The stage is stark, simply chairs and spots of light. The audience seem a little tense. We are about to see a show about Iraq. The power of that name is enough; I don’t need to tell you what kind of heavy themes might lie in wait.
Actors stand in a line behind the chairs, not facing us yet. Each one represents a refugee from the wartorn land. They are not, I should make clear, characters. The actors are playing real people. The script has been distilled from interview transcripts. This isn’t so much a drama as it is a live documentary.
Many people in the room are probably thinking what I am – how heavy is this Aftermath show going to be? How much confrontation am I ready for in a matinee?
Once the first performer takes his interview seat and starts talking, however, the tension breaks. He’s a lively guy, humorous, instantly likeable. The audience start chuckling, piping up in response to his questions, having the kind of good time not normally associated with material about Middle Eastern conflict. Aftermath, from the beginning, makes it clear that it is not going to be a show just about war or horror. While these things might cut across the story, the show’s focus is the people.
In writing the script, playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen went through a remarkable process. Travelling to Jordan in 2008, they interviewed around forty refugees from the Iraq War and then used the transcripts as the basis for workshopping scripts with actors in New York. The people whose stories have made the stage are varied: a soccer-mad couple, a young Christian widow, a slick doctor, an abrasive Imam, a pair of romantic artists. There is also a translator character: the only one not based on a specific individual but a composite of various translators Blank and Jensen worked with.
With judicious use of Arabic to maintain the sense of the language barrier – which arises as a major theme in the stories of American involvement – and an almost subliminal soundtrack, the play evokes an intricate vision of Iraqi life before and during wartime. Not only are the scripts authentic but the actors give minutely nuanced performances. Quite apart from the avant garde documentary style and the powerful stories, for the acting alone this is A-grade theatre.
Theatre on heavily politicised topics is always a risk, of course, that risk being that you’re going to come out feeling like you’ve been punched in the face with The Message for sixty straight minutes. Aftermath, in taking its highly personal focus, sidesteps this. While it doesn’t shirk from showing emotion, at no point is it telling you how to respond. You get to know these people, with all their quirks and flaws. You get an insight into a complex story that is too frequently given simplistic treatment.
Aftermath is superbly crafted and highly effective theatre. Recommended viewing – definitely. One might even argue essential.
2011 Melbourne Festival
Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen
Venue: Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Dates: 11 – 14 Oct , 2011
Duration: 1hr 30min no interval
Tickets: $55.00 – $25.00
Bookings: M-TIX (03) 9685 5111 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038