Theatre Review: The Body of an American at Royal & Derngate

Damien Molony as Dan and William Gaminara as Paul. Photo by Simon Duston.
Damien Molony as Dan and William Gaminara as Paul. Photo by Simon Duston.

‘Do this and I will own you’

The phrase is often repeated in The Body of an American and the line is as good a summation as any of what this unrelenting award-winning play is about; the indelible marks of war.

Playwright Dan O’Brien pursued the Canadian war photographer Paul Watson across the world to get an interview for a play he wanted to write.

Whatever that play would have been, the result was The Body of an American, the story of the pursuit told in fragmented mini-scenes.

Performed straight through in 90 minutes in the extremely intimate Underground theatre at the Royal & Derngate, the entire work is carried off by two actors not more than 10 metres from the audience.

The aimed-for intensity does not relent and every spit and sweat bead can be seen, every throbbing vein noted.

William Gaminara plays Watson and Damian Molony is O’Brien. Mostly, that is.

Against a backdrop of Watson’s actual photographs at either end of the space, they speak a type of almost breathless dialogue that shatters the classical unities of time, place and action.

At first they talk in the language of the emails O’Brien sent Watson in real life, revealing chunks of their lives and by and by their personal torments. They speak face-to-face later and sometimes slip( with understated comedy) into other voices of Inuits, Indian and Somalis as the chase continues across the globe.

The acting of Molony and Gaminara throughout feels natural and authentic. Arguably Gaminara has the easier task. Drawing drama and anguish from the life of a war photographer would appear to be relatively simple. But the additional layers of world-weary humour and charisma are worn like a second skin and, despite the fragmented format, make his portrayal immensely believable.

Molony must have had to dig deeper but, though it is a close thing, he finds the richer vein. The fact that he shades the acting duel in a play ostensibly about the other character is great testimony to the younger man’s ability to affect audience members in a limited space. When he speaks straight at you, it feels natural rather than studied.

Therefore in the battle to captivate he wins on points, the honesty and humanity channelled in such a fashion you would imagine the playwright would be thrilled.

So the performances are inexorable and fabulous.

And, as a whole, The Body of an American is satisfying on many levels. It is undeniably a play that pivots on style - verging sometimes on a particularly energetic photography exhibition - but it does not unduly indulge itself.

The key seems to be that O’Brien does not sacrifice substance for the necessary style.

The issues - war and, later, broken family ties - could scarcely be more substantial and yet it takes huge craft to keep it from becoming trite. O’Brien achieves this by focusing on the people. It is a hard task to make the man on the street care about atrocities in Africa, but show him the scars war will leave on a recurring eye witness, someone like us, and we get the idea.

Journalists and playwrights alike know the value of human interest and O’Brien’s use of that technique is masterful.

None of the above would make much difference, however, if it was not for his film director-like sense of rhythm.

When the rapid shifts of place and time occur, the audience is not disconcerted and is pulled seamlessly into one mini-scene after another.

It is here that the subtle sounds and photographs, a bridge between the fact and the fiction, prove their worth, explaining the scene and hinting at the horror that torments even this hardened photographer.

The title of the play is after Watson’s most famous shot, an American soldier’s mutilated body in the aftermath of his unit’s frantic exit from Mogadishu.

The overall message seems to be that complete impartiality cannot exist, people cannot be unaffected by what they witness, and war will always leave its mark. How men deal with that and carry on is where the entrancing drama in The Body of an American lies.

The Body of an American runs at The Royal & Derngate until March 8

BOX OFFICE: Northampton 624811