Review: The Body of an American, Gate Theatre

“People ask me questions they don’t want the answers to”

Paul is a Canadian photographer, Dan is an aspiring American playwright, and they’re the two main characters of The Body of an American. In real life, Paul Watson is a photojournalist who won awards for a shocking picture of the body of a US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu by Somali insurgents, and Dan O’Brien is a writer who has pulled together fragments of Watson’s biography and pieces of their own burgeoning relationship – as initial respect turns into genuine friendship – into a freewheeling study of how guilt can corrode the soul.

Photojournalism has proven a richly fascinating topic for contemporary writers (Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, Vivienne Franzmann’s The Witness) and so too it proves here, initially at least. Paul is tormented by the idea that his photo was a desecration of sorts of the dead soldier and craves forgiveness; and Dan suggests, obliquely, that the picture had a huge part to play in the geo-politics of the region and can even be said to have prefigured 9/11. It’s a leap, a huge one, but barely touched upon in this fast-moving, almost free-associating complex piece of writing.

For James Dacre’s production jumps and cuts with a huge sense of abandon. Damien Molony is predominantly the haunted Dan and a grizzled William Gaminara mainly the grim Paul. But between them they cover an additional 30-odd characters, populating scenes from Paul’s memories in Rwanda, Burma, Afghanistan, Somalia, and also from the journey that the pair make to finally meet up in the Canadian Arctic. They jump into each other’s heads to complete their thoughts, it’s a technically dazzling display which is highly impressive but ultimately a little wearing, especially sans interval.

The format means that words ricochet from end to end in Alex Lowde’s brilliantly constructed traverse design with ‘snow’ covered floor (protective bootees are offered) and a never-ending slideshow of photos appearing on the walls at the click of a finger. But at times it becomes hard to keep the thread of where we are and why we are, as the pieces finally coalesce into the slightly too pat journey of self-redemption that is granted by the play’s end. That said, it is excellently performed and ingeniously conceived – Adrienne Quartly’s sound work is also highly effective – a play to make you think.

Running time: 90 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 14th February, then plays Royal & Derngate Northampton 27th February-8th March

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