Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I Am Nobody's Lunch

A song-and-dance show in Edinburgh about contemporary cynicism and mistrust? It might sound weird, but it works.

by Tiffany Jenkins

I Am Nobody’s Lunch is a witty song-and-dance show about uncertainty and truth. In the words of the Civilians, the New York theatre company that produced the play, it is ‘a cabaret about how we know what we know when nobody knows if everyone else is lying and when someone or something wants to have you for lunch’. It has just finished its run at the Edinburgh Festival and is now set to travel around the country. It is well worth a look.

I saw it just after 10/8, when police in England apparently smashed an alleged terrorist plot to bring down planes flying between Britain and the US. Almost instantly following those arrests, conspiracy theories began to circulate: Who was really behind the plot? Did the government make it up in order to distract public attention from the Israel-Lebanon war and Britain’s failure to do anything about it? Such paranoid chatter was a fitting backdrop, as I Am Nobody’s Lunch explores how people cope in today’s climate, when old sources of authority – in particular the press and the government – have lost credibility and we seem unsure about whom to listen to and believe.

The Civilians work in a documentary style. They interview members of the public, analyse their comments, and then edit them to produce a play. For I Am Nobody’s Lunch they talked to people about how they know what they know: how can they be sure what is right and true? And before you think to yourself, ‘God, not another play constructed from “authentic voices”’, which so often end up being banal and all over the place, in fact in this instance it works.

Steven Cosson, artistic director of the Civilians, explained that many people they spoke to often seemed willing to see cynical motives behind various events. ‘What became the anthem for the moment, and therefore became a song [in the show], was that almost everyone we talked to said “you know, I wouldn’t be surprised” at some point during any bad tale. And we realised that everyone seemed to disbelieve anything, but they did not necessarily believe anything.’

As a solider says on stage: ‘No, I don’t really believe what they tell us in the news. The trick is to look at what they’re not telling you…. They tell you they’ve got a tape of Osama bin Laden talking but it’s probably a fake. He’s not speaking in English. What’s the voice saying? We don’t know.’ The play brings out a sense of doubt that seems to lurk in all of us.

The show also contains a sparkling sketch about a bag, left behind by someone, which emits strange and disorienting sounds; musings on who really carried out 9/11; thoughts about Tom Cruise and which way he swings; the story of someone who believes his body is inhabited by a celestial being; and various witty and original ditties written by Michael Friedman, including the ‘Song of Progressive Disenchantment’.

Actress Caitlin Miller plays several different women named Jessica Lynch, all of whom are asked to describe their reaction to the tale of their namesake’s experiences in Iraq. ‘Wait, are they saying there was no Jessica Lynch?’ asks one. ‘Or, oh, just that maybe it didn’t happen the way they said it did. I don’t know. I’ve never heard that. But, you know, I wouldn’t be surprised.’

The production speaks to the consequences of uncertainty, which, as Cosson explains, can be detrimental: ‘Doubt is so corrosive. When you lose the fundamental ability to know what you know, that’s what basic core trust is, and then everything can start to fall apart and it contributes to a sense of fear.’ As one character from the Department for Homeland Security says during the show: ‘No, I don’t feel safe. I am not afraid that our building is going to blow up. I’m afraid of the whole world.’

I Am Nobody’s Lunch is quirky and revealing. But it has been criticised for not being definitive enough and for not providing an answer to why people seem so doubtful and mistrustful these days. This is wrong-headed. Theatre and the arts first have to capture a kind of truth, to explore what things are like and what is going on. As Cosson told me: ‘There is no make-or-break moment, working in the way we work. It’s more a landscape painting.’

To demand a polemic would be to turn the show into agitprop, or to make it transmit moral messages that would sit awkwardly next to the lightness and wittiness of this piece of theatre. Even so, there is more direction in the play than some have appreciated. As the wise old alien character states: ‘If you believe completely or if you disbelieve completely then either way you are a leaf in the wind. My boy, yes of course there is no absolute truth but you must insist on the truth. You must participate in the truth. And this is not something you can do by yourself.’

Cosson says he found the experience of interviewing people surprisingly reassuring. ‘Lots of people would interrogate us back, want to know what we were doing and put us on the spot. That was good. In a fundamental way, after listening to people about this, I realised that we work out what is true through being social. That is, even if you hear things through a mad media outlet, you test it out in human relationships. We need to engage more and think more with each other.’

The play may be about spiralling disorientation, but it is not nearly as pessimistic as many other productions on in Edinburgh and elsewhere at the moment; instead, it puts a (little) faith in people to think and work together in order to sort things out. It’s a cute cabaret that exposes the everyday consequences of distrust and anxiety. Check it out if it opens in a theatre near you.

Tiffany Jenkins is a writer and researcher based in Edinburgh. I Am Nobody’s Lunch ran at the Assembly in George Street, Edinburgh, until 28 August. It opens at the Soho Theatre in London in September.