FEATURE: On Theatre and Reality, Guardian 2004


The new journalism isn’t in newspapers – it’s on stage. But can this version of the truth be trusted? Peter Preston investigates

Suddenly, in play after play, the link is everywhere and explicit. Suddenly, we’re handed theatre as journalism – or journalism as theatre. The curtain rises on a new hunt for reality – or semblance of reality.

Sometimes, as at the Tricycle last year, a journalist such as Richard Norton-Taylor guts the Hutton inquiry and puts it on stage. Sometimes, a playwright such as David Hare talks to the victims of rail crashes and turns their ordeal into poignant, angry drama – The Permanent Way. In Come Out Eli, the words of those who sat through a news story, like the long Hackney siege of Boxing Day 2002, are taped and recited verbatim. And in White Trash, at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, the actors themselves are “white trash”, the leftover lads from the mean streets and desolate estates they seek to portray, witnesses to their own condition.

Confections? Of course, up to a point. “The illusion is that I’m not present, but it’s an illusion,” says Hare. “I work like an artist, not like a journalist.” He promptly offers one definition of what’s going on. “I just thought the story [of The Permanent Way] was so shocking that I didn’t want to get in the way. And it is an illusion. It’s craft. Actually I’m all over it, but I don’t want to be seen. It’s a kind of writing that I admire very much in the theatre and in novels. I believe Flaubert calls it ‘scientific absence’.”

But turn the question around. Ask not how theatre fares as journalism. Ask rather how journalism itself copes with such stage translations. We’re hacks, we know; wage slaves pumping terminals for a living. Why, David Hare took us scornfully to the cleaners in Pravda. Has our humble trade become Higher Art’s starter for 10? Have we the right to scientific absence, too?

And the answer, the necessary starting point, is that journalism comes in many forms and many varieties. It isn’t a “thing”. It is a loose and living concept, a trawl for facts or for slivers of truth conducted within enduring traditions and with some imposed disciplines (including the right to answer back). How does the theatre cope with all that?

Uneasily. Perhaps evasively. Norton-Taylor’s skilful editing of Hutton seemed to make some final blame for Blair and his government inevitable. But lo! His lordship didn’t agree. Reality supervened and separated stage Hutton from Strand Hutton.

Similar cracks open when you take three other examples, all of them still running. Hare’s The Permanent Way is a very long, meticulously researched piece, of the kind that Sunday colour supplements used to publish before they caught the lifestyle virus. Today, though, its vivid treatment of railway privatisation (and ensuing disasters) as an elegant metaphor for the failure of British government itself probably wouldn’t find a Fleet Street home of any sort. Try little magazines or a Review of Books. But form and seeming aspiration give it the feel of journalism and the patina of reality.

Alecky Blythe’s Come Out Eli, by contrast, would find an altogether different home in print, maybe a Time Out cover story or a G2 front. It’s a vast vox pop of an article, decorated with pictures to match the quotes; a chronicle of what it was like to live in Hackney when Eli Hall took a neighbour hostage, barricaded himself in his flat and held out for 16 days. Blythe recorded hundreds of interviews with the people – neighbours, policemen, shopkeepers, passersby – who were touched by the siege. Her headphone-wearing actors repeat those quotes, mimicking every original cadence, making uncanny replication their claim to reality.

And Richard Gregory’s White Trash, seven lads playing pool and dancing and making little speeches about their lives that they themselves wrote, is different again. It reminds me of one of those black and white photo essays the Independent magazine used to specialise in: all hollow cheeks and sunken eyes and slightly lyrical captions. A poetic reality – but also, because the lads are mostly neophyte recruits from Newton Heath and Denton and Salford, a more jolting one. These pale guys arewitnesses brought to a theatre in the round (along with their families on the first night) and we, the rest of the audience, can join them for a while.

So, three brilliant – and brilliantly different – approaches, three engrossing evenings. But put on your ex-editor’s eyeshade and put the journalism first. What do you hear, see and learn? What do you trust?

Perhaps Alecky Blythe protests too much; perhaps the headphones are too ostentatious a reassurance of reality. Perhaps you wonder how the editing boiled more than 300 stretches of chat into 75 minutes. But the quotes themselves are wonderful, funny, fractured slices of life, obsessed with policemen peeing in the garden and police dogs turning turdy. What to do about Eli? “Get a helicopter and send him to Catford.” Hackney looks out of its window, sniffs and draws the curtains.

Eli’s demented dawdle to suicide is observed from afar, seen through other eyes. But Eli himself is never heard from: dead, unavailable for comment. His hostage rattles away to Ms Blythe all right, but mostly about how he fancies her. The testimony nearest to the heart of the tale is a bit duff, so unrevealing in fact that it has to be turned into a kind of running gag, just like one of those visiting film star interviews in a posh Sunday paper, where time and tiredness mean the reporter must pad out a few sparse quotes with stuff about the wait in line, the coldness of the coffee and what the PR promised. I trusted Come Out Eli, sure enough, laughed a lot, admired a tremendous ensemble cast – but, green-eyeshadewise, it missed the story.

That’s not a charge you can make against David Hare. He takes the carnage of Southall, Hatfield and Potters Bar and turns it – in the mouth of easily identifiable witnesses – into a howl of pain and a bleak conclusion. “The truth is that nowadays governments want to shed responsibility. The whole move is to put yourself in a situation where you are not responsible – nobody can blame you.” It is powerfully done. You share (again) the desperate grief of Nina Bawden as a giant twist of metal took the husband she loved away. Hare’s contempt for Treasury manipulators and City witch doctors and shrinking politicians is overwhelming. As a voter in the front stalls, I may agree with him. But, as a journalist, do I trust him? No: it’s the absence, scientific and non-scientific, that does him in.

“I didn’t go to interview politicians because frankly they can’t ascend to the level of truthfulness that is needed to be in this play,” Hare told Richard Boon when The Permanent Way opened. “There wasn’t any point in going to talk to John Prescott because I knew what John Prescott would tell me in advance. People who tell me this play is very unfair to John Prescott drive me insane, because it doesn’t matter whether the play is unfair to John Prescott, what matters is whether John Prescott is fair to the bereaved and the survivors.”

Fine. Andrew Gilligan didn’t phone Downing Street because they couldn’t ascend to the level of truthfulness he needed. There was no point asking Alastair Campbell about sexing up, because he knew what Campbell would say. But Gilligan dragged the BBC into a quagmire of confusion and blame because he was a journalist, because he was supposed to check. David Hare – with all his vision and dramatic flair – is no journalist, and only half-pretends to be one in the researching and the presentation. What you get is polemic as art trapped out with a notepad and pencil: and that, for me, is an impermanent way.

No, I learned more leaning foward, almost part of the action, as the White Trash seven jigged and jawed about boredom and “Paki bastards” and the shallow pool table of urban existence. “I couldn’t work on this piece with performers pretending to a certain history,” says Gregory. “These are all people who, to varying degrees, have very complicated and difficult lives.” They came to him, hugely inexperienced, through workshops. They are what they seem to be. Their mums and dads, their mates from the pub, are there in the audience.

What you see is artfully directed and utterly authentic, a show within a show – because the seven are finding themselves as they perform, because their performance is their triumph, their nightly act of self-definition. In short, you’re not told what happened; you’re there as it happens. And that’s the best journalism of all.

Peter Preston, 2004

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