- Forms of Conflict: Contemporary Wars on the British Stage by Sara Soncini
How theatre responds to war—and particularly the War on Terror—has garnered much critical attention since 9/11, whether it be questioning what dramatic structure such responses take, asking if there have been appropriate or sufficient responses, or examining the artistic choices that translate historical events into political theatre. Notable among recent books on the topic are Jenny Hughes's Performance in a Time of Terror: Critical Mimesis and the Age of Uncertainty (2011), Jenny Spencer's edited collection Political and Protest Theatre after 9/11: Patriotic Dissent (2013), and Rustom Bharucha's Terror and Performance (2014). Sara Soncini's Forms of Conflict: Contemporary Wars on the British Stage enters these discussions with an emphasis on the formal aspects of theatre and the degree to which they are able to respond to modern warfare, with a focus on the United Kingdom. Specifically, Soncini argues that there is "a connection between modes of conflict and modes of representation," and sets out to explore "theatre's capacity for providing some interpretive means to enlarge our understanding of the new patterns and mechanisms of conflict" (xiii).
Soncini intriguingly explores these concerns not only within the tradition of British theatre, but also within a continental intellectual and interpretive context less often considered in English-language criticism. From framing contemporary global wars as moving beyond the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz to drawing on French and Italian theorists, philosophers, and literary critics, Soncini deploys these [End Page 433] theoretical traditions to make a convincing case that we have transitioned from a period of clearly delineated conflicts to war without clear temporal or geographic boundaries, with transnational media, and with disassociation from the violence of war. Furthermore, she claims that the "British stage has shown a remarkable readiness to take up this call [to respond to these new wars] and re-examine existing categories whereby we frame and understand violence and war" (8).
Given the growth of British documentary theatre during the period under discussion (1991–2011), Soncini devotes about half of Frames of Conflict to explore new forms of representations within this genre. As she writes, "[i]t is not surprising then that 9/11, a historical event which consolidated and above all made apparent the growing theatricalization of warfare, should also have acted as a watershed in the history of documentary drama" (78). While this emphasis on documentary theatre specifically within the context of war offers Soncini an angle distinct from that of earlier studies of the genre, her focus on widely discussed work by David Hare and Richard Norton-Taylor leads her to familiar ground in arguing, for example, with regard to Norton-Taylor's Called to Account about the Chilcot inquiry, that "the one truth that audiences came out with at the end of the Tricycle performance was that there is no such thing as 'hard' evidence" (99).
This focus on documentary theatre is bookended by two other concerns: a chapter exploring the depiction of war in postdramatic theatre, and a discussion of the representation of translation in contemporary drama. In the former, Soncini juxtaposes contemporary drama against previous works, such as Sarah Kane's Blasted, with its clear parallels to the Balkan Wars in the 1990s and spectacular acts of stage violence, ranging from rape, to mutilation, to cannibalism. Soncini provocatively argues that plays like Caryl Churchill's Far and Away and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? remove the iconography of war from the British stage, which also forms an interesting lead-in to the discussion of documentary drama, which tends to stage inquiries rather than war itself. Some of the most engaging interpretations of well-known plays come in the last chapter, when she discusses acts of translation onstage. Within this context, Soncini argues that Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul might be viewed as a work about failed translations, both in Kushner's own linguistic limitations and the play's use of "translation as a structuring...