Review: Decade, Headlong at St Katharine Dock

“I get that it was…well, it is…a big deal for some people”

The tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre has and will receive a vast range of coverage through all sorts of media, but perhaps one of the most anticipated is Headlong’s new piece of site-specific theatre, Decade. 19 writers, playwrights mostly and Simon Schama, have all contributed their own responses to the events of the 11th September, their brief purely to be a scene set in the last 10 years, and they have been woven together by director Rupert Goold and housed in a warehouse on St Katharine Docks. I hadn’t intended to see this show so soon, wanting to let the experimental stuff settle before making my visit, but I was forced to reshuffle my diary and in order to fit it in before October and still get one of the cheaper tickets, this was my only opportunity.

After passing through a security checkpoint where you are questioned and ticketed (I was mildly disappointed there was no full body search from my guard, Tobias Menzies), we’re then guided through to take our seats in a replica of the dining room of the Windows On The World restaurant, formerly on the top floors of the North Tower. It’s a quirky entrance that sets the anticipation levels high even if the whole process did take a little time to fully accomplish. Seating is around dinner tables with a large raised stage in the middle of the room and is unallocated though ‘waiters’ do take you a table once summoned by the Maître D’. (My top tip would be to try and get on the long bank of seats on the side opposite the bar as close to the middle as you can. Just before the lights went down, I was advised by our Maître D’, in this case it was the delectable Charlotte Randle, that I might want to move from my original seat to this new place as there’s a certain amount which happens on a balcony level but all on one side, and it would have been rather difficult to see from there. So thank you Charlotte!)

And then the rollercoaster begins. Starting with a highly evocative piece of movement on the glass-fronted balcony, the many pieces of stories start to unfold. From survivors of the actual attack and those that had lucky escapes to a girl who bemoans the fact that her birthday on the same day will always be remembered for the wrong reasons. From a group of widows who meet in the same NY café every year to commemorate their loss to the emotional tourism industry that built up around the Ground Zero site which is both exploits and is exploited by its workers. The tales are told in different parts of the room, some played out in their entirety, others broken up into segments, one – the annual pilgrimage of the widows over the whole decade – is spread out over the length of the entire show. They do not intersect, no characters reappear, but rather the effect is of a patchwork quilt being built up, of a general sense of the vastness and the variety of ways in which people reacted to the attack.

Consequently there are moments of searing acuity, of quiet honesty and of touching reflection. Mike Bartlett’s imagined dialogue between two men about the death of Osama Bin Laden is a punchy, rapid-fire duel, Kevin Harvey particularly good here. Samuel Adamson’s verbatim piece of a system analyst who escaped by virtue of a random day’s leave and whose struggle to find answers saw him sucked into a dark world of conspiracy theorists was a highlight, Tobias Menzies excelling as this quiet, bereft man. Lynn Nottage’s exploration of the way in which the Arab-American population became the victim of horrendous prejudice after the attacks is beautifully judged, the cruel irony of the way African-Americans related to them in particular held up for its hypocrisy. And the way in which the three women deal differently with handling the grief of losing their husbands and then subsequently being bound together by nothing but that grief is movingly portrayed by the excellent Emma Fielding, Charlotte Randle and Amy Lennox.

I appreciated the note of ambiguity that some of the writers introduced, especially as this is what chimed most with my own views on the subject matter at large, but also with the lack of easy answers that were provided. The woman who cries when she talks about it even years afterwards but doesn’t know why; Christopher Shinn’s account of a man in therapy whose anger likewise emerges years later but he can’t quite access the reason for it. There were also moments though that left me rather nonplussed or feeling horribly itchy, fragments of stories that struggled to make their connection or their purpose clear, leaving one grateful that the format meant nothing went on for too long.

Every so often, the choreography does feel a little superfluous, a bolted-on part rather than integral to the piece, but the majority of Scott Ambler’s work is excellent: a wry take on air stewards opens the second act, the desperation of couples clinging onto each other in moments of crisis beautifully danced and echoed above and there’s an almost tribal feel to some of the group numbers that is highly atmospheric. Adam Cork’s sound design works extremely well too, even incorporating a sung piece in a similar style to London Road, and the overall design by Miriam Buether is well defined.

I may well write a separate blog post on my larger feelings about the way theatre – and I suppose by extension our society at large – can and has dealt with the ‘9/11 issue’: I’d rather keep the focus here on Decade. What I will say is that I think I have a problem with the assertion that this was “the defining moment of our times”, the launch point from which Headlong have worked here. I can’t help but feel a little perspective has been lost in the wider historical context of the past 10 years in which so much else has happened too. And what is this ‘we’ that is referred to? Its definition appears to be depressingly narrow when a glimpse at the programme reveals that the writing team appears to be exclusively Anglo-American. Why does the UK claim a special relationship to this tragedy when surely a wider range of nationalities could have added so much more rich diversity to the collective voice.

Likewise, the fact that we are 10 years on and history continues to roll on highlights weaknesses in the claim that this was the defining moment. From the cultural clash in a Karachi hospital waiting room to the crisis of conscience in a London tabloid newspaper office to an encounter with Lynndie England, the focus is pulled out to wide and consequently reminds us that a hell of a lot has happened since then as well. By continuing to imbue the 11th September with such lasting importance at the expense of other historical, and arguably just as significant, events from the last decade, we risk losing sight that it was part of the larger continuum of the ongoing history of the world.

An interview with Goold last month had me rather worried, this quote standing out "It might sound glib, but the thing I've realised rehearsing this is that the time between the first plane going in and the north tower coming down is about the length of a play. It does have that Aristotelean unity to it – one place, one time. I think that ties into people's memory. In a way, it feels like it validates our approach". but this really isn't symptomatic of the piece as a whole at all. In and of itself, Decade is a seriously impressive feat, a unique and unsentimental look at something that remains highly emotive and a truly original way of examining the subject in a respectful manner without hiding the fact that this is a large and unwieldy subject. And in utilising this format, the cumulative collage effect means the overall impact is one of deliberately paced construction, one is never in danger of being overwhelmed by the subject matter. 

That it manages this with such theatrical élan should come as no surprise for anyone familiar with Goold’s work and the company work wonderfully under his direction: Tobias Menzies, Emma Fielding and Charlotte Randle standing out for me, though Jonathan Bonnici, Samuel James and Cat Simmons also impressed. At the same time though, I can’t escape the feeling that whilst the ambition behind the original concept is admirable, it is also a little flawed in not incorporating more voices, whether Arab, Asian or African. But Decade nonetheless remains an illuminating piece of highly thought-provoking theatre. 

Running time: 3 hours (with interval) though still in preview and I hear rumours it is closer to 2 hours 30 now.
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 15th October

Full list of writers
Samuel Adamson, Mike Bartlett, Alecky Blythe, Ben Ellis, Ella Hickson, John Logan, DC Moore, Abi Morgan, Rory Mullarkey, Lynn Nottage, Simon Schama, Beth Steel, Samuel D Hunter, Matthew Lopez, Harrison Rivers, Janine Nabers, Mona Mansour, Christopher Shinn, Alexandra Wood,

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