One of the things that terrifies me most about creating theatre which delves into the lives of real people is getting the details wrong. This is especially true when those people are caught up in an issue which is still being played out in the news and in society more generally. When a writer tackles something like the UK’s asylum system, and does not do the research, it shows. More often than not, dramatists will go for the most extreme examples of mistreatment and indignity, reducing the protagonists to little more than case studies and resulting in a kind of impotent rage at the ‘system’ as opposed to a thoughtful examination of the issues involved.

At iceandfire, we have found that working with specialists and campaigning organisations during the research process of writing our documentary plays to be of immense value in mitigating against this tendency. This kind of collaboration – be it with activist groups, scientists, government departments or others – is often crucial for theatre companies that want to deal with contemporary and newsworthy issues, because a company which goes from project to project, dealing with huge themes such as these will, by definition, only have a superficial understanding of the breadth and complexity of them. This of course results in some limitations, as the agendas of these specialists and organisations is going to be apparent in the work that results. They also need to be consulted throughout the drafting process as they will not want their ‘brand’ associated with any piece which differs in opinion or implication to their position. Limitations aside, we have found this kind of collaboration to be an endless source of compelling material, resulting in the expression of stories we, and by extension theatre-going audiences, perhaps would not have access to otherwise.

The way in which theatre can be used to communicate the human stories behind the issues these specialists feel so passionately about has been of value to them as well, encouraging new audiences to develop an emotional attachment to their work and the experiences of their client group, which most campaigning organisations acknowledge is an important element in changing attitudes and encouraging action on a personal level.

The kind of work we engage in, where we are very clearly intending to raise awareness and engage people in an issue, can therefore be a straight-forward collaboration. It can become more complex when the issue is then taken to a different place and turned in to fiction. When a dramatist uses real people and real events, but then creates words on their behalf, the terrain changes. A good example of this is Judith Thompson’s excellent Palace of The End, a triptych linked by the theme of the Iraq war, which I recently caught while at the Edinburgh Fringe. It enters the imagined lives of people such as Lynndie England (the American soldier at the centre of the Abu Ghraib photographs scandal) and Dr David Kelly (the British weapons inspector who took his own life). I found the piece to be immensely moving and hugely ambitious. One of the most shocking sections of David Kelly’s monologue was the recounting of the brutal murder of an Iraqi family he was very close to. These events, we are told, led him to leak the ‘sexing up’ of intelligence story to the media. Only later did I discover that the event he described did not involve anybody he knew and in fact happened three years after his death. This embellishment of the truth, for what I assume is dramatic effect, sat uneasily with me and made me wonder what other details were invented. Surely investigating David Kelly’s real reasons for leaking this story would have been more interesting?

By Christine Bacon, co-Artistic Director

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