In August 2007 after hearing the Pulitzer winning photojournalist Paul Watson interviewed on the radio, playwright Dan O'Brien wrote him a fan letter. Watson replied, and the pair struck up a correspondence over email that has led O'Brien to write not only the play The Body of an American, but an opera (The War Reporter) and a collection of poetry (War Reporter), nominated for the Forward Prize.
The poetry of O'Brien's writing and approach is very much in evidence in this immaculate, riveting production at the Gate; where even the epigraph to the play – an extract from an interview Watson gave in 2006 – is presented as though it were blank verse.
Among other sources of inspiration, O'Brien has almost certainly been influenced by TS Eliot's The Wasteland, with its original title 'He do the police in different voices', as actors William Gaminara and Damien Molony (both superb) share between them around 80 parts - switching roles even in mid-sentence. They present not just myriad characters from countries as diverse as Somalia, Afghanistan and Northern Canada; but the difficult and fractured personalities of both the writer and photographer, who by their own reckoning are each to at least some degree, "crazy misfits". The famous story of Shackleton's ghost, referenced in The Wasteland ("who is that third who always walks beside you?") is also mentioned in the play. That this reference seems entirely justified is a testament to both a work, and a production, that thrums with the concentrated intensity of verse.
The photograph that won Watson the Pulitzer is of the American soldier William David Cleveland, whose body was desecrated by a mob during fighting in Mogadishu in 1993. As he clicked the shutter, Watson heard the voice of the dead soldier tell him, "If you do this, I will own you forever". Though the photograph is often credited with being responsible for the US withdrawal from the country (and subsequent reluctance to enter Rwanda during the 1994 genocide), O'Brien is drawn in by Watson's feeling that the photograph was itself a further act of desecration. Yet in trying to understand his fascination with the photographer, he is forced to confront his own demons.
This is, however, an inadequate summary of a play that intelligently considers a huge range of subjects including father-son relationships, PTSD, the meaning of the work of Mother Theresa, disability, friendships conducted over email, survivor guilt, suicide, the censoriousness of newspaper editors and owners (and by extension readers), masculine bravado and Camus' assertion that war "lives inside ourselves".
Within the Gate's auditorium, director James Dacre and designer Alex Lowde have constructed a small theatre in traverse that, with its grey curved walls and tungsten tube lights, could be the inside of an aircraft fuselage, or an empty Nissen hut. At each end Watson's photographs are projected onto large screens. It's a space which is both claustrophobic and cold, and perfectly suits a play that allows the audience to gaze deeply on its subjects, while rejecting any notion of a final explanation of either.
The Body of an American, which is co-produced by Royal & Derngate, Northampton, continues at the Gate until 14 February