“You are going to see things that are going to hurt you”
Vivienne Franzmann’s first, Bruntwood-winning, play Mogadishu was a deserved success last year and so her follow-up work for the Royal Court, The Witness, was something I was most definitely looking forward to. And as one enters the upstairs theatre with one of the cleverest and most ingenious in-the-round designs I’ve seen (has anyone done that before?) from Lizzie Clachan, anticipation was certainly high.
Joseph is a war photographer who is now living a quieter life in Hampstead, still processing the grief of becoming a widower and waiting for the return of his adoptive daughter Alex from her first year at Cambridge. He rescued her from the scene of a war crime in Rwanda and changed her life dramatically, but her time away has raised serious questions of identity for her and so her father decides to reveal a secret he has been keeping for a while…
Brilliantly positioned around the edges of Joseph’s living quarters, we are ourselves witness to the events of the play and the first half of the production by Simon Godwin is nigh-on perfect. Franzmann has constructed an amazing father/daughter relationship which is played with beautiful sensitivity by Danny Webb and Pippa Bennett-Warner. They capture the easy intimacy of a life shared and there’s the kind of shorthand to their interactions that totally rings true, especially as Alex tries to convince her father of how deeply felt the longing in her is.
The second half, with the arrival of Rwandan Simon onto the scene, loses a little of this charge, but not at all because of David Ajala’s performance, which brings a straight-backed certitude to proceedings. Rather, it is because Franzmann tries to make her point too emphatically, too one-sidedly, about the ethical and moral dilemmas of war photography. The decks are stacked strongly in Simon’s favour as he slowly reveals what he knows and Joseph is given no effective rebuttal, as the focus is on Alex’s journey to greater understanding of her self. Given that a long-running sub-plot is the planning of a major retrospective of Joseph’s work, the effect is flick something of a v-sign to photojournalism and deny the importance of its role.
But it still remains compellingly watchable, with acting of the highest calibre playing out this tale which remains extremely engaging. There’s also a live hen on the stage at one point, what more do you want?!