The other day I went to see a show called Witness written by Cecilia Parkert translated by Kevin Halliwell and performed by Andrea Kelly. It was a work-in-progress soon to be seen in full production in Galway Theatre Festival. She had been invited by the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway to perform this hard hitting 50 minute one person show for stuðents. The play concerns a translator working in Sweden during investigations of the war in Bosnia in the 90s.
It was performed in a lecture theatre with no lighting or costume. The lecture theatre venue enhanced the power of the piece as there was no set, music or costume cushion to distance us from the action .
The translator character is to be disciplined by a panel after ‘crossing a line’ with one of the interviewees, a victim of atrocities. We the audience are the panel. During the course of this play there were a number of horrific stories that the translator had to translate for the therapist/counsellor interviewing the victims of these war crimes. Translation became an incredibly powerful theatrical metaphor as we the audience tried to deal with these tales of brutality and torture. Like the translator, we have to listen to acts of torture, dismemberment , degradation and murder. It made me question what it was to listen to these stories and what was the value of it?
After all I was not empathising directly with the real person to whom these horrors had occurred but to a character who witnessed these horrors. And then again this character with whom I was asked to sympathise was not the real translator at all but an actress speaking the lines of a writer who may or may not have had the experience of the translator in the first place.
To hear a person speak these tales of horror and human cruelty though, for me had phenomenal power. And somehow it did not matter that the stories were not told by the actual person, but that they were spoken live, that they were filling the energy in the air of that lecture theatre which created images and forced me to deal with them. The words seemed to be saying to me, ”These things are true. They happened. Deal with them.”
I remember decades ago, meeting a man in a pub in London who had been tortured in Uganda. I could not believe I was speaking to a man who had actually been tortured. He showed me where his torturers had driven nails into his hands. He told when he heard of his release he did not eat for days until he was out of prison, for fear they would poison him so he would not be able to incriminate his torturers later. I thought about him when I watched this play.
I thought about my own father who witnessed some true horrors until he escaped Nazi occupied Austria, and my grandmother who died in a concentration camp.
This play reminded me of these things, and then I thought, the war described in this play happened in what is now the EU, not that far away. It was terrifying to realise this. I thought of how valuable theatre was, how it could make horror just about bearable so we could really consider it; really consider how fragile our civilisation actually is; consider what we must do to keep it afloat.
On the other hand without a very interesting discussion, I do not think I would like to have been thrown out into the afternoon. There was a lot of heaviness, pain and complexity to digest.
People often ask, “Does theatre change anything?”,. Is it SO powerful that it can make laws, change attitudes? I think it can but paradoxically the more liberal society and the less popular a medium the theatre becomes the less power it seems to have. Television too seems to be losing its power. When I was a teenager in the 70s, watching TV. plays and films in my grandparents’ house, homosexuality, adultery, issues of conscience, the role of education in society and deep questions about faith and religion could actually end up in your own living room and even sometimes be discussed became something of a reality. It was a truly democratising influence. Theatre of course is more elitist, less accessible, both because we have to go out to it, and also because it has a class stigma attached to it.
One way in which theatre does change people strongly is through the participants. In the Galway Cuirt Festival in 2002 Galway Youth Theatre presented a play I had written and directed. It was called Alien Nation and concerned racism in Ireland , just beginning to become more overt. I was keen to meet an asylum seeker and through the One World Centre I met a young Roma woman. I based one of the characters upon her and though the character I created was younger than her she helped to keep the story authentic, and the young actress who played ‘her’ met her and heard her story . On the day of the first performance the young asylum seeker was to be guest of honour. I had a phone call to say the authorities had deported her that morning. I discussed this with the young actors and we talked a little about whether art can change anything . I decided that I would make a short speech about it before the play began. I am sure this had a strong impact on the audience as it did on the actors. But nonetheless the young woman was still on the plane.
It is hard to change things. Generally through art you can give people a different perspective, and rather like Witness remind us of the fact that regimes are corrupt and that humanity, in addition to being a well of kindness can also be unspeakably and unbelievably cruel. It is important that we face up to this reality as I felt myself doing as I listened to these unspeakable stories , and make me resolved to do something about it, in some way shape or form. I think that all drama should transform us or it is merely a diversion. Witness certainly succeeded in doing that.