There is no doubt that verbatim theatre can be compelling, instructive, devastating. The National Theatre has been home to some extraordinary examples of the genre, with the musical London Road probably providing the high-water mark in that regard.
Now playing at the National’s Temporary Theatre is Another World: Losing Our Children To The Islamic State, a verbatim piece developed by Gillian Slovo and Nicholas Kent from an idea that was originally Kent’s. I say piece specifically, because this is not a play.
This is a jumble of ideas, historical fact, political thought, bureaucratic commentary, Western conjecture, transcripts of conversations and testimony from those intimately affected by the operations and intrigues of the Islamic State. Most of it, for anyone vaguely interested in keeping up with events in the world, will be old news; little of it is affecting or resonates in a dramatic or involving way.
Kent’s matter-of-fact direction does not assist in making this a theatrical experience. Nor, despite the real skill of designer Lucy Sierra, video designer Duncan McLean and lighting designer Matthew Eagland, does the manner of visual presentation offer any embracing dynamic or cohesive structure. It’s all modern and up to date, shiny and now – but that is not enough.
Many of the performers are out of their depth, incapable of establishing real characters in quick strokes. Very few of the characters strike chords which attract sympathy or even understanding.
There are exceptions.
Ronak Patani is superb as a British citizen with a non-Caucasian heritage. He communicates the particular incomprehension of the position he finds himself in with ease and grace. The most compelling and affecting moment of the entire evening occurs when he conveys a real-life schoolboy’s plaintiff cry for acknowledgment as one who suffers just as much as white skinned persons when Islamic terrorists commit atrocities. It is a moment with real echoes of Shylock’s Hath not a Jew eyes? speech and Patani’s delivery is immaculate.
Of the many academics/bureaucrats represented in the piece, only Gunnar Cauthery, as Charles Winter (real life author of The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy), manages to create a thoughtful and intriguing character. This may have a deal to do with the fact that Winter speaks astounding good sense, but it also has to do with Cauthery’s capacity to find truth and relevance through an economy of gesture, stance and delivery.
Anchoring the piece are three Belgian mothers, each of whom has a different, but difficult, tale to tell involving the loss of a child to the ambitions and allure of the Islamic State. Nathalie Armin does the very best work here, articulating a finely judged ocean of pain. There is a moment when she seeks to refuse a glass of water which is quietly shattering. Her precise, calm delivery is perfectly pitched throughout and, at the end, when she reveals the actress beneath the character to deliver a final shocking message, she unveils the degrees of separation between all in the theatre and the Islamic State – no more than two degrees. Perhaps the most frightening and sobering insight the entire production provides.
The Temporary Theatre has been a space that has allowed the National Theatre to dazzle and experiment. Another World: Losing Our Children To The Islamic State is the last production to be seen there as, disappointingly, the Temporary Theatre is being dismantled after the current run ends.
There is no doubt that the issues Kent and Slovo seek to raise are urgent, important and compelling, but there is little of dramatic or theatrical interest in the mode and manner of presentation here.
A disappointing end to the wonderful journey the National Theatre has undertaken in the Temporary Theatre.