Tag Archives: Dan O’Brien

Theatre interlude: The Body Of An American

1 Mar


The Body of an American is an award-winning play by Dan O’Brien. It is directed for the British stage by James Dacre, artistic director of  the Royal and Derngate Northampton in a co-production with London’s Gate Theatre in Notting Hill and is the best play I have seen this year.

Using just two actors, playing more than thirty parts, it tells a fictionalised story of the relationship between a playwright (Dan) and a older Canadian photojournalist, Paul (based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Watson), both of who are haunted by ghosts from the past.  In Paul’s case, it is the act of taking a shot of the desecrated corpse of an American serviceman (Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland) in Somalia. The morality of this act and the real or imagined consequences of disclosing the brutality of war crystallises his own depression. For Dan the haunting  is the result of alienation from his family and its secrets – both known and unspoken. The relationship starts by e-mail and develops into a face-to-face meeting in the Canadian arctic.  The two men range over a variety of topics as they seek to explain and understand themselves and each other  and it’s a powerful insight into male conversation.

It is an incredibly intense piece, lasting 90 minutes without a break and requiring enormous concentration from the actors William Gaminara (as Paul) and Damian Moloney (as Dan).   It’s also a pretty intense piece for the audience too.

The production opened in January at the Gate, which is a small 70 seater theatre, and for the Northampton transfer, James Dacre has transformed one of the lesser-used Underground performance spaces of the Derngate theatre  into a claustrophobic tunnel where the audience (probably no more than eighty strong) sit facing each other in two lines of two benches  across an aisle that is some six feet wide and 30 feet long with projection screens at each end, a serious amount of lighting and a ‘bedding’ of shredded plastic on the floor (representing sand or snow). It is in this aisle that the performance occurs – just the actors and two chairs as props which serve as  jeeps, beds, sleds and more). This of course means the audience sees the acting close-up and personal – with the performers not interacting with the audience directly – but certainly making and holding eye contact.

While the economics of this show are probably such that it’s not economic to produce a programme, the venue is selling the playscript, published by Oberon Books (cover image above) at £6.99 and it is well worth it because the author, Dan O’Brien is also a published poet. His words are for reading as much as speaking and the interplay between the actors as they cut rapidly from character to character in mid sentence develops an almost poetic rhythm.

It was an absolutely superlative piece of theatre with remarkable performances by both men – in turns sad, funny, humorous moving and unrelentingly direct.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.