Truth is stronger with fiction

22 March 2016

by Richard Dennis

There was a moment in Sunday's discussion on looking after ourselves and each other when a question was asked about using people's personal stories when making theatre. Luke Barnes answered by saying that the person you're writing about should be at the centre of the process, and it's not about the writer's vision. This was met with general consent, but I wonder how universally applicable this rule is when making theatre, especially after seeing The Beanfield and Daniel.

Both plays use real-life events and people to tell their stories. The Beanfield uses footage of interviews that the cast conducted with journalist Nick Davies, police officer Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera and new age traveller Carol Damaged, all of whom were at the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985 when riot police violently broke up a crowd of people on their way to an annual free festival at Stonehenge. The words and thoughts of these people are explicitly stated. There is no rewriting or reimagining of what they said, no actors speaking the lines verbatim; what we get is a quasi-documentary presentation of people's memories from that day.

With Daniel, the boundaries are harder to discern. The play is about how friends and family react when an 18-year-old boy is imprisoned for possession of indecent images of children. The programme states that it is based on a real story, but written by the cast. This left me wondering throughout the performance: how much of this is real? Not real in the sense of telling a story that feels true – in that respect, it easily succeeds – but real in terms of factual accuracy. Is the script in part verbatim? Are all the characters real people, albeit with their names changed? Was Daniel's cousin interviewed and, if he was, to what extent did he know about the play's themes? Were those actually Daniel's words at the end?

I'm in two minds about how important it is to know the answers to these questions. If Daniel were clearly presented as purely a piece of fiction, then they could more easily be dismissed as vague curiosities. But it isn't, and I want to know how much of the play is fictional and how much is, perhaps, verbatim.

Alice Saville, deputy editor of Noises Off, has written before about the ethics of verbatim theatre and how its apparent claims to documentary truth are suspect. She talks about how London Road director Rufus Norris and writer Alecky Blythe had returned to Ipswich late in the production process to record a woman saying “Come in” in order to create a scene. She writes: “This implicit boast of authenticity, applied to product that’s been crafted with as much an eye for a nice narrative arc as for the truth, seems contrived.” And it is.

Every form of reporting, be it theatre, documentary or journalism, contains a narrative. They all choose what information to share and when to share it, with the aim being to make a certain point, to tell a story. And the further you claim to be from fact, the more implicit licence you are given by an audience to tell your own story and disregard what “actually” happened.

The Beanfield is acutely aware of this in its form. The cast demonstrate it in the way they go about the reenactment – they know that it is slightly farcical and video clips show them messing around in riot gear, hitting each other with rubber truncheons. Their journey of discovery and connection with what happened is sincere, but also aware of its own limits in terms of “knowing” what the new age travellers experienced; when the emotional breakdown (or breakthrough) comes, it is because being hit by rubber truncheons during the reenactment “actually hurts”. It's in the way they say “you” when describing a drugged-up trip to the summer solstice in 2015, making the audience complicit in their journey and also, necessarily, aware that it must therefore be a fiction of some kind. The people who were there at the beanfield in 1985 – the only definitive connection to any actual truth – are shown in video clips on screen, one step removed, while the performers interviewing them remain onstage, still in the realm of fiction. The play isn't a documentary piece, or a verbatim piece, although it does wear those clothes lightly at times – it is entirely a fiction.

With Daniel, again, these distinctions are more blurred. What's fact and what's fiction isn't made clear, and there's no way of discerning one from the other. And perhaps I'm being harsh in making these comparisons for no other reason than I was primed by the discussion earlier in the day, but it's important because it comes back to the point Barnes made about putting the person who the story is about at the centre of your writing in terms of giving them either implicit or explicit control over the material. I understand why this is an important thing to keep in mind when making a piece about, say, a person with severe depression. You don't want the piece to be exploitative; and you want it to be true.

So why do we not expect the same consideration to be given to the real-life Daniel? There's a good chance that there will be people who see the show who have been affected by the issues raised in it – how much factual truth does the show need to have in that case? You can be dismissive of the idea that a paedophile's personal experience should be at the centre when writing a play about one, but you're still dealing with a difficult subject that can have a significant emotional impact on an audience. Is it a mistake to step further from reportage and deeper into fiction? Does that move you further away from truth?

Writers are not transcribers. Even when they try to be by using the form of verbatim theatre, they are in some way creating a fiction and constructing a narrative. Verbatim is not a shortcut to truth. You can be respectful of the person you're writing about, considerate and caring, but it is you that is making the story, whether it's condensing hours of interview footage into a few short minutes, or taking an experience of something that happened to someone you know and creating a host of imagined characters and events out of that. There is a necessary bias there, conscious or not.

Because how you tell the story is what makes it true to an audience. The Beanfield consciously exploits this, with the fiction serving the fact in the revelation of truth, and vice versa. Meanwhile, it turns out that Daniel is almost entirely fiction, and the cast were aware of the issues I've been discussing here, choosing to fictionalise a real event because they weren't able to speak to the people involved. But that doesn't make the play less sensitive, or less true. What speaks to the piece's truth is the conversation I had with someone who'd seen the show and had experienced something similar in their life and who felt profoundly affected by the show, to the point where they said it was something of a revelation for them. And that was down to the skill of the writers, not the words and wishes of the person who inspired them. 

Photo credit: Giulia Delprato