“a memorable and haunting tribute to both the historian and his work”
It’s not often that audiences see the dramatisation of a history book on stage, so playwright Bianca Bagatourian is to be congratulated for her courage in taking on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States. And it’s important to note that if Howard Zinn had not been such a remarkable historian living through several remarkable events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Bagatourian’s play, The Time Of Our Lies, might not be such a satisfying piece of theatre. The show at the Park Theatre, skillfully directed by Ché Walker, delivers a memorable and haunting tribute to both the historian and his work.
The Time Of Our Lies is an hour or so of storytelling and beautifully performed songs in an empty space presented by a highly competent ensemble of six actors who switch easily between a range of American accents, and a range of other languages as well. The seventh performer, representing Zinn himself, was ably taken on at very short notice by the brilliant Martina Laird, stepping in for an indisposed Daniel Benzali. Laird held the audience spellbound as she recounted stories from Zinn’s life, including service as a bombardier in World War Two, and being knocked unconscious by police batons while attending a workers’ rights demonstration as a seventeen year old in New York City.
This is not just a series of stories (and songs) strung together, vivid and compelling though they are. Zinn’s distinguishing feature of his life as a historian, is presenting the stories of people living through catastrophic times, told in their own words. Hence the importance of the moment in which the act of being knocked unconscious turns Zinn into a conscious observer of historically significant events. Later on, this consciousness leads to his determination to support the actions of his African American students during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The play dramatises these events effectively and then goes one step further — it ties all these narratives together under Zinn’s overarching belief that you should never believe what your government is telling you. In his experience, government always lies — and often for petty, self-serving reasons — and it is only historians who can sort out the truth from the lies. And this is why Bagatourian’s play succeeds — she takes this powerful idea and dramatises it with eyewitness accounts of important historical events, including Zinn’s own.
In short, although going to a show about a history book might not seem the most enjoyable way to spend an evening, do yourself a favour and go. If you can find an American to take along to explain why some of the characters in the play are so significant, so much the better. But if not, you can always read A People’s History Of The United States. Both Zinn’s book, and Bagatourian’s play, are well worth your time.
“a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes”
The premise for Alexis Michalik’s play is a simple one: a director, an actor and a social worker go into a maximum security prison to hold a drama class for the inmates. Only two prisoners turn up. The class goes ahead anyway, and truths are revealed. It is described in the press release as ‘a captivating and darkly comic exploration of life, within the walls’, and, at a time when knife crime is on the rise in London, and just under 79,000 men are currently being held in British prisons (figure from Home Office website) this seemed like a brave and timely piece of theatre for the Park to be staging. Instead, what a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes it was.
In the programme notes, Michalik describes meeting some maximum security prisoners and how this meeting intrigued him sufficiently to lead him to write this play. One can only wish that this interest had led him to do some more thorough research. Among the more idiotic plot points of this drama was the fact that a child was conceived between a maximum security prisoner and a visitor during visiting time. As someone who has spent a great deal of time visiting prisons in the UK over the past three years, this reviewer can testify to the complete impossibility of this premise. Similarly, the idea of three lay people with little or no prison experience behind them being left alone with two violent offenders is absurd, as is the fact that the director would (a) be allowed and (b) have the utter front to ask an allegedly violent offender to re-enact the circumstances that led him to his imprisonment. There are some extraordinary companies and organisations creating drama with prisoners and ex-offenders in this country (Clean Break and Synergy Theatre Project to name two); it might have been an idea to engage with them.
The play is translated from the French, so it may well be that some of these issues are explained by cultural difference, but if you are clearly locating the action in the UK – Norwich and Durham are name-checked – this is basic stuff.
The drama opens with the director (played, with meta-theatrical symmetry, by the director, Che Walker) asking the audience directly, ‘What does theatre mean to you?’. The first audience member to answer replied ‘Storytelling’, and here, alas, this play fell short. It was impossible to understand why this story was being told, and also, particularly in the second half, it was not easy to follow such story as there was, as it was being told. Che’s director-character also made much of the power of emotion, and again, despite numerous on-stage breakdowns, the performances here, by and large, remained resolutely surface and unconnected throughout. Victor Gardener, as Angel, brought some welcome gravitas to the stage, but the characterisation in the main seemed skittish, rushed and unfocused. It takes more than a change of accent to outline a new character, and the lack of physical change in the performers from role to role was notable.
Accents that worked well were found in the sound and lighting design. Rio Kai’s double bass playing in the onstage underscore was a highlight, and David Howe provided some deft atmospheric changes with his lighting design, particularly against the back wall. Despite these efforts however, and ironically, given its meta-theatrical nature, Intra Muros remained theatrically unsatisfying, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.