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Honour Bayes: Verbatim rights & wrongs

By • West End
This week I'm back at a subject that continues to niggle me - ideas of morality in verbatim theatre. When we use people's voices onstage in edited pieces of drama, how fine is the line between representation and exploitation?

This question is about as original as asking a criminal lawyer how they feel about representing someone they suspect is guilty. But, nevertheless, the feeling that something isn't quite right about the scenario persists.

Thursday 6 September marks the end of London Road's second National Theatre run - a particularly controversial and brilliant example of verbatim drama. Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork's musical based on the serial killing of five Ipswich prostitutes has been a critical success. But some people from the community were not as pleased with the finished results, believing that nothing good should have come out of these murders, let alone a triumphalist musical.

Fusing Blythe's technique of recorded delivery with Cork's symphonic arrangements was an act of artistic genius and a genuine leap forward for the modern musical. But how would you feel if your daughter had been one of those killed? Or if you were the woman quoted saying you were glad Steve Wright had done it because the streets were cleaner now?

Blythe has said "I revere the way that people speak", but does she respect what they say? Whilst watching The Girlfriend Experience, where Blythe appears to invite us to laugh at call girls, it didn't appear so.

I often find it hard to shake the idea that verbatim theatre is based on a lie, the promise that what we are watching is real when it has been filtered through an editing process as rigorous as if it were fiction.

But Chris Goode's delicately distilled Monkey Bars shot through my cynicism. Working with dialogue artist Karl James, Goode took over 70 interviews with children between 7-11 years old. He then edited them into a finished piece where their speech was interposed into adult situations and spoken by an adult cast. The result could have been schmaltzy and full of knowing jokes but it wasn't.

Instead Goode did exactly what he set out to do, giving children a platform to be heard in a world that has learned to drown them out. Because the structure was so well-crafted and even-handed, what could have been muddied in easy sentimentality instead had a rigour and purity to it which felt empathetic but respectful. We did laugh, but it was with them, and, more importantly, we also listened in a piece that was insightful rather than nostalgic.

This trend for children's verbatim drama that goes past "funny things kids say" continues with Polka Theatre's Sticks and Stones, a piece based on interviews with young people about the 2011 London riots.

It will be exciting to see if writer Ali Taylor can run the gauntlet with as much success as Goode. For me it seems to be as simple as this - where Monkey Bars felt in the service of the voices it had co-opted, in London Road Alecky Blythe began to take ownership of them.

If Taylor can stay true to what his interviewees have told him, the potential to hear young people's political views in Sticks and Stones promises to be electrifying.


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