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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London London Review
The Body of an American

"If you do this, I will own you for ever." — heard by Paul Watson
The Body of an American
Damien Molony as Dan O'Brien and in shadow William Gaminara as Paul Watson (Photo: Bill Knight)
In one of London's tiniest spaces at the 70 seat Gate Theatre in Notting Hill comes a giant of a play. The Body of an American is about the playwright's attempt to capture in a play, the life of a photo-journalist, whose photograph taken in war ravaged Mogadishu in 1993 has won a Pulitzer prize. The playwright is Princeton resident poet and writer Dan O'Brien (Damien Molony) and the photographer is Canadian Paul Watson (William Gaminara) working for the Toronto Star.

We start with the award winning photograph of a dead American soldier, Staff Sergeant Wiliam David Cleveland, trussed up with ropes and being dragged by a grinning Somali mob through the streets of Mogadishu. The photograph is distressing, the celebration and glee on the faces of the Somali participants telling and repelling. Paul describes the scene, "Each time a Black Hawk (US helicopter) thundered past people would shake their fists and curse at it." As Paul Watson takes the photograph of the American's body, he hears a voice both in his head and out, "If you do this, I will own you forever." He believes that this is the voice of the American soldier and is haunted by his memory.

What the play does successfully is to transfer Paul Watson's feelings to the audience. It is partly because of the frankness and sincerity and depth of the writing, the verbal exchange between the writer and his subject delivered for us onstage. At first Dan hears a pod cast and is captivated by the photographer's voice. Dan insists on absolute honesty in what Paul tells him. They later exchange emails; Dan in the snows of Wisconsin, Paul in a sweaty thunderstorm in Indonesia and Paul talks about his youth, reading Camus, exploring existentialist ideas, playing the Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and chewing peyote and why one of arms ends in a stump. Later Paul travels to South Africa and sees a psychiatrist in Johannesburg who says that the words he heard in Mogadishu were hallucinations. Dan describes where he is now and touches on his unhappy childhood and young adult hood. Both paint vivid word pictures and we are involved with these vibrant, descriptive stories. They find things in common and they like each other although never having met in person. They arrange to meet in the Canadian Northwest Territories in the frozen landscape of the Arctic Circle three years after they first corresponded.

Paul explains that if he had been able to take a photograph a week before in Mogadishu of the treatment of the bodies of the crew of another shot down Black Hawk, denied by the American authorities, he could have prevented the killing of Sgt Cleveland. It is these photographs, often taken in dangerous areas, that inform and drive public opinion.

The playing area is like a corridor, long and thin with two rows of audience either side and at either end, somewhere to project the photographs, mostly taken by Watson but some by O'Brien. We've worn shoe covers to protect the white artificial snow covered floor. The two actors each play many different characters, 30 different roles, sometimes one role split between them mid speech, as their remarkable friendship develops. Their story is moving and full of humanity; the performances convincing and intelligent. As Paul makes contact with the family of Sgt Cleveland, there is an unexpected and touching outcome. Highly recommended, The Body of an American reminded me of Stephen Poliakof's haunting stories about memory and photography.

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The Body of an American
Written by Dan O'Brien
Inspired by the book Where War Lives by Paul Watson
Directed by John Dacre

Starring: William Gaminara and Damien Molony
Designed by Alex Lowde
Sound: Adrienne Quartly
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Video Design: Dick Straker for Mesmer
Running time: Ninety minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7229 0706
Booking at The Gate Theatre to 14th February 2014; many dates sold out
Booking 27th February to 8th March at the Royal and Derngate Northampton
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st January 2014 performance at the Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Road, London W11 3HQ (Tube: Notting Hill Gate)

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