In 1993 Paul Watson took a photograph of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland being dragged by a Somali mob through the streets of Mogadishu, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. 20 years later, he began to exchange emails with playwright Dan O’Brien. They developed a strange friendship and O’Brien turned their stories and their relationship into this essentially verbatim play, The Body of an American, which has its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.
The audience sits on benches in a small tunnel. The floor is covered in fake snow, and Watson’s photographs are projected at each end. There are only two actors – Damien Molony playing Dan O’Brien and William Gaminara as Paul Watson – although they also play a host of other characters. Molony and Gaminara are both excellent, doing justice to a complex and powerful script. The dance-like, symmetry-infused direction by James Dacre and minimalist stage design by Alex Lowde are simple, and a powerful contrast to the geographical and thematic spread of the play. From Kabul to Jakarta we see Watson’s photographs as he reflects on why he took them, whether taking a picture is its own act of desecration or disrespect.
Plays about playwrights are not new, but the execution of this play is something else – it is its own commentary. The play Dan O’Brien wants to write is about Watson; the play we are watching is about O’Brien too. Watson calls O’Brien his confessor and the notion of confession is true for a theatrical space. When you become engrossed and forget about the audience members around you, a theatre does become a confessional. We listen to the intensely personal confession of a complete stranger. And as O’Brien was Watson’s confessor, so we are O’Brien’s.
One of the most impressive things is the way that the play copes with the universal as much as the individual: it raises questions about war, aid work and the media as much as it does about the quiet power of a friendship. It deals with the most public tragedies – genocide, poverty, death and destruction – and the most private psychoses. Both extremes are handled with visceral, penetrating writing.
This play is an extraordinary exploration of mental health, war and friendship. Unrelentingly gripping, The Body of an American will lodge itself in the mind and there it will remain, hopefully and deservedly, for a long time.
The Body of an American is on at the Gate Theatre until 8th February 2014, book here.
Watch the trailer here:
Originally for The Upcoming