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Bare Witness in The Age

An article about Bare Witness from The Age. See it in its original context here.

A photographer’s frustration and exploitation is explored on the stage, writes Robin Usher.

PHOTO-JOURNALISTS risk their lives so people can see the ravages of war from the safety of their homes. Yet the paradox is that the photographers do not decide what people see, despite their battlefield exploits, and they can be left feeling frustrated and exploited.

This is one of the themes explored in the new play Bare Witness, by Mari Lourey, about frontline photographers that she has been researching for about six years. ”There have been other projects during that time but I was always thinking about this,” she says.

She interviewed Age photographer Jason South about his experiences in East Timor after the 1999 independence referendum and read widely about the subject, including books by veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk.

The protagonist is a photo-journalist Danny, played by Daniela Farinacci, who can no longer disguise the impact of what she has experienced covering three war zones – Bosnia, East Timor and Iraq.

”She took a lot of unnecessary risks in getting her pictures,” Lourey says. ”Now she is at a stage in her life where she cannot keep the memories suppressed. She is the human face behind the images everyone sees and the personal cost has been very high.”

She cites an incident during the Russian invasion of Georgia that her research uncovered. A civilian asked a photographer to help her load water bottles but was told the photos were the best help available.

But the photographer was pulled out soon after because ”no one cared about such a dirty little war” and the images were never used. ”No wonder photo-journalists feel frustrated after all they go through,” Lourey says. She gives an assurance the play, which was short-listed for the 2008 Patrick White Award and won the R. E. Ross Trust Award in 2005, is not ”a dull, literal conversation piece”.

The director, Nadja Kostich, has made the production an ”immersive experience”, with a live musician (Jethro Woodward) and projected, distorted images. It has a cast of five, which is large for an independent production. Farinacci says a tight bond has developed among the performers, which will allow them to improvise a section of the show at each performance.

”We have developed a bold gestural style because we have no props, only language and many design elements,” she says. ”I have never worked like this before.”

The lighting designer, Emma Valente, is on stage with the actors, moving lights and highlighting an individual speaker. ”They have been with us from the start of rehearsal so we are quite used to what’s going,” Farinacci says.

”The play is quite literal but the staging really shakes it up.”

Her research uncovered the story of an American photo-journalist who returned to New York after three years in Africa. But she could not adapt back in the West and spent three months crying at the memories that resurfaced. ”Danny is at that place. Everything she has witnessed hits her in a big way.”

Farinacci is best known for her award-winning role in the movie, Lantana, and she appears in Nadia Tass’s new movie, Matching Jack. She has also worked on the TV dramas, East West 101, Carla Cametti and Secret Life of Us.

But she says theatre was her first love and she appeared in the Melbourne Workers Theatre’s ground-breaking production, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, in 1997.

Another performer from that production, Maria Theodorakis, also appears in Bare Witness.

”Film and television opened up for me after Lantana but theatre is starting to get busier for me,” Farinacci says.

Lourey says there is strong interest in touring the show during the next two years. ”There is every chance that it will have a long life.”

Her previous independent play was Dirty Angels, which was set in south-west Victoria and which toured regionally in 2004.

She was a senior artist with the award-winning community cultural development company, the Torch Project, for four years until 2006 when it was focused on indigenous communities in regional Victoria. ”The work involved researching in a community and coming up with something that interested them,” she says. ”It was gritty stuff and a great education in how to evacuate the real world and re-imagine it in ways that people could recognise.”

Bare Witness opens tonight at fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane, until September 26. Book online or phone 9662 9966.

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