It takes a brave director to do a play about 9/11. To take on such a momentous event and say something new, something that avoids simplification and arrogance, is a hard task indeed.
Rupert Goold’s masterstroke is to not even try. He doesn’t give us one narrative, one way of looking at those events, instead he gives us countless; hundreds of opinions, ideas and emotional responses that are expressed in a myriad of ways from naturalism to oblique metaphors. The result is a sketchbook of perspectives that is both immersing and epic.
You get a sense of the scale of it all, just by glancing at the programme; well over 15 writers were involved. They range from the established to the up and coming to the downright unexpected, with contributors spanning from Ella Hickson to Simon Schama. The scenes they give us are as varied as you’d imagine.
One section sees Twin Towers’ employee Scott Forbes (the excellent Tobias Menzies) address the audience directly, recounting his experiences with an understated, barefaced naturalism. Another focuses on a journalist (Samuel James) interviewing Osama Bin Laden’s killer (Kevin Harvey); their dialogue spiky, sharp and stylised. In another we see a woman (Emma Fielding) as she tries to re-find love through speed dating. She ends up drunkenly teetering on her table top as her eczema-ridden skin peels off like ash from the Twin Towers. Towards the very end text messages sent on 9/11 are put to music; sound bites of the day that turn from the banal to the terrified.
The eclectic style captures both the emotional and intellectual responses to 9/11 equally well. We see one character (Menzies) tend towards conspiracy theories in his desperation to understand what happened, whilst another – giving a Schama-style lecture – argues that he can’t get the emotional distance to place it historically; it’s too personal and immense for him to grasp yet. An opinion you feel Goold probably shares.
Staging Decade as a site-specific work at St Katherine’s Docks serves the piece particularly well. The disused office space is mocked up as a skyline restaurant at the top of the Twin Towers, with the audience sitting at booths and tables as the action moves around the room. Scenes take place on tabletops, walkways and a central cabaret stage. Goold uses the space with great imagination, precision and clarity, managing to evoke locations from Abu Gharib to the Twin Towers themselves.
There’s a danger that such a varied approach would be unsatisfying, that you’d be left craving a unified vision. But what Goold manages to do is capture the immensity of 9/11, the way it has affected countless people in as many different ways. He lets these varied images, feelings and accounts swirl around us, immersing us in them, because, in the end, he hasn’t the distance or the arrogance to do anything more.