Staging Wounded Soldiers: The Affects and Effects of Post-Traumatic Theatre

Ariane de Waal


The resurgence of documentary theatre in the UK in the new millennium has often been attributed to a desire for authenticity, facts, and truthful accounts in the ‘war on terror’ era.1 At a time when politicians (mis)led the UK into war in Iraq, based on false claims about weapons of mass destruction that could be launched within forty-five minutes, theatre rediscovered its capacity for responding promptly to current events in a fact-based manner.2 The thorough research process and arrangement of materials in dramatic forms that seem to re-present their original sources authentically was seen as an appropriate response to a ‘perceived democratic deficit in the wider political culture’ (Megson 2005: 370). A cursory overview of the shows staged in London in 2014, among which were Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution at the Almeida Theatre, Tess Berry-Hart’s Sochi 2014 at the Hope Theatre, and Lloyd Newson/DV8’s John at the National Theatre, suggests that the form retains its appeal, despite the growing number of critiques of verbatim theatre’s truth claim (see especially Bottoms 2006). What these and most other verbatim productions have in common is that they rely on interviews with real people involved in recent events, whether the 2011 riots in London or the LGBT rights struggles surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In most cases, actors stand in for those people whose lived experiences are the subject of the plays.

In this article, I ask what happens when those real people take to the stage themselves. While seeming to exceed verbatim theatre’s promise of authenticity by confronting audiences with the individuals involved in the real-life story, this approach comes with its own set of concerns about the exposure of non-professional performers to the audience’s scrutiny. This is especially so when the performers in question are ill or disabled. In Bravo 22 Company’s production of Owen Sheers’ The Two Worlds of Charlie F. (2012), the real bodies of psychologically and physically wounded service personnel irrupt into the theatrical frame of an otherwise fictionalised play about their front-line experiences and return to British society. Hans-Thies Lehmann discusses the ‘irruption of the real’ in the context of postdramatic theatre, which ‘is the first to turn the level of the real explicitly into a “co-player”’ (2006: 100).

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