At 8.46 on the morning of September 11 2001 the US playwright Christopher Shinn was at his desk in Manhattan. “I had a perfect view from my writing desk of the World Trade Center,” he recalls. “It was a view that I loved; I loved writing there. I was getting ready to start the day. And I actually saw the first plane go into the building. So it was a very, very unforgettable image.”
That moment is seared on to his mind, just as it is on the minds of everyone who saw it. It has become, like Kennedy’s assassination, a common point of contact: just about everyone remembers where they were when it happened. Now, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Shinn has written a play on the subject. Is he worried about tackling it?
“No I’m not,” he says, on the phone from New York, where he still lives. “You have to write about reality and this is something that happened. Ten years is and it isn’t a long time. It’s a good time to explore it. It’s enough in the past that I hope that people will be open to thinking about it but it’s still very immediate.”
Shinn’s piece forms part of Decade, an evening of theatre in London that attempts to grapple with the legacy of that atrocity and the spirit of the subsequent decade. It’s being staged by Headlong, the dynamic English company that produced Enron. Rupert Goold, artistic director of Headlong, shares Shinn’s conviction that the imminent 10th anniversary of 9/11 offers an opportunity to reflect on its impact. But he is acutely aware of the magnitude and sensitivity of the task.
“It’s still a very raw issue for a lot of people, particularly in the States,” he says. “I didn’t want the idea that you turn up at 7.30pm on Shaftesbury Avenue to see the 9/11 show.”
Goold’s first problem was where to start – so much has already been said about the day and its multiple repercussions. He and his team began by establishing what not to say. “We sat down and made a list of what a bad 9/11 show would look like,” he recalls.
Among the things they ruled out was anything “hand-wringing” or “flag-waving” or any drama that used 9/11 as a backdrop to some other story: “It’s about giving its weight,” says Goold. “9/11 is a good subject for artistic scrutiny if it is the subject.”
Decade will be staged in a former trading hall in St Katharine Docks, London: a renovated 19th-century dock transformed into a smart location offering mooring for luxury yachts near the Tower of London. The drama will be “immersive” but not in the sense that it will involve the audience in a re-enactment of the falling towers. That, says Goold, was high on the list of what not to do. Rather it will “create an environment specific to and associated with the twin towers” and, having gathered the audience in this evocative space, will move forward into an array of different dramas.
Key to the thrust of the evening is the number of voices it deploys. Goold has assembled an international cast of writers, mostly American or English, each of whom has contributed a self-contained piece. They range from analysis from the historian and writer Simon Schama to verbatim drama from the English playwright Alecky Blythe. Goold argues that the only way he could begin to tackle the complexity of the legacy of 9/11 was by fielding multiple perspectives.
“I was working with all these writers and there was almost no consistency of opinion,” he says. “Everyone had a different view. And I thought ‘well, the show needs to reflect that’.”
The range of voices also reflects the global nature of that legacy. Blythe’s verbatim piece, for instance, is drawn from interviews conducted with locals in Wootton Bassett. This small Wiltshire town lies on the route taken to repatriate dead British soldiers and in recent years the citizens have spontaneously lined the streets to honour each coffin’s journey. “Without the Twin Towers there wouldn’t be the war in Afghanistan,” says Blythe. “And without that there wouldn’t be the repatriations. It’s a place that has been put on the map that wouldn’t be otherwise.”
By contrast, the English playwright Mike Bartlett has written an imagined dialogue about the death of Osama bin Laden. Bartlett admits that, initially, he was “nervous of writing something that’s too on-the-nose political, too subjective, or that’s banal or offensive.” But he was not intimidated by the subject itself.
“I think any artist in any country should write about anything that they feel is important,” he says. “As long as you are aiming to talk about it in an honest way. It would only be a problem if you’re claiming to be the authority on it. I think that’s why Decade is a good form to do it in. All it can offer is fragments of response, with the knowledge that there is so much more to think about ... It’s trying to find a form to help us think about 9/11 in a new way. If that’s all it does, that’s worth doing.”
While the assortment of voices in Decade should produce a variety of vigorous opinions, what has emerged as the touchstone of the evening, according to Goold, is not debate, but the importance of character. He suggests that “the best expression of a period of history might not be an argument but a collection of characters who are in some sense the spirit of the age.”
“The more we’ve worked on it, the more character and image have developed, much more than rhetoric and dialectic,” he says. “Because what can you add? There are so many articles and editorials written about it.”
For Shinn the arts not only can, but should, offer a different sort of analysis: “I think it is up to artists to try to create spaces where people can do some deep thinking about what happened,” he says.
His own play surprised him. He had anticipated writing something political or intellectual but found himself writing a personal piece on the nature of violence. “It’s about a man in his early thirties trying to look at the violence in himself. I found it incredibly difficult to write. I saw very clearly that if this play is going to be worth anything it has to come from the deepest part of myself.”
The US playwright Lynn Nottage, also based in New York, was prompted to write because the events of 9/11 are still so vivid. “After 10 years, when I think about the day I still get a lump in my throat,” she says. “I still feel the paralysing horror and disbelief that cast a pall over the city; I still smell the foul smoke that lingered in the air for months.”
But she took a less introspective route than Shinn. Her drama looks at how race relations in her community were altered by 9/11. Living in an area where there is a sizeable Arab American population, she was struck by the way they immediately found themselves under suspicion.
“I was very interested in how an event like 9/11 can reveal underlying truths about how we perceive each other ... I believe that we can tell as much about the politics of the world by walking the aisles of the supermarket as spending a month around a conference table grappling with ideas.”
Goold acknowledges that, whatever the evening achieves, it is bound to fall short for some people. “I’m sure some may leave feeling they wanted more grief or more rhetoric or more trouble or more joy.”
But, he says, “at Headlong I’m interested in what’s going on in the world and how theatre communicates that to an audience. I’m interested in what is a question worth asking.”
‘Decade’ is at Commodity Quay, St Katharine Docks, London, September 1 to October 15. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk