Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

On The Record

Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen
iceandfire
Arcola Theatre
(2011)

On The Record production photo

Mixing verbatim with dramatic reconstruction, iceandfire’s On The Record is close look at extreme journalism - not the hacking and illegal means to obtain information, but those dedicated to the truth. Whilst the current scandal has people questioning how far journalists will go to get a story, why they do so, and the humaneness of journalism, On The Record takes us in the opposite direction; it follows journalists with tremendous social conscience, uncovering corruption and injustice, often at great personal risk to themselves.

When the play starts, we wonder why these people would take such on such demanding jobs. They talk of sickness and exhaustion, an internet phone call between war photographer Zoriah Miller (Trevor White) and his wife shows the strains of being away from loved ones; Elena Kostyuchenko (Michelle Bonnard) talks of how her sister escaped being dragged into a car; Amira Hass (Kika Markham) lives in the terrible conditions that she’s reporting in order to properly understand her stories and Lydia Cacho (Nathalie Armin) is seen taking lessons on how to disarm a man when being held at gunpoint.

But we’re soon shown the good parts. Brothers Lal and Lasantha Wickrematunge (Paul Bhattacharjee and Selva Rasalingam) laugh and banter with each other as they tell of publishing stories that no one else would dare to. In this lighter moment, as they joke about the phone calls demanding for a story not to be published - the phone calls were then published - we almost miss the dangerous side of their successes - beatings with poles and the front of a house bulldozed, and an eventual death.

The acting in On The Record is impeccable throughout. Each performer gives a small masterclass in acting as they portray these charismatic and powerful characters, many of them switching roles and accents fluidly. Although the journalists rarely talk about why they do such a dangerous job, denying bravery and playing down the danger, the emotive performances mean that audience don’t need to question why they do - they’re just decent, humane and very driven people (who take satisfaction at annoying those in power).

The mix between verbatim and dramatic reconstruction is well thought out and executed; there are only brief moments when the play hits a lull. The script by Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen is well paced and informative without lecturing.

Michael Longhurst’s direction is slick and Chloe Lamfords’s design is effective and atmospheric. The set incorporates video screens for showing photos and recreating press conferences, and microphones dangling from the ceiling are both symbolic and well used. A simple few chairs and a desk create various offices and other locations.

The journalists talk of censorship places such as Russia and Sri Lanka, and about how news can be controlled by advertising space in places such as America. There isn’t a British journalist amongst them, making us realise how lucky we are for our journalists not to have to undergo such extreme risks to publish stories on the government and the rich and powerful. Then again, recent scandals have shown us how little we know about our media, so maybe that statement is naively hopeful.

Reviewer: Emma Berge