I have mixed feelings towards verbatim theatre. I will admit that when I was handed a programme as I queued outside The Roundhouse last night, and looked down to read To be Taken With Water (great title I thought, catchy without giving anything away), “a verbatim piece on American healthcare”, my heart sank slightly. I was immediately taken back to dull university seminars, working from dull factual texts and watching dull performances which seemed restricted by their documented scripts. As I queued I felt like I already knew what the presented arguments for and against Obama’s healthcare service would be and that I would leave feeling exactly the same as I arrived. It is nice to say that I was wrong.
The company manipulated the text well, managing to make Martin Luther King’s speeches funny and even make me wonder (if only for a second) whether the Republican arguments had a point. I enjoyed the performances, especially the actor playing the elderly woman (the programme didn’t specify who played which parts so unfortunately I can’t give her a personal mention), who was wonderfully natural with the audience despite the Brechtian touches to her performance; for example when she snapped out of the frail physicality of the character precisely on the beat of the music which ended her scene. I felt mixing styles here was a very nice decision from director Dominic Rouse.
The set felt a little random, with the contrast between the front playing space and the interesting three-part white canvas boxes used upstage having no clear dialogue with one another apart from the fact that some scenes from the past, which included some visually enjoyable moments of stylised movement, took place behind these translucent white screens. Was it a separation of space and therefore time? Whilst this added visual variety I felt that these two aspects of Neli Ivancik’s set didn’t really work in relationship to one another, leaving a question in my mind as to their real purpose. One moment where they were integrated well though, and perhaps why I was left wanting more of this, was when sheets of white paper where thrown up and propelled towards the audience by the turning momentum of the detachable white screens; a moment which altered the dynamic of the piece and pleasantly surprised me. But again I asked myself, why did that happen? And the paper was blank, which seemed a missed opportunity.
To be Taken with Water was certainly enjoyable; simply but effectively directed and skilfully acted by the CSSD students. However I can’t help but wonder whether verbatim theatre should have a more poignant, or at least different, effect than this. Perhaps like a ‘based on a true story’ credit at the opening of a film can have, somehow more disturbing because it brings theatre closer to real life and real, recent politics. However, although entertained, I left unsure of the purpose behind what I had just seen.
This performance was part of the Accidental Festival.