A five-storey warehouse on London’s South Bank is currently housing an emotional drama about one of the most famous and destructive hurricanes in history, Hurricane Katrina.
Jericho House’s production of Katrina leads the audience on a promenade performance around the venue, through an eerily deserted tourist office, complete with guide books and postcard racks, to a woman’s home where she waits anxiously, knitting on a rocking chair, to the Funky Butt bar where the play begins. Here the audience is told not to worry about the roaring winds we can hear outside, as the bar men banter with patrons and a singer entertains us. But as the news reports playing on the TV screens around the bar show the hurricane descending on New Orleans, the bar is plunged into darkness and chaos.
Moved on to the next room, where the bar has now become a dilapidated ruin, the audience takes a seat as the characters begin their accounts of what unfolded in the following days. There is the woman who tells us of her journey floating her dead husband through the streets to lay him to rest at City Hall, a falsely imprisoned man who describes the riots in the city jails as the water levels rose around them in locked cells, a couple whose holiday to the city turned into a living nightmare as they speak of police corruption and human desperation, and a young grandmother who tells of the Superdome becoming like “downtown Baghdad” as people looting for guns and food created a dangerous and terrifying metropolis in a building they spent days journeying to with the promise of safety.
To say too much about the set or the stories that unfold would ruin a show which should leave you disorientated and curious about the next space you might find yourself in, however it is fair to say that the soul of New Orleans resonates throughout the production. A constant soundtrack of slightly uneasy music, from blues to church music, plays low, heightening the alien and often eerie surroundings you find yourself in.
Katrina, which is based on real life accounts of the disaster, highlights not only the horrors which are now familiar to us from news reports and photos that appeared after the event in 2005, but also the details that were overlooked by the press such as those who died from lack of basic medical care, diabetics who ran out of insulin, those who were stranded and being filmed by press helicopters overhead who did nothing to help, down to the lack of help from the National Guard which later apologised for being understaffed because most of its men were in Iraq.
With such a topical subject matter and the use of survivors’ stories, the play cannot help but pass political judgement. And in a situation where just a handful of people died as a result of the actual event, compared to the hundreds who died in the aftermath, Katrina cannot help but try to find someone who is accountable for such devastation, which, as is suggested by each individual monologue, was avoidable all along.