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Lines

James Fritz
Littlewit
Rosemary Branch Theatre
(2011)

What is it like to see someone else on stage pretending to be you, a you you cannot recognize? A person by whom you feel misrepresented?

Under the old Lord Chamberlain's rules it would not have been possible as depiction of living persons was not permitted. Now biopics and docudramas are commonplace. It is difficult enough perhaps on screen but a live actor, in the flesh, in front of you perhaps adds another layer of reaction and with the development of verbatim plays they may not just be words you have written or uttered in public but things said directly to the makers of the play, recorded by them and now seeming to come out as something entirely different.

James Fritz's new play, Lines, imagines just that situation leading to an outraged, violent reaction and it questions the ethical background that must be negotiated in producing such simulacra of real life. It is a fictional drama but uses the technique of a verbatim play in its most simple of formats, in essence taking that format back a stage for all the dialogue is spoken directly to the audience by individuals as though they are making the original interviews which are here edited into a montage of testimonies to make the play.

There is no scenery, no interaction between characters (except for a husband and wife interviewed together); the characters stand isolated from each other throughout; the theatricality of the event is emphasises by the actors doing vocal and physical warm ups on the stage as the audience assemble. This is not real. These are actors. Yet we are watching them as though they are the real people they represent, or would if this were an actual verbatim drama.

As the starting point for his story, James Fritz has taken an event paralleling that, still in the headlines today, of when newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson died, and imagined a verbatim play (called Ian and Bill) based upon it in which supplementary material is provided by a police officer who was a bystander, not directly involved. The actor was not cast because of any physical resemblance and, as we discover, in rehearsal actor and director develop a characterisation that they think dramatically truthful but which so disturbs the person whose words are spoken that the policeman follows the actor from the theatre and kills him.

This is not a detective story. It is not about who, or even why, but about responsibilities and effects; about theatre people so wrapped up in 'creating theatre' and finding 'theatrical truth' that they don't realise what they are doing; about exploitation conscious or not, and also about grief and heartbreak. It is a play in which you became intellectually rather than emotionally involved. Ian Mairs makes Robin, the dramatist who has written Ian and Bill, so full of himself that you are surprised he feels even a smidgeon of guilt, and Tom Barish, though giving the play's director a childlike innocence, makes him so sure of his own cleverness. He thinks he knows so much inside the rehearsal room but does he see the world outside?

There is a performance to cherish from David Vale as the murdered boy's devastated father and you can't fail to be moved by his mother (Jeryl Burgess) when she describes how the image of her son's murder has destroyed all those good memories of him as a performer, right back to that moment when, in a school Nativity play, he dropped his shepherd's crook, and John Canmore gets under the skin of a career police sergeant, proud of his boys in the Met and wondering what he might have done wrong.

Lines' actual director Thomas Martin balances static groupings with just enough movement to give the eye interest and, though the texts are independent, times and helps them to flow from speaker to speaker in the way that a choreographer passes a movement from dancer to dancer, but there is a sag towards the end of its 70 minutes when this production loses momentum just when it ought to build. When, at last, we get to hear the voice of the murderer it is too late and lacks drama. In a play that pursues one path for so long more humour would be a help to the audience and, in using only the supposed interview texts, with no input from a trial transcript, police statements or other material of the kind that feeds into much verbatim work, Fritz limits his opportunities.

Run ends 30th April 2011
Lines is performed as part of a double bill with "My Name Is Rachel Corrie".

Howard Loxton