While most drama relies on the forward motion of events, the verbatim play “Deep Cut” is largely about inaction; it examines the failure of U.K. institutions to address concerns raised by the suspicious deaths by gunshot of four soldiers at the Deepcut barracks in England between 1995 and 2002. First staged in Wales last July, the play was a big hit at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has been optioned by Brit filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. While the presentation of this somber tale sometimes wavers uncertainly between entertainment and heavy-handed politicizing, the production succeeds in raising lingering, difficult questions.
Writer Philip Ralph compiled his script after three years of investigation and interviews about the Deepcut deaths; he focuses on the effects of the death of one soldier, Cheryl James, on her parents Des (Ciaran McIntyre) and Doreen (Rhian Morgan). Action takes place in the James’ living room in Wales, from which — in the now-familiar verbatim style — they address the audience directly, placing us in the position of inquisitor. Their testimony is intercut with interventions from military and forensics experts, a journalist (Robert Bowman), one of Cheryl’s fellow soldiers (Rhian Blythe) and government and military officials.
Ralph says in a program note that he’s as “in the dark as everyone else” about these deaths, but this is nonetheless a crusading artistic expression. Play clearly suggests a problematic culture of sex, drinking and misbehavior at Deepcut and that the military and government are avoiding any true probe into how these four soldiers died. The production has become part of the story it’s telling, with Des and Doreen James, and other victims’ family members, using media interest in the play as an opportunity to lobby for a public inquiry.
Putting across a verbatim text is a tricky enterprise: In order to maintain the sense that these are real people talking about real events, a certain improvisatory, rough-and-ready quality seems necessary. Ralph and director Mick Gordon, however, present us with a very slick package; moments when Doreen has to leave the stage because she’s overwhelmed with emotion feel rehearsed, and there’s even a built-in emotional climax in which Des trashes boxes of documents to the blaring aural backdrop of an Oasis song.
Performances are excellent across the board, but the sense that this uncertain, troubling story has been shaped into an easily consumable evening’s entertainment undercuts its political message.
Further complicating matters is a letter distributed to auds as they leave, decrying the “disgraceful” and “shambolic” way the government has treated the case thus far; the intention is clearly for auds to send this letter to their own Member of Parliament. This teeters on the edge of zealotry: Surely there’s a better way for the creators to channel their passion for this case than to put words into other people’s mouths.
Like so many verbatim plays, the agenda behind this production goes well beyond aesthetics: The goal is clearly to impart information and instigate action about a perceived injustice. The lapses here into slickness and propagandizing indicate a lack of confidence on the creators’ part that a play alone can actually make a difference. But the fight for a Deepcut public inquiry goes on, and it will be interesting to chart official response if a Winterbottom-helmed film does materialize.