Dont shoot the clowns & Five Days in May

If the aim of Don’t Shoot the Clowns was to raise its audiences awareness of the personal hell for those living in and around Bagdad during the Iraq war – it certainly succeeded (for me at any rate). Yet theatrically it left me strangely cold.

There were moments of real drama. The characterisation of Blair as a crazed clown for example or the second half show down (via mobile phone) between the two sisters – one an activist (and part time clown) the other an ambitious, emerging journalist on the BBC who simply can’t accept the ‘news’ her sister tells her for broadcast without corroboration. But too often things felt slow, flat even with key moments wasted. So for example at the end of the first half the lead character narrates what should be a harrowing story of a child in a hospital crying ‘mummy, mummy’ and being comforted by an adult but the image was needlessly thrown away by bringing on two performers to ‘show us’ what was being narrated.

Earlier that afternoon I’d been listening to Five Days in May (which you can listen again to here – ). Another political piece – this time by Matthew Solon – Five Days in May marked six months of the coalition government by telling the story of the tense negotiation between all three parties after the general election result. It was compelling listening – a natural dramatic curve enhanced by being fresh in the memory.

Last time I’d been at the Lakeside (to see Red Ladder’s UGLY) I’d found myself having a lively discussion post show with Pasco, theatre manager, about how now felt like a time for the continued rise of political theatre. So why did one piece work more for me than another? Several reasons I think:-

– Even in this day of 24 hour news Five Days in May told (or imagined) a story which had happened behind closed doors. Even if it wasn’t it felt true. Don’t Shoot the Clowns is also a true (untold) story but you struggled to empathise with the characters. Like the clowns they portrayed they felt like gross caricatures. It didn’t feel real.
– I think it’s also about the story you tell. I wanted to know what had happened behind those closed doors in May but with Don’t Shoot the Clowns I found myself wanting more of the stories about the Iraqi people, and less about the clowning troupe
– It may also have been about time. Five Days in May was based on things that happened in the recent memory. Don’t Shoot the Clowns is a well developed work, based on a book (based on a blog) – it’s been through Fuel at the Roundhouse and a Jerwood residency- and the time that has taken has separated the work from the events itself. You are left wondering how powerful a more immediate all be it rougher, less polished work based on Jo Wilding’s original blogs might have been…
– Radio of course allows you to create your own images so it’s a powerful medium for dock drama. Theatre requires something more – and I found myself continually frustrated by the way Don’t Shoot the Clowns insisted on simply showing the audience what characters were telling us.

A couple of days ago on a whim I downloaded a Buxton bootleg of Rev Hammers Freeborn John. Mid way through a ballad singer, played by Rory McLeod, sings a news story – a reminder that the arts were once both entertainment and news. So I found myself thinking who are the 21st century ballad singers?

On this weeks Guardian Media Podcast Ira Glass the presenter of This American Life (a hugely successful radio show and podcast) said that his programme was

‘a documentary show for people who hate documentaries…we want the stories to be actual stories, with characters and scenes which pull you in and you want to know what happens’

With .5 million downloads every week This American Life makes a good case to be an example the 21st century ballad singer. But what Five Days in May and Don’t Shoot the Clowns re enforced for me was that even with our obsession with 24 hour news – there are hidden narratives that can and should be told and that performance can be an effective, accessible mechanism for the telling. A central point about Don’t Shoot the Clowns is that there are stories the media will not tell – and for Five Days in May it’s about the stories behind closed doors – that the media does not have access too.

Meanwhile I’m left reflecting on the irony that I’d have really liked to have seen Jo Wilding’s original lecture tour – fully knowing that had I seen such an event in the Lakeside brochure I might well have simply passed it by as another (dull) promo book evening. So regardless of my gripes and quibbles and for the very reason it showed me a side of the Iraq war I was blissfully unaware of I’d happily recommend Don’t Shoot the Clowns to anyone.

Tour dates here / facebook page for The future is unwritten
Jo Wilding’s book – here

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