Written in Swedish in 1995, Cecilia Parkert's thought-provoking and painful play Witness details atrocities from the war in Yugoslavia through the eyes of a translator. So it's apt that Kevin Halliwell's English-language version won the Gate's Revelation prize for translation. Erica Whyman's production of it now is relentless and powerful.
The Interpreter is the sole character, and she is here to defend herself against allegations of becoming involved with a 'patient'. You see, she translates the victims' stories for a therapist, so the doctor/patient relationship has a third, dislocated dimension. As the translator is forced to repeat the patients' stories, she finds it more and more difficult to remain detached. It's as if they leave an echo of their pain resonating in her.
Increasingly frustrated with the psychologist's seeming indifference, the translator writes a letter to one of the men offering to help and the two have an affair. She feels she understands him, that they have a bond because she translated his story - it is only when she sees him with another refugee, who he kisses and talks to intimately, that she realises she will never really understand.
Performing the piece, Tamzin Griffin is excellent, both as the translator and when taking on the different characters as she recounts their histories. The brilliance of Parkert's writing is ingeniously conveyed by both the performance and the solo format: we suffer the same as the interpreter in having to listen to these dark and gruesome war stories, which Griffin stumbles over if overcome with the incredible effort of formulating the words. Parkert also has an ability to juxtapose the mundane and everyday with the horrific, and Griffin expertly switches between the two states giving the piece an absurd and doubly disturbing quality.
Soutra Gilmour's set is a black box, walled with eerily reflective black screens and furnished only with a single chair. The lights are simple but effective, gradually changing to signify different characters.
Based on real events, Witness is an upsetting play that tells stories you'd probably rather not hear. But it's important that they are told: "This was all we could think about, that if any of us managed to survive, they had to tell everyone what happened." It's hard to listen but we must try.
- Hannah Khalil