It would seem that in the 37 years since Susan Sontag published On Photography – her collection of essays discussing, amongst other things, the ‘outsider’ status of the photographer, with to intervene and to faithfully record being, after all, two diametrically opposed aims – our cultural fascination with the people behind the camera has only grown. It’s less than a year since Chimerica opened to a hail of five star reviews, for its intelligent examination of the man behind the iconic image, and now we have another, very different rendering of some of the same ideas, at West London’s ever-reliable Gate Theatre.

The Body of an American is a remarkable play, worlds away from Chimerica in tone and content, but not so far removed in quality. Here, playwright Dan O’Brien is both author and character, as he examines his own chance friendship with a lauded war photographer, which began when O’Brien happened upon a story on the radio.

Paul Watson (William Gaminara) wasn’t speaking directly to him – indeed, it would be some years before they spoke in the conventional sense – but seemed to O’Brien (Damien Molony) to speak to something within him, a loneliness, a sense of desperation particular to them. Watson was telling a story about the photograph he took in Mogadishu that won him the Pulitzer; the moment when the bloodied corpse of Staff Sargeant William David Cleveland seemed to look up while being dragged through the streets, to look directly at him, and to say, “If you do this, I will own you.”

What sets these men apart together soon becomes apparent to the audience. Graham Greene famously described writers as having “a splinter of ice in the heart” that allows them to be at once inside and outside their own lives, observing it even as it happens in order to store away the things that might one day be useful. It quickly becomes clear that both O’Brien, mining his own autobiography here, and Watson, able to step back from a scene of absolute horror to frame it better with his lens, have been gifted with a respectably large splinter.

If O’Brien is hardened enough to turn his own life into drama, at least it’s good drama. The result, in fact, is something genuinely special, with direction, script, performance and design all working perfectly in harmony, to turn a fascinating, intelligent piece of writing into a production as haunting as the ghosts that plague its two protagonists.

The Body of an American is stuffed full of endless complex ideas which demand further examination and unpacking, but O’Brien still somehow manages not to make it feel crowded or dry, and never patronises his audience. The result is a play of two halves: the first epistolary, as Dan – the character – makes email contact with the enigmatic Watson, and filled with flashbacks; the second with a more fixed location as Dan and Paul travel together to the Canadian High Arctic.

James Dacre’s direction is a perfect match for O’Brien’s dense, poetic writing, although the highly stylised story-telling – Gaminara and Molony multi-role as tens of characters, with split-second changes of pace and accent – seems, at first, a little too much, distractingly well-rehearsed in a way that does not give the performances room to breathe. Still, after 10 minutes or so, things settle down to a steadily intense pace that Dacre and his stellar cast maintain for the rest of the play’s 90 minutes, never allowing things to lag.

Dacre also draws out the humour in O’Brien’s darkly funny writing with a steady hand, which is much-appreciated; inevitably, so much of The Body of an American is about man’s inhumanity to man that you can’t help but feel a little queasy by the time the actors take their bows. As we work through Watson’s reporting history, there are just so many wars that it genuinely boggles the mind, a mass of violence and suffering that is, thanks to Alex Lowdes’s set design, physically present in the room.

Being a play about photography, it’s natural that Watson’s photographs should play some part, and Lowdes frequently uses them as a backdrop to the action, almost like scenery. The photos are often shocking, but not included simply to shock, and though they are in some ways the focus of the whole thing, in others they are almost irrelevant – both performers are so adept that you can see all the horrors they describe right there in their eyes, you barely need look at the screens. Indeed, Lowdes’s clever direction gives you the option not to, positioning them at the sides of the theatre, which avoids accusations of gratuitousness for having shocking photos in a piece of theatre, by making it the audience’s choice to look at them or not.

Ultimately, O’Brien’s play is so ambitious it would probably bear repeated viewings, and certainly repeated readings. Although it is in some ways the story of these two men, it is also much more self-aware: at times the characters slip into hyperbole, too aware of themselves as capital-‘t’ Tortured, when ultimately they are privileged, white, first-world, male. They discuss their problems and family histories continually; they self-medicate, they pop pills; in the background, in those interminable photos, rotting corpses float to the surface of stinking rivers and abandoned children weep alone at roadsides.

O’Brien neither asks you to pity Dan and Paul nor instructs you not to pity them, and the questions it poses about humanity, war reportage and conflict itself are certainly worth asking. Did Watson go to war because he suffered or does he suffer because he has lived so much at war? He is, either way, a man in despair, and in his own way so is Dan, with Gaminara and Molony more than capable of penetrating the layers of meaning.

Even as just a feat of rehearsal and performance, The Body of an American would impress; as a whole, this is a remarkably successful production of a challenging play, with real meat on its bones.

The Body of an American is playing at the Gate Theatre until 8 February 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Gate’s website

Photo (c) Tristram Kenton.