New Swansea based production company Tent of Xerxes certainly delivered with Dan O’Brien’s equivocally subtle, yet compellingly powerful The Body of an American. A four-time award winner, including the 2014 Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, The Body of an American explores the ethical and personal consequences of reporting war – in this case the US intervention in Somalia in 1992 – and asks profound questions about the interplay between the images produced by conflict and the political ramifications of their dissemination
The body of the play’s title is that of Staff Sgt William David Cleveland, whose mutilated corpse was photographed being dragged by an angry Somali mob through the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993. This defining image of the Battle of Mogadishu brought home the calamitous consequences of a mission to neutralise the Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid. The bloody disaster led to hundreds of civilians’ deaths and those of 18 American servicemen. If it were not for that picture, the playwright contends, President Clinton would not have ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia, Al-Qaeda would not have scented the vulnerability of US foreign policy to brutal propaganda coups and the course of recent history, from 9/11 onwards, might have run a very different course.
The story of the mission, although vital to the context of its effects on the play’s protagonists, is secondary to the personal experience of the aftermath of the battle, as witnessed by the photographer Paul Watson, whose picture of the dead soldier won him the Pulitzer Prize. Central to this experience was the guilt he subsequently felt for the photo’s effects on the fallen man’s family, and for the tension it exposed between his professional obligations and his sense of moral responsibility. Into this fraught
debate comes the writer Dan, a man with no such comparable life experience, but one, nevertheless, fascinated by the psychological make-up of the darkly introspective Paul.
We jump about in time and location, winding up at the pair’s face to face meeting in the Canadian Arctic. Some of the material draws on recorded conversation, some of it is sourced from Watson’s memoir Where War Lives.
Moment by moment the language scintillates, its rhythms and cadences nurtured by the deft direction of Michael Kelligan, whose feel for the text is unerring, whilst Rob Stradling as Paul, and Douglas Gray as Dan, give commanding, utterly mesmerising performances as the two men brought together by what haunts them.
Given that more than 40 other characters interweave through the play’s unfolding only underlines the achievement of these fine actors in pulling off such challenging roles. Believe me when I say that one hour and three-quarters, without a break, flew by. Stage design was minimalist allowing the words themselves to fill the space and touch the audience unhindered by props and extraneous material.
Stage structures consisted of two bistro tables and four chairs. The two actors divided their time between being seated at the tables and standing at the stage edge. The sitting postures were helpful in assisting the audience place the characters geographically as the story stretches through time and distance. A great deal of the early interaction between the characters took place by email which in the performance was ably mimed by the dexterous fingers of Douglas Grey as Dan conveying his correspondence with Paul in whichever far-flung destination he was temporarily settled.
Both actors, through movement, gesticulation and physical mannerisms brought the story to life. Indeed the absence of props was never a problem and did not detract from the telling of the story. The sound effects were similarly minimalist although the voice of the dead soldier coming from offstage with his message for Paul was appropriately haunting. The scenes in the Arctic saw the stage bathed in bright white light bringing to life the raw Arctic tundra and as the actors donned snow coats it became perceptibly colder by several degrees in the arts wing.
The slide show of Watson’s original photographs was a deft touch which made much sense after the show when the images spoke with added depth and poignancy. Well done Tent of Xerxes for bringing us a fluent, compelling piece of theatre, perfectly married to the wonderful text by an accomplished creative team.