Tragedy as it should be told

November 27, 1991

Aftershocks
Workers Cultural Action Committee
Civic Playhouse, Newcastle, until November 30
Reviewed by Philip Bilton-Smith

Aftershocks is six actors on a bare stage telling stories surrounding the collapse of the Newcastle Workers Club in the 1989 earthquake. The actors present the verbatim accounts of 16 "characters" selected from over 35 hours of taped interviews and edited/structured by writer in residence Paul Brown.

The stage is bare except for six chairs, and the titles of the scenes or episodes are painted on the wall behind the actors. It's not just a case of sit and deliver, however; the actors are on their feet making good use of the chairs (which represent ladders, ledges and pieces of debris by turns) and engaging us with their open and direct performance.

Psychological realism is not the aim here. The actors are careful to allow the stories to speak for themselves, resisting the temptation to overwhelm the content with bold and emotional characterisations. This is not to say that emotions are not stirred by the piece — they are — but tears and laughter are placed in perspective, and the mind is engaged as much as the heart.

This is no universal tale of woe (although the ways in which people cope with the disaster may be reproduced across a broad range of cultural situations), and neither does it pretend to be. The play is as much about the meaning of the Workers Club to the Newcastle community as it is about the quake of December 28, 1989.

It is a presentation in which work is a central concept in the lives of the people involved. Its form challenges widely held notions about theatre insofar as it eschews the primacy of writer as visionary, director as gifted interpreter and actor as virtuoso chameleon, and gives voice to those who are largely ignored.

Each person involved with the project has contributed what he or she does well, giving to the audience a sense of the work of theatre as opposed to the artifice of it.

The quake is the hook and the stories, though real, are chosen and edited by a writer and presented by actors, but the stories of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation are what count and the production values of Aftershocks reflects this.

Finally, although not a direct attack on mainstream media, the play by its very existence brings into the question the motives and methods of press and television reportage of events. Victims of tragedy generally have no say in the way in which their stories are told. An unwelcome camera intrudes on their grief, or their statements are quoted out of context for the purpose of creating good "news".

Aftershocks shows how oral history techniques can be used to give back the dignity that the media can take away, telling the story as it should be told.

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