Monday, March 9, 2015

Carmel Winters, 'Witness': Setting the Record Straight

A mother and son shock a nation in Witness. But provocateur/playwright Carmel Winters risks being the scandal of this story.  

Project Arts Centre
Mar 2-7

My review of Witness by Carmel Winters coming up after the jump ...

Some stories are uneasy to hear, and few Irish playwrights have nerve to raise incendiary issues like Carmel Winters. Her 2010 play B for Baby confronted the sexuality of people with learning disabilities, and in 2013 Best Man looked at the gross materialism of Celtic Tiger excess. Yet, she has also used sensitive subjects as throwaway devices: using a self-discovery of homosexual identity as a plot twist rather than a character study, and throwing topics such as abortion and reproductive rights of the intellectually disabled into the pot purely to watch it boil. Winters is foremost a provocateur but at the risk of poorly representing the plights of the disadvantaged she draws on in her drama.  

An adaptation of her well-received screenplay Snap, Witness brings forth a scandalised woman (the fearless Kate Stanley Brennan) who stares suspiciously at the audience as if vultures from the press. She tells the truth of an event that shocked the nation, when her son kidnapped a toddler. The performance isn’t just an examination of how individuals are composed by the press (“I gave birth to him; I didn’t invent him”), but dually how they are constructed by their histories of family abuse and disconnections.

It’s the best-structured piece by Winters yet. Stanley Brennan is completely transformative in shifting between playing the mother and son, as distinctions in gender and age dissolve in the folds of her baggy tracksuit. Such flexibility characterizes Winters’s staging as a whole, with Toma McCullim’s spare design and Rob Moloney’s somber lighting subtle in their suggestions of spaces.

It’s a harrowing experience, serving up some heavy issues. Unfortunately, Winters does make one of her usual misappropriations. When the mother browses her son’s internet history looking for clues explaining his apathy, she comes across the search: “P-E-E-D-O-F-I-L”. It’s unfortunate that this is the label the playwright chooses for the abuse represented in the play, without making a distinction between paedophilia and child molestation. This risks confusing the terms, condemning all paedophiles as child molesters in a similar strain to sex-shaming irrationalities that label homosexuals as sodomites and women as slatterns.  

What we witness in Winters’s play is something likely unintended by the author: a display of dramatic power but also a proliferation of stigma. There’s probably no topic she’ll shy away from but her handling of them is too often to the detriment of the disenfranchised.  If only she could explain the harm rather than make it spectacle, that would be something to witness. 

What did everybody else think? 

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