A rare collaboration between two of Melbourne’s most important creative spaces, Mari Lourey’s Bare Witness is a joint presentation by La Mama Theatre and fortyfivedownstairs, in the latter organisation’s bunker-like venue beneath Flinders Lane. The space suits the work admirably, for Bare Witness is an expressionistic exploration of the experiences of a diverse group of photojournalists in three different war zones: Bosnia in the early 1990s, Timor Leste in the dark days before its independence from Indonesia, and contemporary Iraq.
The audience’s introduction to this blood, developing fluid and adrenaline-soaked world is Australian photographer Dani Hill (Daniela Farinacci), who in a short space of time goes from snapping hats and frocks at Flemington race course to photographing corpses and grieving widows in the Balkans. Years later, Dani looks back through her old photographs, recalling the stories behind the 11 most powerful shots; stories which are then played out for the audience, counting down slowly to the traumatic revelation behind the final, heartbreaking photograph.
A rigorous development process, and detailed research by Lourey, means that the play never feels less than authentic. The script does not flinch away from detailing Dani’s development from a naive photographer to a cynical and battle-hardened photojournalist whose success comes at significant personal cost, but nor does it wallow in melodrama. What details there are about the niceties of Dani’s profession – such as the ethics of rearranging the elements of a shoot for maximum impact, even when those elements are the freshly killed bodies of young men – are handled intelligently and without fuss, making such concerns part of the story without glossing over them or giving them artificial and jarring emphasis.
Director Nadja Kostich brings an admirable sense of abstraction to Bare Witness, relying as much on the performers’ physicality and the impressive skills of the creative team – composer Jethro Woodward, video by Michael Carmody, and lighting designer Emma Valente – as on Lourey’s evocative and fragmented script to evoke Dani’s turbulent life and war-torn photographs. Imagination, after all, holds more power than a literal image, no matter the horror and heartbreak such an image conveys. Here, the clapping of hands conveys the click of a camera shutter or the firing of a gun, and the few images we do see are Carmody’s projections of wolves, running and howling, evoking both the pack mentality of the photojournalists who befriend Dani, and the concept that they are ‘lone wolves’, driven for whatever reasons to operate on the fringes of society, far from the comforts of friends and family.
Performances are very good – especially Todd McDonald as one of Dani’s colleagues, Jacek, and the aforementioned Daniela Farinacci – and Woodward’s live score, created from his position at the rear of the theatre, is fantastic. The most outstanding element of the production to my mind, however, was Emma Valente’s remarkable and very physical lighting design, which saw her constantly crawling onto and crossing the stage in order to position fluorescent lights or set bulbs swinging in order to enhance the mood and tone of a scene.
Overall, Bare Witness is one of the most memorable independent theatre productions I have seen this year. That said, it is not perfect. Its reliance on the abstract and the physical distances the audience from the story it tells, so that while I was emotionally engaged by its opening and closing scenes, during the middle third of the play the cumulative effect of the production and the fragmented poetry of the script served to render me an observer, watching Dani’s descent into a personal hell but never feeling any sense of her anguish at an emotional level.
That criticism aside it is otherwise an excellent production, and highly recommended.