The Time of Our Lies
How It Is Productions in association with the Park Theatre
In an age of fake news and right-wing nationalism, it’s timely to be reminded that one’s government is not the same thing as one’s country. And, that it is by history that we and our self-serving politicians will be judged.
That was certainly the message of Howard Zinn, the American historian, author and social activist whose life was a battle for social justice and against the false historical narratives, written by those in power, that undermine democracy. It’s also the message of Bianca Bagatourian’s play, The Time of Our Lies, which explores Zinn’s life and ideals through monologues presenting the activist’s reflections as he looks back at his own life and recollects the historical events that have exposed governments’ disregard for civilian lives and civil liberties.
Though perhaps less well-known in the UK than in the US, where his book, A People’s History of the United States, became required reading in schools, Zinn (who died in 2010) was considered one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Bagatourian alternates his words with those of other soldiers and individuals in a not entirely successful attempt to create a sustained narrative.
We begin with Zinn’s memories of WWII: of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki by a US command that knew there was a prisoner-of-war camp close to ground-zero; of the destruction of the French town of Rouen in 1945 by the allies who had already ‘won’ the war making the raid redundant. As a member of that unnecessary bombing missing, Zinn experienced a political epiphany that was to shape his moral compass for the rest of his life.
The play is essentially a compilation of Zinn’s anti-war rhetoric, powerfully excoriating those whose duplicities have been used to ‘justify’ conflicts from WWII to the Iraq War. He recalls his visit to Japan to see the effects of the atom bomb. He speaks of the injustices of the battlefield, of the dissociative effect of modern warfare, of conflict fuelled by warped religious fervour, of modern-day battles that play out as ‘entertainment’ on television and smartphone screens around the world. And of non-military battles that have been fought by civil rights activists in the US and are still being fought by non-white and immigrant Americans.
At the Park Theatre, the role of Zinn was to have been performed by Daniel Benzali, but when he had to withdraw from the opening performances Martina Laird stepped into the breach. (Colin Salmon was due to perform the role on 3 August, with Benzali resuming duty subsequently.) Laird made a valiant attempt to embody the elderly Jewish historian establishing, through economical but effective means, a strong stage presence. She paced the longer speeches persuasively and modulated the strength and colour of her voice thoughtfully. Her stern gaze held the audience’s collective eye.
Director Ché Walker keeps things simple. A single chair occupies the stage, upon which Laird is seated for much of the performance, reading Zinn’s intense and impassioned statements from a low lectern. Members of the ensemble, dressed in combat fatigues or simple t-shirts and trousers, enter from the four corners of Park200 to offer sometimes harrowing accounts of their experiences of war and its aftermath.
Jessye Romeo and Anais Lone command one’s attention strikingly. When Zinn is attacking George Bush for his despicable actions during the Gulf War, Alvaro Flores does a neat Donald Trump impression—a sharp reminder that the current incumbent in the White House is a walking time-bomb whose potential to wreak destruction in the name of falsehood seems limitless.
To alleviate the didacticism of the script, Bagatourian employs music (composed by Sheila Atim) and some histories are related through song. Walker and lighting designer Arnim Freiss occasionally use flashing blood-red lights to illuminate individuals who writhe and contort in agonies, evoking the pain and horror of conflict. There’s little ‘theatre’, though, and I couldn’t help reflecting that The Time of Our Lies would make a terrific radio play. Moreover, while the words are powerful there’s still the risk that the play comes across as a lecture rather than as drama.
That said, it’s a lecture that, the next time we’re tempted to think that the past is a foreign country, we would do well to heed.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour