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Review: Bare Witness on Theatre People

This review of Bare Witness was written by Nathan Slevin for Theatre People. See it in its original context here.

Without realising I pass into the zone of a dangerous place…
‘…to see truth, to capture it, to wing it home…landing on my doorstep wrapped in newsprint…tripping into the lounge room through the screen…No-one remembers how it works’
(Excerpt from The Aerodynamics of Death, Robyn Rowland)

Bare Witness by Mari Lourey explores this very idea by scrutinising and paying homage to the experiences of a group of photojournalists seen through the eyes of Australian correspondent Dani in the warzones of the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq. The story follows Dani from her beginnings in the field through to the aforementioned countries. She sets out to ‘capture the perfect image’ but it eventually all becomes too much for her and she realises she has to face the humanity staring at her through the lens. As Lourey states in the program notes she found herself asking why these people place themselves in such extraordinary and often dangerous situations for the sake of maybe one published image.

A world premiere presented by La Mama Theatre and fortyfivedownstairs Bare Witness has been developed over several years and much of the story is based on anecdotes from various professional photojournalists based in these countries whom writer Mari Lourey collaborated and gathered her research from.

Fortyfivedownstairs serves to enhance the impact this production has on its audience. The industrial, abandoned feel of the place really struck a chord once the show began. A white canvas served as the backdrop while various chairs and stools across the stage were used to represent battlefields, bomb shelters and other objects of war. The room was framed by wood beams that unintentionally served as a clear metaphor for the photographs which the story centred on. Furthermore as the opening night audience sat anticipating the start lights were shone on us almost encouraging us to see the truth behind the image.

Composer Jethro Woodward, a VCA graduate performed onstage and was an integral part of the show. His compositions inspired a pensive audience to actually think about the story unfolding in front of them.

An interesting feature of the production was the use of projections onto the canvas which were dispersed throughout. Often these projections featured images of wild dogs or wolves that seemed to simultaneously suggest the purity that once existed in these places of war and the bloodshed and animosity that now existed there.

The lighting designed by Emma Valente was fantastic. Torches and hanging globes were used effectively to highlight darkness or to spotlight as characters spoke directly to the audience often reminiscing or recounting a past event or engaging in dialogue with her family back home as Dani does on a number of occasions.

Photography lighting is also used throughout whether it is a bright UV style exposure light as the characters capture an image of an event or dim red lighting as they review the images in a dark room.

One aspect that wasn’t effective was that the lighting designer darted around the stage throughout either to fix or move lights around. While there was obviously a purpose behind this as director Nadja Kostich stated she staged the production in a very realistic and technical manner. Having the extra figure on stage was actually a distraction. The 5 performers could have moved their own lights which would have worked much better overall.

The use of movement and repetition was excellent and Bare Witness could have worked just as well if it was simply a piece of physical theatre. This however is not to say that the dialogue did not add to the overall impact of the show as it certainly did. Particular good use of movement was when the performers moved their own or each others bodies to represent the idea of the ‘manipulation of the image’.

Use of movement was often symbolic for example when Maria Theodarakis portrays a young girl cleaning her gun. Her body has become a weapon just as all soldiers bodies are weapons going into battle. The repetition of sound effects by the performers especially the wailing which was almost wolf like tied in with the projections of the wolves and brought the show together in a coherent and dynamic manner.

The structure of the story was very clever as each scene was framed by a countdown of Dani’s photographed memories. This meant the audience was able to follow the story well and pinpoint the key events in Dani’s life which have shaped who she is. The characters use of humour and drug use as a coping mechanism was presented well and showed the audience just what this group must face daily.

The costumes the performers wore were stained with dirt and either the remnants or a whole t-shirts worth of blood and remained the same throughout highlighting the hell the characters go through and the basics they went without whilst capturing these images.

At one point in the show silver foil bursts out of cannons on the side of the stage and remain strewn on the floor. These pieces of foil come to represent not only the film or negatives that have been taken but also those images that were never seen by the public and the dead bodies that remained behind after the cameras left.

One concept which stood out was the idea of the camera as a weapon and as a form of protection. This was explored through the risks the characters chose to take and Dani’s misguided belief in her invincibility as an Australian woman in a foreign country. Furthermore the subjective vs. objective nature of journalism is also explored in the story as the question is raised; whose war is being presented?

Bare Witness
contains some powerful imagery and none more so than the final scene of the show. Jacek the Russian correspondent of the group stands over a UV light handcuffed whilst the other performers clap a simple rhythm that builds. They successively manipulate his pose leaving the audience wondering how trustworthy is any news image.

Daniela Farinacci is well suited to the role of Dani and presents a complex three dimensional character whom the audience care about. Other outstanding performances come from Maria Theodorakis as Israeli journalist Violet and Todd Macdonald as Jacek.

Bare Witness is a moving and thought provoking production that as its title suggests asks the important question of who is bearing witness to these journalists lives Director Nadja Kostich uses her performers tremendously well and the physical, aural and visual aspects of this production combine effortlessly and are used in aid of its success. It presents a view of war extremely unlike the one mainstream media will have the public believe and it will no doubt linger in its audience’s mind long after the blackout.

Nathan has completed performance training with Cait Harris at Sydney’s Globe Shakespeare Centre, at First Impressions Youth Theatre under the artistic direction of VCA graduate Martin White and as part of Theatrica’s 2007 Broadway tour. His previous musical theatre credits include ‘Snowboy’ in ARC’s West Side Story and ‘Jerome’ in Merrily We Roll Along (OPTC), Assistant Director of ARC’s ‘Hello Dolly’ and Babirra Music Theatre’s ‘Sweet Charity’.Other credits include ‘Peter Quince’ in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, co-creating and performing in Plastic Palace Alice’s ‘Empire Falls’ music video and the 2006 Short and Sweet Festival in ‘Hunterville’.

Photos by Marg Howell.

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