David Hare said of verbatim theatre, that it “does what journalism fails to do”. Lanna Joffrey’s verbatim play Valiant, which is playing as part of the Women in War Festival, brings together thirteen accounts of women’s experiences in war. It includes a teenage girl on her first day in Auschwitz, a Hiroshima maiden burned by the atomic bomb, and a protestant in Northern Ireland whose family were targeted with a car bomb, in order to show the audience what living through conflict means for women on different sides of the same endless story. The play is adapted from Sally Hayton-Keeva’s book of interviews of women who lived through war and exile, which strives the redress the imbalance she identified in the typically male dominated narrative of war. These women are picking up where journalism has left off, and it effectively reminds us of the imperative of listening to, and actively seeking out, quieter voices.
It is fitting that Hayton-Keeva and her book, having made such an impression on Joffrey, also maintains a presence in the play. The back of the stage is set with a screen transcribing the beginning of each text onto the wall behind the performer, and introduces each by way of how Hayton-Keeva met them. Placing the text onto the stage is a gentle but effective reminder that what we are watching here are not characters and stories, but the performance of person’s voice; a transformation of a real experience. The proximity of the audience and the women who provided their stories is the real strength of this piece, though it must be said that the length of the text projected onto the back of the stage became distracting at times, as it was not always possible to attribute the speech on the wall to the performer. Though the pared-back movement and staging of the performances was suited to the small stage, the force of particular performances was slightly at odds with the capacity of the room. While this in no way worked against the favour of the performers, I would be very interested to see how the play could expand itself to fit a larger stage, and be able to run freely with the force of texts.
The selection and arrangement of the thirteen voices (from among the thirty eight texts that Hayton-Keeva collected) excellently brought out the unifying features among them, particularly because it did so with a gentle touch. The unifying strands of the stories did not come to define them as a whole, but wove them together as distinct, individual stories. The compact four-person cast made use of their diversity, and their versatility was impressive; quick transitions between Irish, Philippine and American voices, for example, contributed to great sense of cohesion in the play. Among the four strong performances, Joffrey stood out. The intelligence of her engagement with the voices she performed raised the intensity of the play to a pitch that was just about sustained by the other performers. Her passion for the texts, and her belief in the importance of us all learning from these experiences is apparent in every aspect of the play – and I very much hope it reaches the widest audience possible.
Valiant is playing at the So and So Arts Club as part of the Women in War Festival until July 31st. For more information and tickets, see Women and War Festival.