in the play took place in a coffee shop in the Stephen's Green centre," says Ni Chaoimh. "We are hoping that he will get to see the Irish production, because he hasn't seen the play yet. He wasn't able to see the British production because he is not allowed to go there…"

According to Ni Chaoimh, Soans' next project will be of particular interest to those working in the media: "His next one is called Scandal. And it's about how politicians and newspaper proprietors are happy to put scandal on the front page, because it helps to keep attention away from the real news that is happening elsewhere…."

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