Don’t Shoot the Clowns is inspired by the book of the same name by author Jo Wilding, an activist who visited Iraq three times between 2001 – 2004 to document for herself the effects of swingeing UN sanctions, to give eyewitness accounts of life in Iraq both prior to and during the invasion, and to bring a children’s circus to the country in 2004. The internet blogs she maintained of her experiences whilst in the war zone, informed and alerted the world.
The play, adapted by writer/director Paul Hodson, is a recreation of some of Jo’s experiences, together with her small band of performers, and seeks to explore the questions Jo raises with her blogs – how far an individual has to go to change the world, and how do we know what we know – who tells us, and why?
Not an easy watch by any means, this thought-provoking play is a shocking and gruelling demonstration of the horrors of war and what evil man can do in extreme circumstances. It is a harrowing insight into the plight of normal Iraqi’s trying to survive during the un-imaginable hardships of sanctions, war, and the lawless state that has existed since occupation.
The narrative jumps back and forth in time to highlight political posturing and propaganda and the very real effect this has on events to come. There is heavy irony in the scenes of celebration leading up to the new millennium, when the media and the world believed the biggest threat to mankind lay in the millennium bug. The suffering being meted out to ordinary Iraqis and others in the region as a consequence of western foreign policy, was going unreported and unnoticed. This breeding ground for extremism has since erupted and dominates the first decades of this new millennium.
The strong cast – Elizabeth Chan, Neal Craig, Fionnuala Dorrity, Katherine Manners and Jason Pitt – work hard and bring elements of much needed comedy and poignancy to an otherwise angry and challenging piece. Although somewhat blinkered, and simplistic in its apportioning of blame, the events that are retold speak for themselves. For me, the play would work better, and be more powerful, if the audience were allowed to draw their own conclusions. The central argument against spin and propaganda is diminished by the vilification of the journalist (Wilding’s sister) who questions their accounts and judgements, needing the opposing view before reporting the atrocities to the world. This is contradictory, but symptomatic of the age of the internet blog, where balance is not as important as opinion. Still, the frustration of witnessing such horrors and being unable to stop them is un-imaginable, but palpable in this performance.
Never-the-less, this is an incredible story of real-life bravery and dedication. Jo Wilding, with her troupe of ‘clowns’, with Circus 2 Iraq, have taken laughter and smiles to over 50,000 children in some of the most isolated and oppressed places in the world, and has managed to get the true stories, hidden behind the headlines, out through her own experiences. This is a very important story to be told.