Verbatim theatre and recorded delivery, made famous through Alecky Blythe’s London Road (2011) and more recently Little Revolution is a way of telling real people’s stories with the least amount of distortion, as the actors do not rehearse their lines (and thus delivery) but merely repeat what is being said on their earpieces. Whereas Blythe’s work has pinned itself onto the theatrical consciousness, however, I don’t see Do We Do The Right Thing? going down the same road. Neil Walker’s play about the implications of war wants to cover too much ground for anything to really stick.
Walker collected material through interviews with soldiers, ex-soldiers and bereaved next-of-kin while weaving in some of his personal history, too – he is from a military family himself. The result is a collage of scenes, starting with the family reminiscing while packing up boxes after father has died and subsequently diving into a string of moments in which Craig Hendry, Joanna Waters and Luke Shepherd take turns playing characters that somehow have to do with the atrocities of war – as soldiers, bystanders and parents. These moments are re-enacted real-life conversations.
Walker was inspired by a documentary about Royal Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire town known for collectively saluting the processions of repatriated bodies passing through. He wanted to explore questions of human suffering beyond ‘the obvious political questions associated with recent conflicts. It may sound chivalrous, but the result is bland. When Walker speaks directly to the audience in response to the enacted conversations, he staunchly refrains from giving opinions; his words are too carefully considered, too politically correct, too afraid to make statements. Including personal elements such as coming out to his father as a young man doesn’t save the play from feeling distanced. Despite the commendable nature of the research and the attempts at creating an all-encompassing, human play about the implications of loss and war, the lack of energy renders the outcome sapless; there is only so much pensive pondering the stage can handle.
Perhaps the reason why the production only scratches the surface is because it needs more of Walker himself, not less. The fascination with Wootton, his attitudes to the army, his background: should they be tucked away to free up space for other people’s stories? His responses to those stories could be what ties the performance together; now, the neutrality of it all prevents any real engagement with what is powerful subject matter.
With a question for a title, this performance promises at least some kind of answer but delivers none.
Do We Do The Right Thing? played New Diorama Theatre on 3 and 4 November. The production is currently on a mini tour in Salisbury and Exeter. For more information, see the New Diorama Theatre website.