‘When on Earth did everyone become a detective?’ The voice rings out across the Almeida Young Company ensemble as they huddle beneath Sasha Venmore Rowland’s grief-stricken gaze. She raises a revolver at a huddling gaggle of Rookie Detectives and demands the truth. Any truth. She’ll even settle for a reassuring lie. Just something that she can tell her children. Yet no reassurance is forthcoming; narrators confuse themselves; townsfolk become detectives become townsfolk again, and the gun is ever present. On a long enough timeline a desperate hand will, one day, pull the trigger. Perhaps that time is today. Welcome to Nina Segal’s unsettling post-truth universe; a small American town where Rookie Detective Ted arrives from the ‘Big City’ to shake things up and once and for all, discover the truth. But there’s a problem – no one is sure what the truth is. Similarly, the story we’re watching is not true. It’s in the title. It’s on a stage. The ensemble reminds the audience that this is theatre and not real life before and after each scene. Finally, they discover (or invent) a dangerous truth (or conspiracy) that requires urgent investigation (or hysteria) – there’s something in the water supply.
Devastatingly funny and relentlessly sharp.
Segal’s narrative is an authentically inauthentic triumph. Her construction of what a play is, as well as what actors and audiences do in order to make a narrative space, is a brilliant parable on how we try and rationalise the truth itself, be it on our own, or in larger social groups. (This Isn’t) A True Story is a dangerous mix-tape between Ionescu’s Rhinoceros, the episode of Extras where Ian McKellen derails his own play, and deleted scenes from the Welcome to Nightvale universe. Segal drills straight to the heart of how an (idea of) the truth placates a community, and in doing so anatomises the intoxicating allure of conspiracy theories across history to the present day.
Joseph Hancock’s direction, Michael Wood’s sound design and Philip Burke’s lighting design place us immediately in an American disco-ball noir, with big hair, swinging flares, and a determination that the moon landings were probably staged in a secret studio in California. Rebecca Steel’s movement direction is exemplary and frames the truth as a dialectic of commotion. When the stage is full of movement, none of it is ‘busy’ or out of place; when the stage is empty, there is subversive activity happening on the periphery. A narrator reads stage directions, yet sometimes there is no performance on stage to accompany them. It is all a visual masterclass in the politics of space, performance, platforms (e.g., a stage), and platforms (e.g., the shoes).
Within this devastatingly funny and relentlessly sharp creative effort is a surgical understanding that cuts deep. Segal has written a ‘state of the nation’ address, and her parting shot is that although many of us would proclaim to fight for (and honour) the truth, there is essentially no resistance to misinformation – and perhaps, in this day and age, the former is now less welcome than the latter.
So what is in the water supply? It’s either ‘something bad’, or ‘nothing at all’ – but both outcomes are positioned as vexatious as the other. Both outcomes induce a kind of truth-horror; that to even require the service of a Big City Detective is in some way an admission of a wider social failure. The townsfolk undermine themselves when they discuss the responsibilities of community, society and the state. The idea of a concordat between peoples is impossible when ‘the truth’ is a matter of division.
The play uses projection and recycled 24-hour news footage to remind us that the neuroses of Segal’s small-town America are not limited to small towns in America. These neuroses are present everywhere. There are no safe corners in Segal’s mischievous misinformed universe. The play reminds us that some conspiracies are actually proven to be true. Sometimes, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, citizens are denied access to clean drinking water (as of the date of this review, five years). Some of the most powerful figures in the world can be complicit – cue footage of President Obama drinking a glass of water. It is not always the Illuminati – sometimes it can be your local council.
(This Isn’t) A True Story is an extremely funny and affecting piece of work. It approaches the audience with a self-deprecating humour, yet this is a cover by which the Almeida Young Company ambush the audience with an entire infrastructure of ideas. It is a landscape analysis of what the truth means to the individual, to the audience, to a nation. A play which surely must transfer, due to its unsettling delight.