Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Don't Shoot the Clowns

Paul Hodson
the future is unwritten/Fuel
New Wimbledon Studio, London, and touring
(2010)

Don't Shoot the Clowns publicity image

If someone’s dressed like a clown, you might expect them to be funny. If a heroine’s billed as a crusader against injustice, you don’t expect them to crumble under scrutiny. Don’t Shoot The Clowns is masterful at subverting these expectations, but I hardly think it’s deliberate. In short, the clowns aren’t funny, and the heroine isn’t heroic.

Don’t Shoot The Clowns is inspired by Jo Wilding’s book of the same name about a group of activists who decided to take a circus to Iraq during the US/British occupation in 2004. Jo (Fionnuala Dorrity) gets the chance to air her views when a journalist interviews her for throwing fruit at the prime minister. When it dawns on her that she has no evidence to support her claims that thousands of children are dying as a result of UN sanctions on Iraq, she decides to go there to investigate the scale of human rights abuses firsthand, blogging about her experiences. She comes up with the idea of taking clowns to Baghdad in a drug-addled haze at Glastonbury, because she wants to bring ‘laughter, smiles and silliness directly to people who need it most.’

Jo’s project is endearingly well-intentioned and loopy until it actually becomes a reality. The circus band that assemble in Iraq are supposed to be funny. On stage they are an irritating motley crew whose cartoonish behaviour jars horribly with the gravity of the situation in Iraq. Worse, they have no useful skills whatsoever, making their presence in the war zone highly questionable. The circus actually becomes emblematic of their absurdity when it finally dawns on the troupe that Iraqi civilians need blankets and protection infinitely more than they need smiles and silliness.

Jo does not come off well. Director Paul Hodson is evidently taken by her story, and tries to portray her as a heroine of sorts, but she comes across as self-absorbed. Her response to the Iraq war is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but it’s impossible to feel sympathetic towards a girl who risks jeopardising the lives of those in the region, and offers very little in return.

If Jo’s blog had some journalistic value, the play might better be able to justify her position. But we are given every impression that it is little more than a fiery polemic against the Iraq war based on a dubious account from a left-wing activist. When her sister Mary, an experienced broadcast journalist, asks her for supporting evidence of the US’ use of phosphorous and cluster bombs on civilians, she is treated with astonishing contempt. Portrayed as a grasping hack and impotent slave to the story, Mary nevertheless strives for a balanced treatment of Jo’s first hand (and so irrefutably authentic) account of the war – and is rewarded by Jo with incredulity. As if the eyewitness testimony of a clown is going to be enough for an exposé of US war crimes.

Even so, we are given the impression that Jo’s polemic is somehow more truthful than balanced reporting. The entire play is infected with Jo’s surprising sense of entitlement and less surprising sense of self-righteousness. Jo may be an activist, but she is no saint. In fact, despite the best efforts of the play, she comes across as an unsympathetic girl in way over her head, whose inability to actually help anybody in Iraq is matched only by her own self-righteousness.

Clearly, something is amiss here. The tonal dissonance between Paul Hodson’s direction and the characterisation of Jo Wilding is far too wide. Either Jo is not the irresponsible person she appears to be, in which case this play needs more evidence of that fact, or the director is blind to the repellent nature of his heroine. Either way, Don’t Shoot The Clowns is unsatisfying as a result, and its concluding diatribe falls on deaf ears.

Touring to Mylor Theatre, Truro & Penwith College, 3 Nov; Lakeside Theatre, Colchester, 6 Nov; Komedia, Brighton, 8 Nov; South Hill Park, Bracknell, 9 Nov; Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, 10 – 12 Nov; Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, 16 Nov and Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead, 17 Nov

Reviewer: Ben Bryant