Making verbatim theatre interesting to watch is notoriously difficult, and Daedalus Theatre haven’t helped themselves by choosing as their primary source U.N. Security Council Report S/1996/682, which is exactly as dense and undramatic as it sounds.
The report concerns the 1993 military coup in Burundi. The Central African country’s first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was democratically elected and subsequently assassinated, initiating a civil war between Hutu and Tutsi peoples. As the play’s sources testify, no one is sure where responsibility for the assassination lies. Military officers blame mutinous troops, but none of these mutineers were ever interviewed by the U.N., and Jean-Paul Kamana, fingered as the man behind the curtain, is considered a mere scapegoat.
It’s ripe material for a verbatim play. The situation in Burundi is not common knowledge in the U.K., and at its best the format is perfectly suited to peeling away layers of deceit and misdirection such as seem to be at work here. Sadly, I left no wiser about Burundi than when I arrived.
The punctuation and paragraph codes of the report are all verbalised, emphasising the obscuring power of U.N. Officialese a little too well and rendering most of the main source material near incomprehensible. Promisingly, material from blogs and personal interviews ‘translates’ the first few sections into a more easily relatable form; but the company seem not to trust this format to hold the audience’s attention for more than twenty minutes.
The production is riddled with business designed to overcome the inherent problem with the verbatim form. The audience sits with the cast around a huge wooden table, as if we are U.N. delegates being briefed on the situation. This works. After twenty minutes the cast start playing musical chairs, and after half an hour the gimmicky little physical setpieces begin.
In one corner a woman wrangles and tangles herself with the cords of two phones. Later, a fish is gutted and beheaded on a block. Removable panels of the tabletop reveal pockets of soil full of buried mobile phones. A lot of it seems to mean something, but there’s no cohesion: the sense is that director Paul Burgess is just throwing out image after image in the hope that the audience will decode their own meaning from it all. By the end of the play, so much is happening at once that it’s hard to concentrate on the verbal testimony, and impossible to follow the slideshow of helpful contextual material.
A Place at the Table has a couple of rock-solid concepts – the subject matter and staging – at its heart, but glommed around them is a mass of shiny little distractions that serve only to obscure the truths verbatim theatre is supposed to expose. It turns out it’s possible to make verbatim theatre that isn’t static enough – who knew?