Tuesday, 20 May 2014

War Correspondents

Rebecca Thorn and Oliver Senton/credit: Simon Richardson
--> The dangers of life as a war reporter are horribly familiar. Only last week, the front page of the Times showed the bloodied face of Anthony Loyd, a British reporter shot twice by Syrian rebels who were holding him hostage. According to Reporters Without Borders,  18 journalists have been killed and 173 imprisoned since the beginning of this year alone.

With journalists currently reporting on conflicts in countries such as Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Central African Republic, this is certainly an interesting time for the launch of a new theatrical work that examines the conditions of their employment. I always find it very interesting to see how artists convey and translate serious and difficult issues. And how they manage to make us understand them on a different level, touching us beyond words. 

“War Correspondents” is a 75-minute show that tells the stories of five foreign correspondents, three men and two women - representing the many who take great risks to report on conflicts across the world.  Using a capella songs and choreographed movement, interspersed with poems and extracts of interviews, it tries to bring to life the fear, moral dilemmas, pain, thrill, courage and frustrations that characterise this particular form of journalism. 

The show is the second “song theatre performance” created by Helen Chadwick, a composer, and Steven Hoggett, an Olivier-Award-winning choreographer. The idea emerged from an encounter between Chadwick and Jon Spaul, a photographer who worked on the first Chechen war in the 1990s. “He showed me his devastating photos and told me about what was happening to him and other photographers working there,” she says. “He was just a normal bloke doing extraordinary work. That inspired me.”

Chadwick and Miriam Nabarro, the show's designer, who has worked extensively in conflict zones, spent six years interviewing war correspondents with experience of reporting in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. Their subjects included Martin Bell, a renowned former correspondent with the BBC, and Giuliana Sgrena, who was taken hostage in Fallujah, Iraq, and subsequently shot at by the American army on her way to the airport.

They started with general questions, and from the answers saw themes emerge that could be used to shape the show: danger, the reason for the correspondents’ choice of work, its impact on their lives, censorship, changes to the job since 9/11 and others.

Chadwick wrote 30 songs based mostly on the testimonies, but also some poems by Brecht, Saadi Yousef and Mansur Muhammad Ahmad Rajih. Hoggett then choreographed accompanying dances. 

Both songs and dances are performed by just five actors, and the result is exquisite, with the music preventing the whole performance from veering too much into the earnest and the sombre. 

Of the many issues examined, the most moving concerns what journalists are supposed to do about the suffering they witness and the guilt they feel when leaving it behind at the end of their assignments. One is surprised that years of covering conflicts have made him “battle-softened” rather than “battle-hardened”. Another comments, “Wars, disasters… they all live inside me. I cannot get rid of them.”

"War Correspondents" is touring around Britain until October 25th.

You can read my review for the Economist’ Prospero blog here.

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