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THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN Gate Theatre, W11

 THE PITY,  PHOTOGRAPHS,  AND FASCINATION OF WAR

A howl of Arctic wind subdues the settling audience, facing one another from benches across a snowy floor. Screens informs us that all the words, photographs and videos were “spoken, heard, written or taken” between 1993 and 2014 by the playwright Dan O’Brien or his subject, the war photographer Paul Watson.  Watson won a Pulitzer for the significant photo at the heart of this docudrama:  an explicit and horrifying shot of an downed Black Hawk crewman’s body being filthily desecrated in Mogadishu.  O’Brien’s play about his developing friendship with the photographer, on email and then in person, won awards in the US.

Through its ninety minutes,  Damien Molony plays the youngish writer and William Gaminara the older, life-battered photographer.  Each also speaks the parts of others – interpreters, guides, victims, Inuits when they go to the frozen Canadian North together.  Sometimes they speak one another’s words, more as gimmick than enlightenment.  That is particularly problematic because Gaminara’s Watson is tremendous: so rounded and nuanced and natural that it is hard not to believe he is the real thing.   Molony, on the other hand – and one must credit the writer’s modesty – must struggle with  a pretty annoying character:   self-pityingly pretentious about his writing and his inability to get on with his family, which sounds no worse than most.  It is only when he takes on other parts,  notably near the end as the briskly patriotic brother of the dead airman,  that he can draw sympathy.

At its core is the moment when Watson was took the terrible picture in Mogadishu and the voice of the dead man, Sgt. William David Cleveland,  seemed to speak:  “If you do this I will own you forever”.  Watson struggles with racking honesty to justify the apparent prurience of war photography and to understand war itself.  He also expresses complex guilt,  fearing that it was such pictures which caused Clinton to pull out of Somalia, keep clear of Rwanda, and maybe thus encourage Al-Qaeda towards 9/11.

The character O’Brien, on the other hand,  falls into the depressive’s trap of seizing the emotional and physical agonies of war victims and making them his own,  while simultaneously nursing guilt at that feeling and wanting to make the man who really saw the flayings and dead babies his hero-friend.  This in turn, tempts Watson to make him his “confessor”.  Such uneasy male ambiguities gave me trouble committing entirely to the piece until near the end,  after their interlude in the Canadian Arctic. The best moment is when the photographer is calmly told what’s what by the  dead man’s clipped,  decent brother. He learns that the terrible picture performed more service than dishonour.

James Dacre of the Royal & Derngate directs,  moving the pair (and two chairs) deftly along the transverse stage,  exploiting their claustrophobic closeness and the screens which show harrowing war photos, Arctic vistas or once- wittily – a picture of O’Brien’s own theatre of action:  Princeton library.

box office   020 7229 0706   http://www.gatetheatre.co.uk   to 8 Feb
Royal and Derngate Northampton, 01604 624811   27 Feb-8 March

Rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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