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Review: Bare Witness on Curtain Call

This review of Bare Witness was written by Andrew Fuhrmann for Curtain Call. See it in its original context here.

Bare Witness is an amazing dramatic collage describing the exhilaration, the horror, the outrage, the anguish and the dread hopelessness of combat-zone photography, fusing a compelling life story, expressive choreography, poetic visual effects, a complex moral dilemma and the best sound design of any production seen in Melbourne this year. It’s written by Mari Lourey and directed by Nadja Kostich, and it’s showing now at Melbourne’s Fortyfivedownstairs.

The premise is this: a war photographer has a box of photographs. Whenever she looks at the photographs in this box, a story evolves. It is the story of her life, her career, her friends, family and colleagues, and of war photography itself. She never looks at the photographs in the same order, but the story always evolves in the same way. At first, it’s exciting, rediscovering the great times, great people and great photographs. Then comes the pain. First one hurts, then another, then another, then all of them, and it always ends with her putting the lid back on the box and not opening it for a long time.

What we get, then, in this performance, are eleven photographs from the box of Dani Hill, Australian –born war photographer. The photographs are numbered 011 to 001 and are dealt to the audience in descending order. One of the great formal successes of this play is how it suggests, simultaneously, both the sense of a “shuffled” deck of pictures, a deck that could be viewed in any order, and also a coherent personal narrative.

That narrative is photographer Dani Hill’s journey from Melbourne Cup fashions on the field to covering war and conflict in the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq. She has the knack of getting in the right place and taking care of herself. At first, she just wants to take great pictures. And she does. Award winning pictures. Very soon, however, she undergoes a martyrly transformation, an awakening of faith in photography, in its power to bring change and hold the wicked to account. But events soon compel her to reflect on this transformation, on whether her faith was well placed and on what kind of person it has made her.

The script received the 2005 RE Ross Trust Script Development Award and was shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award in 2008. It’s a very strong piece of literature, balancing well the playwright’s evident familiarity with the technical aspects of her subject, the poetic fragments and beautiful images by which the play’s principal concerns are illuminated, and the formal demands of its quite structural arrangement.

That said, this is not an especially literary production. Though complexly built, I imagine the text as something more like a lattice, a highly flexible piece with much open space between: a director’s play. That’s where this production really impresses. Nadja Kostich reinforces the text with a powerful directorial argument. Through her vision, her peculiar fluid, choreographic style, we see a play that is about composition, and, especially, composition as advocacy.

This is the polemical streak that runs through this production: documentary photographers should strive for such compositions and arrangements as most dramatically communicate their experience; they cannot afford to participate only indirectly in the composition of the images, nor can they avoid responsibility for the events they witness. There is no such thing as a mere witness. As a witness, the photographer must also be an advocate for the voiceless.

Bare Witness does not engage aesthetic discourses or problems of authenticity. “You manipulated the image!” is less an accusation than a boast. The subject needs a context—needs to tell a story—because in war photography the subject is very often a dead person. The photograph is the only way they can tell their story.

This polemical streak takes a mordant turn when Dani and her colleagues, abstracted for a moment from the turmoil of their careers, reflect on the difficulty of cutting through the blizzard of images and information that washes over audiences, through youtube, cable television and the rest. And even where they do “cut through”, it is often only the photographer, and not her subjects, not the voiceless ones, who the public remembers.

The triumph of Bare Witness is that all this polemical and personal material is conveyed, not as a direct address, but through a concatenation of poetic imagery:

wolfhounds—wolves—pursuit—loneliness—howling—wailing—revulsion—nausea—addiction—shooting—clapping—applause—beating—beats—moments—glitter—silver—contained beauty—fragments—fish—foil—shoes—

What such chains do, and the theatrical experience is far more comprehensive than my strings suggest, is bind the stage elements, the effects, gestures, lights, sounds, and instrumentation, into a single affecting movement. Not affecting in terms of the personal, political and moral stories in which it deals. It is not a play about the Balkans, East Timor or Iraq. What is affecting is the self-consuming desperation for political impact experienced by the protagonist, and, vicariously, the audience. It’s self consuming because you need it for yourself, to be able to live with yourself, after you learn of the terrible things that have happened. How do you make your engagement with world events matter? It is a dilemma which for me evoked the words of Stanley Kunitz, “the thing that eats the heart is mostly heart”:

The thing that eats the heart comes wild with years.
It died last night, or was it wounds before,
But somehow crawls around, inflamed with need,
Jingling its medals at the fang-scratched door.

The production takes a risk in so comprehensively integrating physical theatre. It’s a vigorous and highly expressive choreography. It doesn’t always work, but without that risk, with a more conventional arrangement, the total dramatic effect would not have been so powerful. The diverse cast—Isaac Drandic, Adam McConvell, Daniela Farinacci, Todd MacDonald and Maria Theodorakis—convey well the passion and the energy of war photographers.

The sound design is especially good, not because it’s a great score, but rather because Woodward is there, moving about in the corner, a dramaturgical presence, putting his performance and the music, as a dramatic element, on an equal footing with the text and the acting. His work is mostly improvisations, haunting piano, grungy guitar, subdued but hostile, suggesting a landscape of restless disturbance. The lighting design of Emma Valente works in a similar way, involving the onstage operation of handheld lights.

The production, though unified around the premise that “the camera is the best weapon”, and never seriously questioning that premise, still, by this constant menace, points to the heart-rending problem for correspondents like Dani Hill, correspondents who work desperately to point us toward the horrors they’ve witnesses: the camera is not enough. As Barthes writes in “Shock Photography”:

It is not enough for the photographer to signify the horrible for us to experience it, because, as we look at them, we are in each case dispossessed of judgment: someone has shuddered for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing –except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence…

Anyway, this is a beautiful theatrical immersion, a dramatic meeting of presence, movement and arrangement. It is underpinned by some unusual but mostly successful choices, the kinds of risks that we don’t see enough of.

Photo by Marg Horwell.

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