“Is there a cause that I’d die for?”
Taking aim at anyone who tweeted #JesuisCharlie (and plenty more besides), Elinor Cook’s Image of an Unknown Young Woman continues the Gate Theatre’s long-running investigations into how the modern world sees and deals with revolution. The nation torn apart by civil war here is unspecified, just A N Other country with a repressive regime but when footage of a young woman in a yellow dress being shot by police at a demo gets uploaded to the internet, the video quickly goes viral, inciting a new social media phenomenon, and is adopted as the latest cause du jour by all and sundry.
Twitterstorms flare up about the correct level of anguish to show, sales of yellow dresses on ASOS increase, aid charities start pumping the wealthy for donations and the BBC send over a news crew. But as well as exploring how we, a Western audience (quite literally) respond, Cook also delves into the effects on the people still there like the young couple who uploaded the clip and the woman searching for her mother who may have gotten swept up in the mob. Ricocheting between the emotionally explosive and the physically threatening, between ‘us’ and ‘them’, unsettling truths come to light.
On the strutting catwalk of Fly Davis’ design (leaving us in no doubt as to our voyeuristic role), Christopher Haydon’s forceful production disgorges a disorienting energy that bursts through ceilings, walls and our complacency. Ashley Zhangazha’s Ali reaps an ill reward for being the one to film the girl, Eileen Walsh’s Yasmin is utterly heartbreaking as she searches for news of her mother – the welfare of an older woman starkly contrasted with the cultural obsession with the young, pretty, blonde girl in the yellow dress – and asks us how far we would go in such desperation.
Closer to home, Wendy Kweh’s beautifully compelling Nia plays expertly on the liberal guilt of Susan Brown’s Candace which in turns questions how important motivations are in the quest for social justice, for wanting to help. The three-strong Chorus of Oliver Birch, Emilie Patry and Isaac Ssebandeke similarly confront our view of the world and if Cook skitters a little too much on the surface from time to time, it is still an impressively assured piece of writing, fleshed out with an uncompromising vision by Haydon et al.