Monday, 26 May 2014

White Night @ Sale Waterside Arts Centre, 17.04.14

On the 18th of November 1978 918 members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. This has become known as the Jonestown Massacre, a strange, unknowable and almost unbelievable episode in human history. It is part science fiction, part horror film and part parable. No wonder then that writer and director Nick Birchill became interested in the events surrounding the deaths, and decided to turn his research into a performed reading for audiences.

The play is a re-telling of Birchill’s deepening fascination with Jonestown, following his journey from library documents to audio archives and, eventually, even his own attempt at recreating the suicide itself (famously done by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide). The script also documents the struggle of realising this research as a staged performance, a side story that adds humour and perhaps a touch of post-modern conceit.

The tale is told by actors Lauren Banks, Sinead Parker and Richard Patterson. Seated in simple office chairs Banks, Parker and Patterson all gave good readings, full of feeling and energy. Banks’ chilled calm, Parker’s controlled hysteria and a solitary tear from Patterson were particular highlights. It takes some skill to draw an audience into a mainly static performance, so credit must be given to the cast for the result they reached.

A couple of directorial flourishes added additional flavour, as Birchill chose to show slides of the event on a big screen…only the images were blacked out. By leaving everything in the audiences’ imagination it added emphasis to the words and sounds, forcing you to meditate on the horrors and hardships you were hearing about. While pictures were kept out sound was brought in, with studio recordings of the Jonestown choir and crackly cassette clips from leader Jim Jones’ sermons used to great effect. Perhaps the saddest moment of the evening was hearing one of the choir singing a lament to her child; no matter what you write or say, you could never hope to match the power of this direct testament.

The key question is, what do we get out of this? While the script talks of understanding the church members, what we actually receive is an insight into the fascination and confusion that distant traumatic events can inspire. We want to understand, comprehend and show our compassion for these people, we long to break through the calm white world we live in and feel the things they felt...but we can’t. White Night certainly captures this feeling of frustrated sympathy, and as a result it must be measured as a success.

Words: Andrew Anderson

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