Todd McDonald, Adam McConvell and Daniela Farinacci in Bare Witness Photo: Marg Horwell
Street Theatre, November 6
Reviewer: Philip O'Brien
'Keep the camera rolling, no matter what,'' Australian photojournalist and cameraman Neil Davis would say. And that became his epitaph when, during a coup in Bangkok in 1985, he involuntarily filmed his own death when he was hit by shrapnel.
For photojournalists in combat zones who survive the ever-present risk of death, there is also the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is one of the issues explored in the new Australian play Bare Witness by Mari Lourey, staged at the Street Theatre this week as part of a regional tour. Directed by former Canberran Nadja Kostich, the play is an initiative of Melbourne-based companies La Mama Theatre and fortyfivedownstairs.
To say that Bare Witness is physical theatre doesn't do it justice. This is feverishly energetic performance where actors play multiple roles, linking a succession of vignettes that take the audience rapidly across time and place.
In researching the play, Lourey drew on the real-life experiences of photojournalists and foreign correspondents in contemporary war zones. But the play doesn't romanticise their lives - quite the reverse. Nor is it documentary-style theatre. The audience witnesses the effect of the horrors of war rather than graphic images of war itself.
The play also explores what motivates photojournalists to continue their jobs in such dangerous and often poorly-paid conditions. And at a time when the boundaries are being blurred between news reporting and commentary, audiences might say that photo images are more truthful - ''the camera doesn't lie''. Bare Witness suggests that this may not always be the case.
The main character is Dannie Hills (played by Daniela Farinacci), who has graduated from photographing Melbourne Cup fashions to working as a photojournalist in major war zones. When she started out all she wanted was to take ''great pictures'', but her experiences over a decade have traumatised her. She sifts through a box of photographs - numbered 011 to 001 - trying to make sense of her experiences.
Dannie and her fellow ''snappers'' - photojournalist colleagues - then take us through a series of war zones, from the Balkans to East Timor and Iraq, as they tell the story of each of the photographs and of how their lives were affected at the time. She is also graphically reminded of the effect of war on innocent civilians and feels guilt that her career as a photojournalist has traded on their suffering.
Kostich's direction is deliberately staccato, from the jump-cut nature of scene changes to the actors' manic movements and dialogue. Bare Witness is a play about the episodic nature of memory and its staging reinforces this. Designer Marg Howell's stark set and lighting designer Emma Valente's use of flashlights and hand-held lights add to the sense of ever-present danger. The soundscape, including live performance by cellist Kristin Rule, is at times spare and edgy and other times more lyrical. It both punctuates the action as well as providing a subtle commentary on it. And periodically flashed on a suspended sheet at the back of the set are video designer Michael Carmody's unsettling images - not of graphic war photographs but of packs of running wolves, not unlike the packs of photojournalists in war zones.
At the end of the production, we come to appreciate the meaning of the play's title. Each of the photojournalists has been witness to atrocity and, as they arrange themselves for a group photograph, we realise that they, too, have been victims of war.
Bare Witness features a powerful performance by Farinacci in the main role, ably supported by an energetic cast of Adam McConvell (as the Irishman Jack), Eugenia Fragos (as Violetta), Todd MacDonald (as Jacek) and Ray Chong Nee (as East Timorese journalist Jose). The script has benefited from substantial cuts and rewrites in the two years since it was first staged. It is now tight and compelling.
For audiences who like contemporary theatre that challenges stylistic conventions, it's not to be missed.