In the past month I was lucky enough to have two new theatrical experiences. I made my first trip to the Arcola in Dalston, a visit that was long overdue and one I will hopefully be repeating very soon; and I saw my first ice and fire show, On the Record.  As a company, ice and fire combines performance with human rights stories to create brand new shows, whilst also working extensively in the community with its outreach department. I only have one word for its show On The Record: phenomenal. Everything from the writing to the direction was fantastic and, more importantly, it got me thinking about the world around me. It managed to create not only an artistically brilliant show but one that had a strong human message at its heart.

I have not always had such a positive experience of ‘issue-driven’ theatre. Last year I went to The Jelly Fish Theatre on Union Street in London, a temporary theatre made entirely of recycled materials created to explore how a new sustainable society can flourish in a world altered by climate change. So far so good. The theatre itself was incredible and I remember feeling excited about the work that I was going to see in such an innovative venue. Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived. The show was sentimental, unrealistic  and a little like a GCSE production. I don’t think this was because of a lack of talent from the writer, actors or director, but rather that the challenge of getting a message across about climate change whilst also creating an entertaining piece of theatre was too much. It ended up as an over the top and ridiculously imagined world, and as the minutes dragged on I almost wanted the world to end to get me out of there…

I have to admit this theatrical experience was one that tainted my view on issue driven theatre and how it is often made at the cost of artistic value. That was until I was given tickets to On the Record. For anyone who didn’t get a chance to see it, the story focuses on the lives of six real journalists who have spent their careers trying to make people’s lives better through their writing. The show uses both verbatim material and dramatised text to create a fast-paced look at journalism’s ability to give the truth a voice. The journalists in questions have all risked their lives in pursuit of this truth, which seemed even more poignant at the time of watching as our own press was full of the hacking scandals.

The use of verbatim material for the dialogue is one of the reasons this show works so well. The characters are self-deprecating and at times humourous when talking about their experiences, they are real people sharing their work without trying to convert you to their way of thinking. I am not sure if this would have been so successful had they been imagined characters. When one of the younger characters, Elena, takes you through her office in Moscow explaining that someone is killed every few years, she says so without dramatics. This acceptance of death seems to be the only way she can work as a journalist in Russia without censoring her work, a terrifying reality that I hadn’t been aware of before the show. To break up the dialogue there are moments of action. At one point there is a huge, unexpected explosion when the photojournalist Zoriah Miller talks about his experiences in Iraq. These moments put me on edge and prevented me from getting comfortable during the characters’ monologues. This feeling of unease was perhaps just a small insight into the characters’ reality: not even at home are they safe.

I realised just how much On the Record had engaged me when I began to research the characters in the play and their work as soon as I got home. The show had made me want to look further into the issues raised, and to perhaps get involved in the work they were making.

 


Image by ice and fire