Verbatim theatre: plays without playwrights

Imagine a play without a playwright, a story without anything imaginary. The increasingly popular genre for experimental plays, verbatim theatre, has realised this subversive vision for contemporary plays. Just as the recent popularisation of reality TV reflects the modern phenomenon of seeking entertainment, or even art, from the everyman, the verbatim genre recounts the words of real life people in interviews and conversations often surrounding a particular topic, theme or event. The role of the playwright is therefore replaced with one which collaborates and edits documentary material in an attempt to convey a particular story or message.

Although documentary theatre is not a recent phenomenon, the prolific tendency towards verbatim techniques has emerged in contemporary British theatre over the last decade. Much of its appeal lies in the immediacy of the style; verbatim theatre offers a much more representative and relevant platform for contemporary issues than works which playwrights have taken years to engineer. Rehearsals for Alecky Blythe’s ‘Little Revolution’, for example, a verbatim piece documenting the perspectives of both the victims and the perpetrators of the London riots of August 2011, began in the October of that same year. In the same way, the style also allows for greater flexibility in updating politically charged works in accordance with current affairs. Indeed a further modernisation of DV8’s 2011 production of ‘Can We Talk About This?’, a piece which distinguishes freedom of speech from Islamophobia in an attempt to expose the correlation between the threat of terrorism and a suppressed discourse, would be particularly pertinent in light of the recent Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris. The flexibility of the genre therefore offers a particularly attractive stage for political theatre, allowing for an ongoing dialogue rather than running the risk of becoming quickly outdated.

However, the inherently static nature of a verbatim script cannot sustain a compelling story in isolation. The genre therefore requires the practitioner to come up with techniques to bridge the gap between a dry documentary and a dramatic spectacle. It is through a technique called recorded delivery that Alecky Blythe’s verbatim scripts make for engaging theatre. Recorded delivery involves each actor listening to edited recordings of Blythe’s interviews live on stage during every performance, so that every word, stutter, cough or hiccup is replicated to the audience exactly as it was recorded. She even puts her technique to music in her critically acclaimed verbatim musical ‘London Road’, which captures the atmosphere created by the Ipswich serial murders through the reaction of local residents, in which the script is neither completely spoken nor sung but rather offers rhythmically spoken words to music. Although the effect is undeniably bizarre and, at times, seems even superfluous, it is this very incongruity which nevertheless captures our attention and sustains our interest in the thoughts of people whose opinions would not ordinarily be vocalised in theatres such as the National.

The verbatim style can also inevitably lend itself to comedy, with several of the characters of Blythe’s ‘Little Revolution’, for example, ironically offering semblances of satire, as clichés are fulfilled and stereotypes reinforced. Therein lies a potentially problematic aspect of the verbatim style; at times, there is something uncomfortable about watching the exclusively white, middle class audience of the National Theatre or Hampstead Theatre chuckle at poorly educated working class teenagers from the most deprived areas in London attempting to justify their involvement in the riots. However, the verbatim script of Chris Goode’s ‘Monkey Bars’, which introduced Oxford to the genre at the BT studio in Michaelmas, generates comedy much more innocently. The play consists of a series of interviews with children who are often put in ‘grown up’ situations, yet are crucially played by adult actors, with the premise of the piece thereby creating comedy organically. However, as is often the case with verbatim theatre, the narrative of the play somewhat inevitably lacks direction.

Indeed the documentary style of verbatim theatre risks compromising decisive storytelling, and thus the genre tends to be rather hit and miss. Yet where Goode falls short, practitioners such as DV8 consistently deliver. In the same way to Blythe, DV8 recognises the need for verbatim techniques to work in tandem with other storytelling devices and thus uses physical theatre as a means of making interviews and news stories compelling to watch. Here a similar incongruity arises to the effect of recorded delivery, however, the emphasis on physical expression serves as an interesting metaphor for the limitations of language. Although a rather ironic implication considering its verbatim style, the success of DV8’s productions can be attributed to the fact that its works address a particular subject matter, in which verbatim techniques assist in communicating a message, yet do not overshadow the overarching impact of the play.

PHOTO/Hugh Glendinning