Verbatim theatre


Layla's Room

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

For Layla, every day is a battleground. The pay gap, the thigh gap, over-sexed pop and selfies that are photoshopped – they’re just part of the world she lives in.

But that world is about to change. While breaking out of her bedroom – and with drama, comedy, poetry and music as her weapons – Layla breaks down and makes sense of the realities, difficulties and absurdities of teenage life in the UK today.

Collected from a bespoke national survey, the voices of a thousand UK teens are brought to life in Layla. Their ambitions, concerns, role-models and regrets are woven together by award-winning Sabrina Mahfouz and theatre company Theatre Centre, offering a hard-hitting, yet hopeful, story.

A Life in Three Acts

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

With honesty, humour and occasional anger, performer Bette Bourne tells the playwright Mark Ravenhill about his brave and flamboyant life. Crafted from transcripts of a series of long, private conversations, Bette reminisces and replays scenes from his life, from a post-war childhood, a stint as a classical actor in the late 1960s, to living in a drag commune in Notting Hill and being an active member of the Gay Liberation Front. Bette talks about touring with the New York-based Hot Peaches cabaret group and founding his own cabaret troop, the Bloolips, which redefined gay theatre by creating their very own unique celebration of dramatic and colourful homosexuality.

The piece, in three parts, reveals both a portrait of a pioneering, radical individual and a historical document of the struggles and achievements of gay liberation. A Life in Three Acts was first performed in 2009 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Little Revolution

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alecky Blythe's Little Revolution is a verbatim-theatre play about the London Riots, a series of related disturbances, including widespread looting and arson, that took place in several London boroughs (as well as in other towns and cities in England) in August 2011. It was first performed at the Almeida Theatre, London, on 26 August 2014.

The play was created and performed using the verbatim-theatre techniques developed by Blythe with her company Recorded Delivery. It is composed entirely of material drawn from recordings made by Blythe, who personally interviewed many of the participants and witnesses of the riots. Those conversations, in edited form, are then reproduced by actors on stage. The script is a transcription of the final selection of material, although in rehearsal and performance the actors work from an in-ear audio feed to ensure that the original conversations are replicated with meticulous verisimilitude. Some names of interviewees have been changed

The play focuses on responses to the riots within an area of Hackney in east London. Blythe puts herself into the story and shows how she was tangentially caught up in the riots as they happened: in one episode, a group of looters catch her taking pictures and ask to inspect her camera before moving on. The main focus is on the response of two disparate groups in the aftermath of events. Middle-class residents who live around Clapton Square start a fund to come to the aid of a looted local shopkeeper and hold a street party to bring people together. Meanwhile, female activists on the adjacent, much poorer, Pembury estate start a campaign against the scapegoating of young people, stop-and-search police tactics and the social inequalities at the heart of the problem.

The Almeida Theatre premiere was directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins with a set designed by Ian MacNeil. The main cast, which included Roni Ancona, Lloyd Hutchinson, Imogen Stubbs, Rufus Wright and Alecky Blythe herself, was joined on stage by a community chorus.

London Road

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

London Road is a verbatim-theatre musical with book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe and music by Adam Cork. It is about the impact on the community around London Road in Ipswich of the series of murders carried out there by Steve Wright in 2006, and the frenzied media interest that ensued.

It was developed by the National Theatre, London, and first performed there in the Cottesloe auditorium on 14 April 2011 (previews from 7 April).

The musical traces the impact of the murders on the residents of London Road over a period from December 2006 until July 2008. The community had struggled for years with the soliciting and kerb-crawling that they frequently encountered in the area. As Steve Wright, the occupant of number 79, was arrested, charged and then convicted of the murders, residents grappled with the media frenzy and what it meant to be at the epicentre of this tragedy.

The book and lyrics are based on Alecky Blythe's extensive recorded interviews with the real residents of London Road, and composer Adam Cork’s score is a response to the melodic and rhythmic speech patterns captured on those recordings.

The National Theatre premiere was directed by Rufus Norris and designed by Katrina Lindsay. The cast was Clare Burt, Rosalie Craig, Kate Fleetwood, Hal Fowler, Nick Holder, Claire Moore, Michael Shaeffer, Nicola Sloane, Paul Thornley, Howard Ward and Duncan Wisbey.

Critical reaction was generally favourable with the Evening Standard describing it as ‘a startling, magically original success’, and Time Out declaring that 'this is something very new for the musical form, a powerful, beautiful and unsettling articulation of the ambivalence that underpins all communities'. Less enthusiastically, Brian Logan in The Guardian reported that 'the inarticulacy gets frustrating' and complained that 'the conventionally dramatic parts of this story are [often] happening offstage'.

London Road won the 2011 Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical and the production was revived in the National Theatre's larger Olivier auditorium with performances from 28 July 2012. This time the critical response was even more favourable, with Michael Billington in The Guardian reporting that 'This miraculously innovative show finds a new way of representing reality [and] opens up rich possibilities for musical theatre'.

A feature film version of the musical, written by Alecky Blythe and again directed by Rufus Norris, was released in June 2015. It starred Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Tom Hardy and the entire original cast of the National Theatre production.


Faber and Faber
Type: Text

‘“For years afterwards the farmers found them – the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades.” So run the blunt, grimly beautiful opening lines of the Welsh poet Owen Sheers’s elegy for the men, 4,000 of them from the 38th (Welsh) Division, who were killed or wounded in the Battle of Mametz Wood in July 1916… Sheers revisits that chapter of carnage in a stirring, sprawling promenade show… He draws on the writings of two survivors in particular. One is the poet David Jones whose fractured, enervated, modernist response to his war-time experiences, In Parenthesis, was hailed as a “work of genius” by TS Eliot. The other key influence is the writer Llewelyn Wyn Griffith… driven to wondering how the sun “could shine on this mad cruelty and on the quiet peace of an upland tarn near Snowdon”... We end up in dark woods and a place of numb desolation, bombarded by words that pierce the heart and vignettes that capture the stomach-churning sacrifice… The finest commemoration of the First World War centenary I’ve seen to-date, this deserves a much longer life.’ Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph

Mametz by Owen Sheers was premiered by National Theatre Wales in June 2014.

My Country - A Work in Progress

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Britannia calls a meeting, to listen to her people. Caledonia, Cymru, East Midlands, North East, Northern Ireland and the South West bring the voices of their regions. The debate is passionate and opinions divided. Can there ever be a United Kingdom?

In the days following the Brexit vote, a team from the National Theatre of Great Britain spoke to people nationwide, aged 9 to 97, to hear their views on the country we call home. In a series of deeply personal interviews, they heard opinions that were honest, emotional, funny, and sometimes extreme.

These real testimonials are interwoven with speeches from party leaders of the time in this play by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and director Rufus Norris.

My Country opened at the National Theatre, London, in March 2017 before playing at venues around the UK.

The Power of Yes

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

On 15 September 2008, capitalism came to a grinding halt. As sub-prime mortgages and toxic securities continued to dominate the headlines well into 2009, the National Theatre asked David Hare to write an urgent and immediate work that sought to find out what had happened, and why.

Capitalism works when greed and fear are in the correct balance. This time they got out of balance. Too much greed, not enough fear.

Meeting with many of the key players from the financial world, David Hare, author of The Permanent Way and Stuff Happens, has created The Power of Yes: a compelling narrative, as enlightening as it is entertaining.

It's like a ship which you're being told is in apple-pie order, the decks are cleaned, the metal is burnished, the only thing nobody mentions, it's being driven at full speed towards an iceberg.

Not so much a play as a jaw-dropping account of how, as the banks went bust, capitalism was replaced by a socialism that bailed out the rich alone.

The Power of Yes opened at the National Theatre, London, in September 2009.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

You want me to have full penetrative sex with your son, right? I just wanted to, you know, check.

Jack, a young man with a learning disability, lives at home, cared for by his devoted parents. Like most men in their twenties, he has needs – his mates at the rugby club talk about nothing but getting laid, whilst Jack's most erotic experience to date is the time he was winked at by the pretty cashier in Lloyds. Desperate for their son to not feel left out, his parents decide to bring in a professional. But the woman they hire has a far more profound impact on the whole family than they could ever have imagined.

Written by writer Sarah Page, this text has been published to coincide with Kuleshov Theatre's 2017 production at Theatre503.

audio Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

The acclaimed comedy trio known as Culture Clash spent three months interviewing about 70 Miami residents for this mix of vignettes about urban renewal, crimes, hurricanes and immigration, as well as where to get a plate of arroz con pollo served by a six foot drag queen.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring Culture Clash: Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza.

Featuring: Culture Clash, Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza

The Robben Island Shakespeare

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

During the Apartheid years in South Africa, a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was smuggled around the prison on Robben Island. The book’s significance resides in the fact that the book's owner, Sonny Venkatratham, passed it to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells, including Nelson Mandela, asking them to mark their favourite passages with a signature and date. Informally known as "the Robben Island Bible", numerous prisoners selected the speeches that meant the most to them and their experience as political prisoners.

In 2008 and 2010, playwright and scholar Matthew Hahn conducted interviews with eight former political prisoners in South Africa. Offering a vivid and startling account of the experience of these political prisoners during Apartheid, this extraordinary verbatim play weaves Shakespeare's words together with first-hand accounts from these men. They offer their reflections on their time as Liberation activists and, twenty years later, on the costs, consequences and whether or not it was all worth it.

The play is published alongside a preface by Sonny Venkatrathnam and an introduction by South African actor, director , playwright and cultural activist John Kani.

Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre which is based on the spoken words of real people. In its strictest form, verbatim theatre-makers use real people’s words exclusively, and take this testimony from recorded interviews. However, the form is more malleable than this, and writers have frequently combined interview material with invented scenes, or used reported and remembered speech rather than recorded testimony. There is an overlap between verbatim theatre and documentary theatre, and other kinds of fact-based drama, such as testimonial theatre (in which an individual works with a writer to tell their own story) and tribunal theatre (edited from court transcripts). In the United Kingdom, the term ‘verbatim’ specifically relates to the use of spoken testimony, whereas ‘documentary’ encompasses other found sources, such as newspaper articles, diaries and letters. However, in America ‘verbatim’ is not used, with ‘documentary’ being the preferred term. When looking for verbatim playtexts, the reader will often find them conflated with other documentary forms.

Documentary theatre has a rich heritage in comparison to the relative infancy of verbatim theatre. Erwin Piscator’s Trotz alledem! (In Spite of Everything! Berlin, 1925) is widely acknowledged as the first stage documentary. The play was a revue about the Communist Party and Piscator utilised new technologies which included creating montages using projected newsreel footage. Trotz alledem! also featured recorded speeches, news-extracts, photographs and film sequences from the First World War. Piscator went on to direct some of the most respected German documentary plays such as Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellvertreter (The Representative, known in America as The Deputy), which premiered in West Berlin in 1963, Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964), and Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965). These German documentary productions had a great influence on British documentary theatre, particularly the work of Joan Littlewood. Her production, Oh What a Lovely War! chronicled the First World War through songs and documents of the period. Its importance was immediately recognised, with the production hailed by the Observer as ‘The most important theatrical event of the decade’.

The development of verbatim theatre, rather like Piscator’s use of new film projection technologies, is closely linked to a simple technological development – the invention of the portable cassette recorder. This enabled the voices of individuals to be recorded in their own environment. Mobile interviews could take place which extended the dramatic possibilities of verbatim theatre. The first verbatim productions were directed by Peter Cheeseman who was artistic director of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent from 1962 – 1984. Cheeseman’s verbatim work at Stoke was not only influenced by the left-wing documentary theatre of Joan Littlewood, but also by the radio documentary tradition, particularly the radio ballads of Charles Parker. Central to Parker’s work was the prominence of working class voices in the broadcasts. One of Cheeseman’s most notable productions, which can be regarded the first verbatim play, was Fight for Shelton Bar (1974), which was part of a campaign fighting against the closure of a major steelworks in the heart of Stoke, and was performed in the city to an audience of many of the ex-workers.

Over the past two decades verbatim theatre has come to occupy a central place on the British stage, and is seen as one of the most incisive forms of political theatre. It has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, with some of the highest profile theatres staging verbatim plays. Particularly noteworthy exponents of the form include David Hare, whose verbatim (or at least part-verbatim) plays The Permanent Way (2003), Stuff Happens (2004) and The Power of Yes (2009) were all performed at the National Theatre; director Max Stafford-Clark and writer Robin Soans, who have collaborated on A State Affair (2000), Talking to Terrorists (2005) and Mixed Up North (2009); and in particular the campaigning work of director Nicholas Kent and the Guardian journalist Richard Norton Taylor at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, North London. Kent and Norton-Taylor’s work has included a series of tribunal plays, including Nuremberg (1996), Bloody Sunday (2005), and perhaps their most successful production: The Colour of Justice: The Stephen Lawrence Enquiry (1999). All these were edited scenes from court cases. Kent has also collaborated with Gillian Slovo on Guantanamo: ‘Honour Bound to Defend Freedom’ (with Victoria Brittain, 2004) and most recently on The Riots (2011), which was the first theatrical response to the riots in the summer of 2011.

Verbatim theatre has arisen as the medium chosen to depict major societal issues. For example, army deaths in Philip Ralph’s Deep Cut (2008) and Fiona Evans’s Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale (2008); prostitution in Esther Wilson’s Unprotected (2006), Alecky Blythe’s The Girlfriend Experience (2008); murder in Tanika Gupta’s Gladiator Games (2005) and London Road (2012) and perhaps most predominantly, a surge of work on the continuing issue of the war in Iraq: Norton-Taylor’s Justifying War (2003), Called to Account (2007) and Tactical Questioning (2011), Gregory Burke’s Black Watch (2007) and Steve Gilroy’s The Motherland (2008).

Verbatim theatre has also proliferated internationally. Interested readers should explore American plays such as Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997) and in particular The Laramie Project (2000) and The Laramie Project Ten Years Later (2009). Anna Deavere Smith is also one of the most high profile documentary makers. Her work includes Building Bridges, Not Walls (1985) and Fires in the Mirror (1992). Similarly important is Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s celebrated play The Exonerated (2002), composed of interviews with individuals who have been released from death row. Australia has also experienced a boom in verbatim productions. The first verbatim production was Paul Brown’s Aftershocks (1993), featuring interviews in the aftermath of the devastating Newcastle earthquake. Works by Alana Valentine including Run Rabbit Run (2004) and Parramatta Girls (2007) have also raised the profile of Australian verbatim theatre.

In addition to the plays themselves, over recent years there have been a number of useful publications on verbatim theatre. These include Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson’s Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present (2009) which is an edited collection of chapters on many different aspects of documentary and verbatim theatre; Will Hammond and Dan Steward’s Verbatim, Verbatim: Contemporary Documentary Theatre (2009) which includes interviews with verbatim writers and directors, Tom Cantrell’s Acting in Documentary Theatre (2013) explores how actors approach playing real people in verbatim productions, and Paul Brown’s Verbatim Theatre: The Art of Authenticity (2010), which focuses on Australian verbatim theatre.

courtesy of Dr Tom Cantrell, Lecturer in Drama, University of York, 2012.