Writer / Composer: Helen Chadwick
Directors: Steven Hoggett and Helen Chadwick
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The First World War gave us a lot of things, among them a different approach to reporting and recording the nature of conflict. Now every individual military death is acknowledged by the media and the consequences of war for those, who by accident of geography are living through it, now form a large part of the humanitarian approach to reporting war news. A part of the numerous centenary activities, War Correspondents by Helen Chadwick is a fresh take on the experience of war from the perspective of the journalists sent to cover it.
What sets this apart is the extensive research that has clearly gone into its construction and the use of interviews recorded with numerous real war correspondents which pepper the show and form the basis for many of the lyrics. In fact, aside from the snippets of journalist recollections the production is entirely in song, which some may find a strange medium for the subject matter. But it is not jaunty show tunes and jazz hands; rather the music is a succession of melancholic songs formed of two or three lines sung in the round.
The result is a mixed one and, while the skill of the performers, all singing a capella, is clear, after a while the songs begin to sound very similar and the impact of their content is lessened. The interspersing of real quotes is an excellent touch, giving real heft to the way this piece opens up the broad experience of modern warfare for the audience and particularly the toll on those balancing objective reporting with a natural humanitarian urge to help. Some of the most provocative moments are in the testimony of correspondents where they justify taking pictures of grief and death because they claim it is the only way to influence those in power to stop.
Where this production falls down is in a somewhat linear presentation of journalists arriving, becoming disillusioned and going home to a form of post-traumatic stress and ever-lasting guilt. This taps into a rather old-fashioned view of the combatant response to war which has been replaced by a more nuanced view. The experience of war is not a fixed point but both as a lived experience and in memory, is something that alters as events and moods change. The testimony of several of the journalists certainly discusses the difficulty of coping with what they see, yet many of them have covered eight or nine wars, so there must be something about it that continues to appeal to them and overcomes any feeling of repulsion.
This ambiguity could have been brought out more in the performance and would have given a little more dramatic variety to what is in many ways quite a pessimistic view of the war correspondents job. This is certainly a challenging experience and the audience’s enjoyment will largely depend on what they want from theatre – there is no clear narrative as such or dramatic arc, but instead it presents a series of stylised tableaux which innovatively represent the elements of conflict. And while it offers plenty to think about using fascinating first-hand accounts, its lack of purpose doesn’t quite deliver the expected emotional engagement that this subject matter should.
Runs until: 11 October (then touring)