Theatre in Wales

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The How But Not the Why: Verbatim Theatre

Theatre Critic Book

Robin Belfield- Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre , Nick Hern Books , June-24-19
Theatre Critic Book by Robin Belfield- Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre Lyn Gardner wrote an article last year questioning as to why we were so addicted to facts. A piece of theatre, she said, was often taken to assume greater stature when its content was linked directly to events. It is contradictory since fiction offers an elasticity for form-making in the way that life does not. The origin of the word itself from its latin root is rich in these connotations of moulding and shaping. The Coen Brothers, characteristically, had a joke on this reverence for events. “Fargo” is declared at the start “to be based on a true event”, which it is not.

But verbatim theatre is a strand with a thirty-year heritage to it. At its best it has the whack of drama, albeit not its richness. At its far-from-best it is faux-theatre offering sogginess and evasion. Robin Belfield's book is both compact and comprehensive, billed by its publicists as “a practical guide to creating and producing verbatim theatre, by an experienced theatre maker and practitioner.”

Its subject is defined: “Verbatim theatre is fashioned from words actually spoken by real people in real situations, and reproduced by actors in performance.” From this the argument is extrapolated to “it has a unique ability to present stories from unfamiliar sources and bring unheard voices to the stage.”

This is not the case. It has no uniqueness to it. Playwrights can equally do this in their art and speak across generations. The ten-play cycle of August Wilson comes from little expressed voices and endures. Sir Lenny Henry is on stage this season with “King Hedley II”. By contrast “Little Revolution”, theatre about the urban riots of the summer of 2011, said little and is no more.

So the critical claim for verbatim theatre as “perhaps the most objective way of dramatising real life” does not stand up. But “Telling the Truth” is a good guide, breaking the process down step by step. The chapters follow the sequential line of choosing a subject, preparing and conducting interviews, refining the research into a narrative and editing the material. Belfield touches on the ethical aspect. He then moves to the directorial aspect, working with actors and the exercises and techniques to allow them to be “real”.

He stresses that it is still theatre and dramatic tension is essential including narrative twists and turns. The second part of the book exemplifies its own subject in incorporating interviews with writers, actors, directors. The figures who appear include Alecky Blythe, Patrick Sandford, Hilary Maclean, A C H Smith.

The theatre that is remembered includes “the Colour of Justice” by Richard Norton-Taylor, Jonathan Holmes' “Katrina”, Ivan Cutting's “Beyond the Breakers” which was staged in 2005 in Lowestoft's Seagull Theatre. Some of the best practitioners do not appear such as Sir David Hare, Nicolas Kent at the Tricycle and Robin Soans, Wales has made its contribution with “Deepcut” and “the Two Worlds of Charlie F”. Both toured widely, were seen by more people than some of the theatre cited here, and both go unmentioned.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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