Los Angeles 1992
Gate Theatre January 2018
The life of the theatre depends as much on the revival and reinterpretation of older works as on the creation of new ones. The mere fact that there have been a thousand and one past productions of Hamlet is no reason not to have the thousand-and-second.
But could a theatrical work be so dependent on the time, place and circumstances of its creation that any later production must be inferior? This is the question facing director Ola Ince and performer Nina Bowers, and I'm not sure it doesn't defeat them.
In 1991 four white California policemen were filmed viciously beating an African-American Man named Rodney King. When a trial the next year resulted in their acquittal, the largely black neighbourhoods of Los Angeles exploded in rioting, looting and firebombing.
Theatre-maker Anna Deavere Smith interviewed a lot of people centrally or tangentially involved in the riots and created a collage of their voices, which Smith herself performed within months of the events, to great acclaim and many awards.
But now, twenty-five years later and a continent away, can the work have anything like the effect it had then?
Smith's original production was defined by the immediacy of its timeliness and the authenticity of the creator being the performer. This new production at the Gate Theatre must of necessity be removed from both, and despite the high energy and talents of the actress, cannot help coming across as a weak approximation of the original.
Using a text cut down from Smith's full version, Nina Bowers plays a series of Los Angeles residents, shopkeepers, lawyers, community activists and both participants in and victims of the rioting. Some of their stories are moving, some chilling, a very few humorous.
But through no fault of the actress and director, their telling is a step removed from our involvement, more an experience of hearing something narrated than of being brought into it.
You can't blame director or actor for not trying. The Gate audience sits in chairs placed randomly around the room, with Bowers constantly moving around, pausing in front of, next to or behind some of us to play each new role.
But some elements of the staging work against the effectiveness of the text. Bowers mingles with the audience before the play begins, chatting in her own voice, and she pauses the performance midway through for an interval of tea and biscuits.
The result is the repeated reminder that this is a performer here and now telling us second hand about events there and then, very much the opposite of the effect Anna Deveare Smith generated twenty-five years ago.
Without the immediacy and authority of the original, and performed for an audience for some of whom the generating time and place may be as distant as the Middle Ages, Twilight Los Angeles has the feel of an illustrated history lesson, the kind of thing a particularly energetic and inventive professor might attempt.
Such a lesson is always welcome. But it has nothing like the power of the original.
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Review - Twilight Los Angekes 1992 -- Gate Theatre 2018