Saturday, September 10, 2011

Last week was officially the end of military repatriations to ceremonial applause from thousands who have flocked to watch 167 bodies pass through the streets of Wootton Bassett since 2007. Bristol Old Vic's Young Company has collaborated with the National Theatre to examine the part this ceremony plays in our national psyche, as observed by the town's teenagers. Writer James Graham and director Anthony Banks talked to local pupils about how the situation impacted on a generation barely school age at the time of 9/11, which celebrates its tenth birthday on Sunday.

Creating a performance from this project has two main challenges: to create credible differentiation between thirteen Year-11(ish) pupils without 2-dimensionalising, and even more importantly, to distill discussion into essential theatricality. For me Bassett succeeded brilliantly. The young performers held the stage from the start, overcame some slightly Vicky-Pollardy lines to create a passionate scenario which smoldered to a shocking climax in its own (theatrical) way authentic.

Locked into detention by an exasperated supply teacher, the 'Citizen Skills' class is already registering on Lord-of-the-Flies scale when we meet them, with only autistic Spencer obeying her last command not to move. They're furious and indignant about missing "the Re-pat", especially since today's coffin belongs to ex-schoolmate Charlie, a hero in their eyes. Their debate about the role of their town as grief-centre of the war digs into a range of issues, with Leo - the most knowledgeable and also the most militant - increasingly frustrated by dissent from less dogmatic classmates. Tensions escalate relentlessly and when memories of the real Charlie intrude, this volatile situation explodes: the patriot cracks to release the terrorist within.

Last word goes to Spencer, who has been reading the teacher's notes on history: "If it wasn’t for us the world would be worse than it is. So I think we’ll be alright in the long run.” But Spencer is still obediently facing the other way: he didn't see what really happened at all.

Anyone agreeing with Cameron, Obama, and Leo that the Wootton Bassett ritual represents 'the best of British' will be glad to know the tradition continues seamlessly at Carterton, near Brize Norton: the first of the new arrivals, Royal Marine Sgt Barry Weston, was escorted through on the same day I watched this play.

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