by Anna Bruce-Lockhart
Opens in London on May 2.
The truth is out there, in that mulch of media-relayed current events, but weâ€™re not privy to it. Do any of us believe what we see on television, or really know what sort of world we live in? With luck, weâ€™ll soon be given a good idea, when Reader opens in London.
The work of Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, Reader is a politically charged but personal play about what happens to a society when it suppresses important truths in the name of higher ideals. Although it is set in a futuristic society, it is nevertheless a patent reflection our own. The main character is a professional censor, known sinisterly as The Pope, at whose hands the texts of the day are hacked into a language palatable to the controlled, 1984-like society he lives in.
That continues until one day, when he begins work on a book that reflects his own life and forces him into a self-awakening. Dorfman says that the play was â€œa way of asking what would happen to a man who has spent his life suppressing the works of others if a book he was about to ban suddenly began to reveal secrets from his past and predict an anguishing future which was coming alive in front of his eyesâ€.
Reader sprang directly from the authorâ€™s experience; it began life as a short story, written in vengeance against a dictatorial approach to art and literature in Chile at the time. â€œIt was a sort of semi-tragic joke I was playing on those who had been censoring me and other writers all through the 20th century,â€ Dorfman says. But the story soon expanded to address wider contemporary issues. The US governmentâ€™s attack on Iraq has unmistakable echoes of the violent, CIA-backed end to Allendeâ€™s Chile in 1973. â€œThe play continues to be sadly relevant. The governments portrayed in it smother, manipulate and control information in the name of the highest ideals, using the fear of the populace in an ongoing â€˜war on terrorâ€™. Sound familiar?â€
This is the first show ever to be staged at Amnestyâ€™s UK headquarters. Provocative theatre and an organisation like Amnesty might seem an odd pairing, but thereâ€™s every reason to believe the charityâ€™s humanitarian message can reach a wider audience through the play. Dorfman himself is particularly happy Amnesty has chosen to host this play. â€œTheyâ€™re opening what we can hope will be a thrilling array of works with a play which demands that the audience question the world and how itâ€™s organised,â€ he said.
In the directorâ€™s chair is Frank Tamburin, fresh off the plane from the US to oversee this project. Heâ€™s keen to see the underlying issues acknowledged. â€œWeâ€™re living in a strange climate these days,â€ he said. â€œSex and violence are endemic, so is an aggressive youth culture and angry, alienating music.â€ Tamburinâ€™s concern is that, just like Dorfmanâ€™s futuristic society, ours too is clamping down on freedoms in the name of â€œprotectionâ€; that CCTV cameras, chips in credit cards, even Oyster cards track us everywhere we go. â€œWeâ€™re casting about for terrorists, and thereâ€™s a violent bias against wrong-doers of any sort,â€ he said. â€œLook at us: two towers fell down and weâ€™re all prepared to go along with this overprotection.â€
Itâ€™s the same story that threads through much of Dorfmanâ€™s work. Heâ€™s a man whose personal history outstrips even his most sensational fiction. Before the political coup in Chile on the eve of Augusto Pinochetâ€™s reign, Dorfman worked as a cultural consultant under Salvador Allende in La Moneda, the government offices in Santiago. On the day of the coup he was out of the office and, while his name was on the â€œemergency listâ€ of staff, all of whom disappeared or were killed or tortured, Dorfman was never chased up. It was only afterwards that he discovered heâ€™d been saved deliberately, in order to disseminate the truth of the event.
Ariel Dorfmanâ€™s Reader is at bottom an alarm call. It calls time on the complicit roles we play in the society weâ€™re part of and the repression by that society of the less powerful. â€œI hope that some of those who attend may be alerted to the dangers of censorshipâ€, he said, â€œand understand that when we silence those with whom we disagree, we are, ultimately, suffocating a secret part of ourselves.â€
The play will be produced by Vulture Culture, a small company that started at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and went on to the Edinburgh Fringe and later London. They are fresh and stubbornly idealistic, perfect for this project.
The end of the play leaves mysteries unresolved. Dorfman has said that itâ€™s because he wants the audience to feel â€œthat the story on that stage has not yet ended, that how it really ends will depend on how we, who are also watching, act out our own livesâ€.
And thatâ€™s why itâ€™s vital to see this unique, Amnesty-backed production. Not only is it a brilliant and rewarding play, but it is â€œan adventure of the mindâ€, to use the words of Dorfman himself.
He invites theatregoers to â€œclear their hearts along with their diaries and see something that is quite different from anything available on the London stage todayâ€.
May 2-5, 2007
Doors 7.30pm, Curtains at 8.00pm
Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre, Shoreditch
Nearest tube: Old Street (Northern Line)
Tickets available at online.