Rupert Goold’s Headlong calls its new production about 9/11 “site specific”, but — like everything else about the show — what they mean by this term, and what they’re trying to achieve by the technique, is troublingly unclear. The actual location is a London office building, but Miriam Buether’s spectacular scenic design evokes Windows on the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center. It is an uncanny and powerful experience to be imaginatively transported to this tragic site. But the uneasy collage of monologues, scenes and — God help us — musical numbers that follow do not justify this gesture.
The project had its genesis in Headlong’s invitation to 20 American and British writers to “respond to the defining event of our times.” With such a broad brief, it’s hardly surprising the responses range far and wide in form, time, location, and tone, from a naturalistic account of mounting ethnic tensions in a Brooklyn bodega in the week of the bombings (by Lynn Nottage) to a surreal speed dating session in present-day Kuala Lumpur (Ben Ellis) to verbatim testimony from London-based Muslims about the effect of the bombings on their lives and cultures (Alecky Blythe).
Most compellingly, we have the superb Tobias Menzies performing the testimony of Scott Forbes (as edited by Samuel Adamson), an Englishman working in the WTC who escaped the tragedy by chance. Mike Bartlett, in another very effective vignette, scripts a rapid-fire encounter between an ethically-challenged journalist and the Navy Seal who shot Bin Laden, while Ella Hickson offers an uneasily satirical piece about a Ground Zero souvenir seller who preys sexually on women destabilized by grief at the site.
The content is, in other words and to put it mildly, all over the place; and the fact that five contributions published in the playscript do not appear in the production indicates an active struggle in shaping this into a performable evening (that is nonetheless currently running at a soul-sapping three-plus hours).
The element that tips this over from an ambitious but messy experiment into something genuinely upsetting is Goold’s use of his trademark visually-oriented razzmatazz to hold the evening together. Choreographed interludes are interspersed in the action, including one, with performers moving in a circle with heads down and hands on each others’ shoulders, seeming to simulate evacuation. At various points, performers run in panic across a corridor overlooking the main playing area, as if caught in the disaster; or look skyward holding mobile phones. Three uniformed fireman charge through the audience. The dusty shoulders of Emma Williams’ costumes also evoke a familiar image. We finish with the company harmonizing in a song made up of text messages sent by people worrying about family and friends perhaps caught in the Towers.
It is not at all clear on whose behalf, and to whom, Headlong understands itself to be speaking. Yes, 9/11 changed the world, but it happened to New York first and foremost, and the setting seems an attempt to place us in the specificity of that experience, as do, in their way, the 9/11 iconography in the staging and design. But the wide range of perspectives, times, and locations presented do not follow up on these gestures, and the wobbly American accents of the (otherwise highly impressive) performers add a further level of uncertainty. The overall effect, doubtless unintended but still problematic, is to sentimentalize and spectacularize the events of 9/11, and the imagery and meanings that have accumulated around them since. It comes off as staged disaster tourism: 9/11 as kitsch.