Political theatre takes many forms. It can be an engrossing judicial inquiry like Bloody Sunday. It can be a family saga like Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley. Or it can be a deeply moving personal testimony like this selection from the writings of Rachel Corrie, edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, editor of Guardian Weekend Magazine, and performed by Megan Dodds.
In the course of 90 minutes you feel you have not just had a night at the theatre: you have encountered an extraordinary woman.
Most readers will know the bare facts about Rachel Corrie: that she was a 23-year-old American who went to aid Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and in March 2003 was killed by an Israeli bulldozer. But what comes as a shock is realising that she combined an activist’s passion with an artist’s sensibility. Louis MacNeice once yearned for a poet who was informed in economics, actively interested in politics. Rachel Corrie emerges as just such a person.
Writing was clearly in her blood. She started a diary when she was 12 and the first third of the evening shows her, at high school and at college in Olympia, Washington, using it to discover who she was. As a compulsive list-maker, she itemises the people she would like to hang out with in eternity; significantly, they are mainly writers, including Rilke, ee cummings, Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald.
And Corrie herself has the artist’s ability to see the significance of her own life. Writing of a boyfriend who ditched her, she says percipiently: Colin always wanted to walk faster and I wanted to trudge and identify ferns.
But Corrie was always a progressive with a conscience and in January 2003 she went to work with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza. What makes this part of the evening so stirring is her ability to set down precisely what she sees. She records the exact amount of time Palestinians spend waiting at Israeli checkpoints. She talks to a doctor who knows that the house that it took him 30 years to afford can be destroyed in three hours, but who still says: I trust in my god, so no problem.
She also records the surreal experience of watching Pet Sematary on cable TV and ducking in horror from its fictional violence. An obvious comparison is with David Hare’s Via Dolorosa. But that was a conscious, and very fine, piece of theatrical reportage in which Hare talked to both Israelis and Palestinians at all levels. Corrie went to Gaza specifically to support Palestinians whose homes were being demolished and makes no attempt to hide her partiality.
And, while she distinguishes between Jewish people and Israeli politicians, she is appalled by what she sees: the checkpoints that prevent people getting to jobs and places of education, the casual destruction of wells, the children who grow up with tank-shell holes in their walls.
Theatre has no obligation to give a complete picture. Its only duty is to be honest. And what you get here is a stunning account of one woman’s passionate response to a particular situation.
And the passion comes blazing through in Corrie’s eloquent reaction to her father’s inquiry about Palestinian violence. As she says, if we lived where tanks and soldiers and bulldozers could destroy our homes at any moment and where our lives were completely strangled, wouldn’t we defend ourselves as best we could?
The danger of right-on propaganda is avoided by the specificity of Rickman’s Theatre Upstairs production. Above all, this is a portrait of a woman. And Megan Dodds doesn’t play down Corrie’s early moments of precocious self-absorption. But what she captures above all is Corrie’s boundless curiosity, nomadic spirit and rage against injustice. Dodds also conveys some essential human decency that makes Corrie feel guilty about her parents’ tender concern for her own endangered existence.
Hildegard Bechtler has designed a remarkable set that encompasses both the young Corrie’s clothes-strewn American bedroom and the sun-bleached, bullet-marked Palestinian walls in front of which she ends her tragically brief life.
But although the aesthetics are important, they matter less than the show’s content. And what that offers is a jolting reminder of the daily realities of Palestinian life and a portrait of a remarkable woman who tried to alleviate suffering.
Theatre can’t change the world. But what it can do, when it’s as good as this, is to send us out enriched by other people’s passionate concern.
Michael Billington (wrote this a long time ago! and rediscovering the text today I just wanted to share….)