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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Sunday, April 29, 2007
    Not an escapist mantra
    Like The Fire This Time before it, Eliot Weinberger's What I Heard about Iraq relies on the effect on an audience of hearing the unexpurgated words of presidents and colonels, squaddies and civilians describe the developing invasion and situation of Iraq, plainly, without embellishment. It is powerful.

    It was powerful being in a group which in March last year, sat and read aloud together the text of Weinberger's first LRB article. It was powerful again last night, watching the touring production of Simon Levy's adaptation-for-five-voices of What I Heard about Iraq at The Unity.

    The James Seabright production keeps Weinberger's list of quotes about the conflict bang up to date: the refrain throughout the show is "I heard..." ("...the President say...", "...Condoleeza Rice say..."). Last night the five actors ended by standing together across stage front to each share a statement from the morning's papers: "Today I heard..."

    I think that the production's power is carried in that "I heard..." refrain. That, and the silences between each statement:

    I heard Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, say: ‘American soldiers will not be received by flowers. They will be received by bullets.’

    I heard that the president said to the television evangelist Pat Robertson: ‘Oh, no, we’re not going to have any casualties.’

    I heard the president say that he had not consulted his father about the coming war: ‘You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.’

    The thing is, we are absolutely familiar with statements like these. They're with us all the time, washing vaguely through our consciousness via background breakfast radio news items and the flickering disengagement of our TV screens. But Weinberger / Levy's contextualising of them into a structured script turns the reader / audience into active witnesses.

    I heard an Iraqi man say: ‘We have at least 700 dead. So many of them are children and women. The stench from the dead bodies in parts of the city is unbearable.’

    I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: ‘Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.'

    I heard these statements. So now they challenge me to own them, engage with them, respond to them. I heard these statements. So now the silence which follows each one begs the question, how shall I make my response?

    This production, and the writings on which it is based, feel and sound somewhat like a mantra. I heard... I heard... I heard... But it's not an escapist mantra. Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman got it spot-on when she wrote that '[What I Heard about Iraq] strikes a magnificent blow in the struggle of memory against forgetting which, as Milan Kundera once said, is the struggle of man against power.'