Independent on Sunday 6.4.03
War crime, Theatre
Anarchy under the arches
With the TV on constant war loop, the newspapers on auto pilot and films stuck at the pre-production stage, London's fringe theatre, unhampered by organisations, big budgets or political allegiances, has come into its own as the place to seek challenging, fluctuating comment on the war in Iraq. Last week, a new play at Camden People's Theatre incorporated the very latest "action" from the front, while the ever-intrepid Latchmere recently responded with Two Into War, a double-bill of think-pieces on the topic. And in two new, extremely "fringe" spaces – The Wedding Collective in the crypt of St Andrew's Church, Holborn and Shunt in Arch 12A of the Bethnal Green railway arches – all sorts of perceptions are being challenged.
War crime, by David Williams, aims to expose "the gaps between CNN and real lives" with its pertinent tale of a dead Serbian woman confronting the US pilot whose AWOL cluster bomb killed her during the Kosovo crisis. Set in the restored bowels of St Andrew's, a church that was fire-bombed during the Second World War, the labyrinthine "theatre" – with its bombed-out car and startling tableau of a pair of women's shoes next to a hastily dropped bag of apples – is certainly atmospheric (and nippy – no cushy central heating here).
The show itself, strewn across the length of this crypt, at first has a casual air about it, as if the performers have just sauntered in from the street and begun chatting. But it quickly loses this air of spontaneity as one well-meaning speech follows another. There are flashes of insight, but more often than not the acting hinders rather than elucidates the points being made. The most affecting speech is the least emotive: a clinically detailed account from the French coroner of the specific injuries that a bomb inflicts on a human body. The facts, you realise, speak for themselves. But in the context of dramatised real-life events, perhaps they stand out more.
Shunt's objective is less clear-cut and all the better for it. Dance Bear Dance is "a split lip of subversive activity" according to its creators, an episodical evening of organised anarchy, loosely based on the 1605 Gunpowder Plot "and other less than successful acts of terrorism". It's been going for a month now (and will continue for as long as there's interest), so its remit is not specifically war-related, although it does meditate on similar themes. The trains intermittently rattling overheard only add to the slightly unnerving "Is this for real?" element which Shunt's performers mercilessly exploit. There's the constant threat of audience participation, and certainly, as a group, we are utterly implicated in the action, one minute cast as international co-conspirators, the next hostages, and the next gamblers.
It's almost impossible to describe the show without ruining it entirely; suffice to say it's a seriously unusual night out, occasionally baffling, always surprising and more than a little thought-provoking.