January 22, 2014 5:59 pm

The Body of an American, Gate Theatre, London – review

Dan O’Brien’s play explores the repercussions of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph
William Gaminara and Damien Molony in 'The Body of an American'©Simon Dutson

William Gaminara and Damien Molony in 'The Body of an American'

A frequent theatrical error is to confuse the statement of a problem with the in-depth exploration of it . . .  to confuse the question with the answer, in short. The Body of an American is confused on this score.

In 1993, Canadian Paul Watson wins a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of an American trooper’s body (he hoped the victim was dead, anyway) being abused by a mob on the streets of Mogadishu. For years afterwards he is haunted, literally, by the trooper, and worries both about his exploitation of that personal horror to the trooper and his surviving family, and the broader matter of the part played by the iconic photograph in raising both awareness and the self-confidence of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. More than a decade later, playwright Dan O’Brien contacts Watson with a proposal to write a play about him; the two correspond, and finally spend some days together in the Canadian Arctic.


IN Theatre & Dance

O’Brien’s play is largely drawn verbatim from his and Watson’s own words. It demonstrates, and I am sorry to be so blunt here, two different kinds of pointlessness. The first, which offers a disheartening prospect in the play’s opening minutes and recurs a couple of times later on, consists of the two actors describing Watson’s photographs in detail even as they are projected on to the walls at either end of the traverse stage. The still image doesn’t come alive for being so narrated, nor is the testimony elevated simply because we can see its basis. James Dacre’s staging, with a lot of over-deliberate slamming down of the two chairs which are the only props on the synthetic-snow-covered stage, does nothing to alleviate the problem.

The majority of the play, though, consists of that confusion I mentioned earlier. Merely having the two men tell each other and us how conflicted and messed up they each are does nothing to give us any insight into the conflicts or messes. Indeed, in giving himself some of the spotlight, O’Brien both exploits Watson the way Watson worries about having exploited the soldier, and is just plain arrogant. William Gaminara and Damien Molony perform more strongly than the play deserves (although Gaminara exhibits the classic Brit-doing-transtalantic intrusive rhotic R: his Watson has visited Rwander, Jakarter and Burmer and met Mother Tereser), but their skill cannot conjure up substance that simply isn’t there.


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