Ella Duffy delivers a powerful performance as Rachel CorrieJohannes Hjorth

Depending on how you look at it, writing this review is either going to be very easy or very difficult. Easy, in that I can simply and almost unreservedly recommend this production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, and difficult, because the absolutely unique nature of the play’s material means that you can’t judge this adaptation the way you would if it was a work of fiction. This was an extremely effective staging of a singularly powerful play, and I am left patching together gripes, Scrooge-like, rather than having any really fundamental criticisms.

For those who don’t know, Rachel Corrie was an activist who went from a progressive middle-class upbringing in Olympia, Washington state, to the Gaza Strip, where she was killed, in March 2003, by a bulldozer used by the IDF to demolish Palestinian houses. Her journals, letters and emails, written before and during her time in Gaza, were composed into an integrated monologue by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, first staged ten years ago. Verbatim plays are often comprised of interviews with witnesses of or participants in events – such as Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith, about a race riot in New York – but here the complete reliance on words written by someone who did not know of her impending fate, or at times of the real direction of her life at all, creates issues about the relationship between the author, the production and the audience. This staging engages well with these issues, integrating the assorted media that Rachel left her marks in energetically.

Ella Duffy has, of course, the most visible part in the production as Rachel, and she is superb. It is, I don’t doubt, an impressive feat to act alone on a stage for over an hour, and she managed to do this while keeping the audience totally engaged. Clearly, this verbatim play necessitates more than just a ‘learn the lines’ performance – the interpretation of Corrie’s words, the emotion behind them, the place they occupied in her short life, are part of Ella’s role here, and she gave a wide-ranging performance, happily portraying Rachel’s avowedly frivolous ‘fun life’ in Olympia, her passionate and brave polemics, and the vulnerability that glints through them. There were no slip ups of any consequence, and her American accent cannot be faulted, especially considering that it held consistently for the entire duration. I’m struggling to find any gripes at all – at the risk of seeming like a total miser, I thought the introductory sequence was done a bit hammily.

Nicolas Ashurst, the director, deserves similar praise – in fact, everything in the above paragraph will have been partly his contribution. He wrote some blog posts in Varsity on the weekly progress of the play, explaining his creative decisions, including the desire to avoid a straightforward reading: instead, "from the opening scene of our production, the audience will be drawn in by lights, music, physical theatre and a powerful monologue". Undoubtedly this was a success, going by the fact that the audience was transfixed. Certain sections, particularly for me the ‘unbearable lightness’ monologue and a tense account of a checkpoint, were greatly enhanced by dim light followed by harsh Middle-Eastern brightness, brooding music followed by a dramatic soundtrack, jerking one back from contemplation to reality.

Unfortunately, I thought, and two of my friends agreed, that other elements of the soundtrack were a bit grinding. A rather repetitive set of tear-jerking piano chords were fine in moderation, but marred some of the more moving sections of the play a little. The fadeouts for the music were also variable, sometimes cutting off abruptly – I’ve tended to notice that this happens a lot in Corpus Playroom productions, so I imagine it’s a difficulty with the particular tech setup there. Other audio effects, notably the readings of Rachel’s parents’ letters and mail, worked without a hitch, for which I’ll say well done to Ronit Wineman, tech director, and Aoife Kennan, Joe Pitts and Tom Taplin, who provided voices.

The set was well spaced to allow for both free movement around the stage, which kept the audience locked onto the performance, and also meaningful use of the scenery, the messy bed which liberal arts Rachel lounges on becoming the pile of rubble from which activist Rachel shouts to Egyptian soldiers. Her abrupt, superficially scatterbrained transitions from one medium to another are manifested in movement to scoop up journals, open a flip-up phone – with a relentless drive underlying this interaction with the chaotic environment. The large mirror in the corner of the set was too messy to actually reflect with any clarity, and I could hardly make out the drawings and figures that were marked on it throughout the play, which was a shame; to be fair, of course, I imagine that had it been perfectly clear it would have likely blinded the audience with reflected stage lights, so it was probably a compromise.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is looking as intractable as ever, with peace compromised by bellicose words and actions from both sides. My Name is Rachel Corrie is no primer on this strife, but it is a valuable perspective. It is a distortion of a historical document into a powerful work of art. Rachel Corrie’s words would be remarkable and passionate even if they were read out by Microsoft Sam, but this Corpus Playroom production turns them into a brilliant, barnstorming performance, if not always a technically or artistically perfect one. It should not be missed.

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