Tuesday 13 September 2011

It wasn’t always this way

Decade, Commodity Quay, London

Marking the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, Rupert Goold’s Decade aims to peel back the iconography that has become ensconced in our collective memory. The front-page image of two burning skyscrapers, two plumes of thick black smoke conjoining over the New York skyline, has overpowered its underlying intricacies. So much so that even George Bush has previously recited an impossible memory of watching the first plane hit the North Tower live on television.

In leaving these images well alone, Goold is free to probe more delicately. Decade is a collage of responses from almost twenty prominent writers and, defying the singularity that might be said to characterise 9/11’s legacy, its strongest suit is its plurality. Taken together, like wide-ranging articles pinned to a noticeboard, they offer a panoramic view, while simultaneously acknowledging the impossibility of anything comprehensive. Gaps will inevitably remain. Testimony is mixed with analysis, personal stories with global ramifications, fact with fiction, recollection with hindsight.

Structurally, Decade sits between the Tricycle’s Great Game play-cycle on Afghanistan and Theatre Workshop’s Oh What a Lovely War. Like the former, it allows individual writers to come at a range of related subjects with stylistic freedom, but it shares the latter’s sense of channel-hopping. Though some pieces are presented whole, Goold chops other contributions up, interspersing fragments alongside snippets of Scott Ambler’s choreography. We return to three widows, breakfasting in remembrance each year, one of whom is unwilling to move on even ten years later.

Other critics have seen fit to respond with a report card of individual writers’ efforts. Admittedly, the individual pieces are uneven, but to do so goes against Decade’s intentions. There may come a point where the shorts are presented as stand-alone pieces, but Decade functions through accrual and association. Contributors should not be set in superimposed competition, but rather viewed relatively, as offsetting and intersecting one another.

Because Decade builds like candy floss, accumulating over its three hours as strands stick together. Its structure does not allow solidity and definiteness, but something altogether wispier and fragile; a cloud of associated ideas. With that Decade demands careful, detached watching and the onus is on us to find connections. It deliberately avoids anything overly emotive and incendiary, at least until its dignified but affecting final number, Adam Cork’s textured choral number composed from text messages sent as the morning progressed.

Its main thrust is that this was a game-changer, ‘a bona fide historical enormity […that] ticks all the turning point boxes’: an innocuous statement perhaps, but an important one nonetheless. It is expressed simply and poetically. Over the course of that morning, milk turned sour. So did previously integrated communities. Good mornings grew hollow. Ten years on, we still have dust on our shoulders. We can’t simply brush it off. There’s an immediate reminder of that on entry, as each of us is scanned, searched and interrogated by American customs officials. The suspicion that we have come to accept as par for the course is re-rooted in its origins. For all is gimmickry, you remember that it wasn’t always this way.

The main effect, however, was to reduce people to type. Not only do we remember where we were that day, we are defined in relation to it: as victims, as survivors, as widows, as firefighters, as cops, as terrorists. But also according to race and religion, the connotations of which become concretised. Dialect and slang is reclaimed. Incidentally, this suits Goold’s style perfectly, for he works largely with uniforms. Doctors race across the upper corridor, firefighters march through our midst, joggers stop in their tracks and look upwards, suits search for phone signal. Most potent are the wind-whipped office workers trapped behind glass. The sense, emphasised by Ambler’s choreography, is of a universal, perhaps prescribed, response. Yet, as with Earthquakes in London before it, you feel the cast of twelve is still too small. Goold needs the option to flood the space with people.

If it changed everything, Decade also suggests that 9/11 changed nothing. Ella Hickson’s short takes place in and around the gift shop at Ground Zero, a place that capitalises on the disaster. In it, a young shop assistant swoops in on tear-stained women, trotting out the same lines of seduction. Ben Ellis shows a middle-aged eczema-sufferer speed-dating in a piece that can be read as a tarnished ideology desperately seeking suitors. Elsewhere, in Mike Bartlett’s offering, a journalist attempts to persuade the Navy Seal who shot Bin Laden into an interview. Political points are scored, stories are exploited and memories and mourners are co-opted. Rather than changing when attacked, the system instead eats its own tail, flogging off its own ashes. It responds with ultra-defensiveness.

Its interesting, then, that British accents characterise noble causes and dignified responses, while the deeper the American twang, whether Southern drawl or Brooklyn nasals – the more crass and suspicious the material. The last word, in fact, gets an RP accent and goes to Simon Schama’s easily identifiable monologue, in which ‘The History Man’ calls for a new system of tolerance as ‘the burn of memory fades into history’. That’s all well and good, but one can’t shake the feeling of cultural appropriation at play. Especially since New York itself seems oddly absent, despite panning out at either end of the room. Where it appears onstage, it does so with the glaze of a Tropicana advert and there’s something uncomfortably problematic about that. To what extent is this event ours to dissect?

Miriam Buether’s design places us in an approximation of Windows on the World, the restaurant that sat at the top of the North Tower. Astonishing views across Manhattan frame the space at either end. The audience sit at tables and booths surrounding an island cabaret-style stage. As in Earthquakes in London, the reconstituted space mirrors Artaud’s ideal theatre of cruelty: a glass-walled corridor above serving as a balcony stage. The action weaves around us, sometimes popping up on table-tops. If the concept feels a touch manipulative and crass, slightly too close to anodyne flashback, Buether’s design at least acknowledges the oddity of atrocity-dissection serving as entertainment.

Ultimately, taken as a whole, Decade cancels itself out with cautiousness. If it presents one side, there’s a sense of obligation towards the other. Obama is counterbalanced with Osama, both leaders played by the same actor. Admittedly that feels forced, as if opinions, people and subsequent events – we see shoe-bomber Richard Reid, disgraced soldier Lynndie England, Guantamo Bay and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination – are being ticked off a checklist. As if fleeting acknowledgement was deemed preferable to missing anything. But it’s beneath the surface that connections occur and pieces glance off one another.

Till 15 October 2011


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