One of the many provocative points raised by James Fritz’s faux-verbatim drama Lines (which premiered at the Rosemary Branch’s new writing festival last autumn) is what it means to ‘enjoy’ a show. It’s possible to find something interesting and moving whilst wondering if it’s in poor taste to take pleasure from the experience, particularly when the subject is a recent tragedy that’s still in the headlines.
Fritz’s conceit is that a certain Kilburn theatre renowned for cutting edge political drama produces a verbatim play called Ian and Bill, about the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests. During the run, one of the cast members, Michael, is murdered by Terry Stein, the police officer he portrayed in the show. As we enter the auditorium, the actors are engaged in their warm-up exercises, and then form a line to express their feelings about this tragedy.
The writer, Robin (Ian Mairs) and director (Tom Berish) are young, confident types who are more than a little pleased with themselves. Robin expresses his sympathy, but is too wrapped up in his ‘art’ to accept the fact that he might be partially responsible. The parental loss is acutely captured in David Vale and Jeryl Burgess’s exquisite portrayals of quiet devastation. There’s also a thought-provoking turn from John Canmore’s Sergeant, a man with no artistic pretensions and who volunteered to be interviewed for the project simply as a chance to defend the Met’s reputation regarding their involvement in the Tomlinson case.
Flamboyant characters often register most strongly on stage, the creatives seizing on Stein’s enthusiasm at having at audience to perform to. Michael’s portrayal of Stein, with an emphasis on a childlike hero complex and the embellishment of a slight speech impediment, becomes the light relief amidst the bleakness. While we never see Stein and only hear his voice at the end (having the last word lends a certain gravitas), it’s remarkable how vivid and human he becomes.
Does a verbatim play have a writer? The words might come directly from the speakers’ mouths, but they become part of an arc of stories that can easily be twisted. It’s all carefully contrived as to what’s included and what’s left out, who speaks when and who gets the final say. It seems more like an editor’s role than a writer’s.
What could have been quite a specialised, theoretical exercise is turned into a beautifully observed human drama. Fritz’s writing is perfectly served by the sensitive cast and Thomas Martin’s understated direction. The premise might be extreme, but it becomes frighteningly plausible. Mimicry can be incredibly hurtful.
Lines plays at the Rosemary Branch Theatre until April 30th. NB: Ticket price includes a second play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie.