In the States 911 is, of course, the number you dial in an emergency. Ironies like this one bubble and cluster in Decade, the theatrical response to the 9/11 anniversary: the “Never Forget” souvenir pins that are “end of line”; the prickly British Muslim who explains “Islam means peace: what the fuck you looking at?”
Decade is the product of 20 or so writers from widely different backgrounds, including Abi Morgan (of The Hour), Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and everyone’s favourite history don, Simon Schama. Under the steerage of Rupert Goold of Headlong Theatre, the show is a sequence of playlets that unravels in a mock-up of the Windows on The World Restaurant (107th Floor, North Tower), complete with sunny views of Manhattan.
We enter the restaurant-space (which is actually in London’s St Katharine’s Dock) after a passable imitation of real-life Homeland Security airport checks. The commercial location is more than a little antiseptic in nature, and the actors are forced to work hard for cohesion. Action takes place around (and on) the tables on the restaurant floor, but also behind the glass of a mezzanine level, which chillingly serves as airport walkway, hospital corridor and, of course, prime office space. At one point the performers, in their unexceptional business suits, are trapped, panicking, behind these upper windows. We know that, like Snow White in her glass coffin, they are as good as dead.
Such emotive moments, however, are metered out carefully. Adam Cork’s beefy soundtrack similarly resists opening up the throttle of affect and effect. Decade refuses a master-narrative, and instead we are given episodes, or epiphanies, on a whole range of incidental characters and situations, ranging geographically from Guantanamo to Karachi, from waitresses to rhetoricians (both Bush and Bin Laden’s speeches are reproduced).
We’re shown the office-worker, half in love with the WTC “altar”, and still dealing with the shock of watching his office turn to dust like a “sandcastle”. The delicately faultless Tobias Menzies manages to look as though he might just crack up like the towers himself. There are the widows’ annual commemorative get-togethers, including Charlotte Randle’s marvellously brittle Brooklyn termagant who’s a fan of Sarah Palin (“she’s an idiot but, man, can she wear red”). The widows’ scenes are interwoven throughout the night and move backwards through time, to, as it were, the prelapsarian state.
And there are the chancers, the fakers, and the whole industry surrounding the Ground Zero site, part hallowed ground, part real estate. One of the most engaging cameos is the Panamanian who works at the gift shop. He wasn’t allowed to be a tour guide, like others with a more legitimate personal involvement, as at the time of the attacks he’d been playing Runescape, “then jerking off”. He sleeps with some of his vulnerable customers, but they in turn never come back. He’s taken to slipping the “Never Forget” pins in their pockets.
Many of the characters struggle with the collision of the personal with the symbolic, and of memory with history. “I don’t want to know what I stand for,” says one. Another complains bitterly that 11 September “was my birthday before it became this global tragedy”.
The scenes are connected with dance sequences, not all of which comfortably emanate from the moment, but which at their best are stupendous. As Bush makes his “either you are with us or against us” speech, the American people seem literally to mobilise, armed with their cell phones and their newspapers. The flight attendants’ safety instruction routine is codified, to a magisterial Rossini soundtrack, into an increasingly frantic and desperate ballet.
Visual leitmotifs also serve to connect the fragments: the characters sport a layer of dust on their shoulders – a sort of deadly dandruff – one woman’s eczema makes her flake before our eyes; there is even dust in the Yemeni shopkeeper’s milk carton. Rupert Goold shows us fear in a handful of dust.
The material varies considerably, with the verbatim quilted in alongside the scripted. There’s even a mini-lecture on Thomas Jefferson and Miltonic ideals, courtesy of the don. Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s fingerprints were surely all over the searing fugue made up of 9/11 text messages. But elsewhere the red pen could have, should have, been used to axe scenes. The babel of voices may feel appropriate, but too many writers, I suspect, have been indulged in the process. And Decade, though a circumspect, deeply imaginative response, is an entirely occidental one.