Headlong, St Katherine Docks – Until 15th October
There is no doubt that Decade, Headlong’s collaborative theatrical response to 9/11, reaches moments that are powerfully affecting, even for those with no direct ties to the event. The strongest of these in Decade are where we see the butterfly effect in action; the ripples that change the course of someone’s life, years after the event.
We witness a woman engaged in an increasingly manic speed dating event, plagued both by eczema and a need for security and strength, ultimately unable to commit as she is unable to let go of her husband who died. A group of survivor wives meet every year at a coffee shop within sight of the Ground Zero. The audience are shown the scenes in reverse; a tricksy device suffers from the law of diminishing returns in its final scenes but does function as a powerful reminder of the long shadow cast by 9/11. The wives are unable to grieve in any understandable way, holding on to brittle bonds artificially-forged in the tragedy; held together by a sense of duty and continually reinforced by the sight of presidential candidates solemnly appearing at the site as part of carefully stage-managed campaigns.
Also outstanding is Tobias Menzies portrayal of a man recollecting his account of watching the Tower’s collapse after booking the day off. The audience’s awareness of events lends Menzies’ flat affectless delivery a heart-breaking quality. As we hear, with an Alan Bennett like focus on the absurdity in the mundane, a description of the day before and an ensuring phonecall to the office just after a plane hit the first time, there is a tragic inevitably in the growing awareness there won’t be Hollywood happy endings. Later we find that as a result of his experiences he has edged close to the ‘Truther’ movement; desperately trying to find meaning in his unanswered questions.
Not everything was crafted so successfully, a muscular, Mamet-ish duologue between journalist and a soldier involved in the death of Osama Bin Laden, began promisingly with the conversation hurled across the audience in staccato bursts reminiscent of machine-gun fire. However the contrivance of building a link to a relative who died in the Pentagon began to pull the characters apart at the seams and strain credulity.
Another piece, between shrink and survivor, also failed to engage and demonstrates the problem of the collaborative approach; at times it felt that Goold did not have a strong enough hand over proceedings. In a single-author piece there would be a tighter control over what works and doesn’t. A psychiatrist’s couch felt inserted to showcase another element of Manhattan-life without consideration of its value to the whole.
Given the running time was close to three hours, a few decisions to trim scenes or even cut some entirely would have been welcomed. A three hour play can be a stretch at the best of times but in such a piecemeal approach it inevitably lacks a cohesiveness to keep the audience fully engaged. Integrated, and rather amateurish, dancing (to a package of New York greatest hits, which just about stayed on the right side of Frank Sinatra) worked as interludes to allow scene changes but highlights the slightly forced structure.
There have been few strong artistic responses to September 11th, although Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 is a beautifully considered response that showcases the ability of music to take an abstract approach that can be profoundly moving, and Decade, whilst being respectful, thoughtful and, at times, powerful, is unlikely to be regarded as theatre’s answer to the question’s 9/11 posed. The collaborative structure needs more ruthless directorial control over the material and it is strange that Goold, one of Britain’s most highly-regarded and visually distinctive directors, has such a mute voice over affairs. However ten years on, with the benefit of perspective, we are at a moment of reflection and Headlong’s Decade works as an intriguing theatrical meditation on the events and their consequences.