Vehicle Failed to Stop

Sydney-based theatre company Version 1.0 has really forged a place for itself in the forensic investigation of issues of social, political and cultural importance. And its latest production, The Vehicle Failed to Stop, is just as topical a subject to explore as any others it has taken its torch to: the Wollongong sex-for-development scandal and teenage cyber-bullying, for example.

The Vehicle Failed to Stop is verbatim-style theatre that takes its pen-knife to the privatisation of security in war zones, carving a picture of modern-day war with the use of transcripts from media, court proceedings and other public records.

The incident that sparked this enquiry happened in October 2007, when on a busy street in Baghdad two Iraqi women, Marou Awanis and Geneva Jalal, were shot dead by an Australian-owned security company, Unity Resource Group (URG). The two women drove too close to the convoy and received around 40 shots to their car and  bodies. Global coverage and headlines blaring the “vehicle failed to stop” was their launchpad into what turns out to be a war of jargon, as much as anything else.

On entering the cavernous ‘bay’ at Carriageworks, we see on a dim stage a car stage right, a few musicians stage left and the back door of the stage open, with a view to the brightly lit workspace at the rear of the theatre proper.  I felt as I walked in that something was unfinished and had the feeling we might be taken behind the scenes of what could be read as the theatre of war.

There were three film screens around the space and a quote from Milton Friedman on one of them. One of the actors started placing shooting targets along the back wall and the audio started as a murmur of voices that slowly increased and became the voice of Irving Gregory, one of the company artists, as he walked slowly toward the front of the stage, repeating a text with phrases like “kill or be killed” becoming distinguishable as his volume increased.

The car was swallowed on this huge stage. Behind it, a screen, onto which a moving streetscape was projected.  What would have made this exceptional is if it had been shot on the mean streets of Iraq; as it was, I felt the scene was bankrupt of the dramatics now commonplace in nightly news footage, of a kind that would’ve sufficed to magnify the tension. In fact, there was a sense of emptiness, of something wanting, to the production as a whole, but I’m inclined to read that as the missing quantum of pictures and information the managed media keeps from us, for one reason or another. Secrets are lies and there are plenty of omissions in what we’re fed.

This is the kind of theatre that educates as well as entertains, by shining a light on the loose screws and holes in the current war machine; a war that’s killing anyone that happens across its path. Despite the supposed precision of targets and weapons, war seems to have become increasing, rather than decreasingly, indiscriminate, both in terms of friendly fire and “collateral damage”: innocent civilian lives.

The desensitisation that occurs organically and which is also promulgated as part of the cultural milieu in waging war is depicted as if soldiers see themselves as rock  gods, shooting music videos rather than very real guns. We’re reminded of this input serially, by way of choreography in which actors punch the air, as if primed for action.

The transcripts relating the testimony of Mr Prince, from the infamous American militia company Blackwater, betrays unduly amiable questioning, affording someone who might otherwise be very much on the back foot ample opportunity to characterise the corporation’s deeds as heroic, rather than in any way scandalous. Outrageous claims were made and are recounted here, including one of  ‘100% accuracy’ in protecting the people they were meant to protect. Ask no questions about other casualties and you won’t get told no lies.

As these private companies sit outside jurisdiction, a cowboy mentality takes hold of contractors. There are no mechanisms for accountability, such as pertain to the armed forces per se. They fall between the cracks of legislation and there are no existing or proposed repercussions for their doings. Or killings. Murder is carte blanche.

Version 1.0 puts these chilling realities right under our noses; so close, we can smell the familiar stench of corruption. We can practically smell the decaying flesh. The dissonance between the language applied and lives lost is enough to make you shudder.

Nonetheless, it comes off a little dry. What it doesn’t do is personalise events. We don’t know much about these women that were shot and, as a result, we aren’t really feeling anything for them. On that score, we can be left feeling a little empty; even guilty, for not having connected emotionally. The closest we got to the realisation of war and real feeling was aroused in the portrayal of the shots sent into the car and body of the two female victims. In one understated, yet surprisingly harrowing scene, one of the actors marked entry points on the bonnet of the car, as well as her own body and with this visual, implicitly visceral display, we come face-to-face with the fragility of a life, which could, given the wrong circumstances, be our own or that of someone close.

This depiction was very much in the brand image of Version 1.0. Over the top histrionics ain’t their thing. If you’re there to see Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, you’re in the wrong place. This isn’t a replication of the blood bath of a war waged, covertly, against civilians. This is a production that made me ruminate upon, rather than rise and thunder against indignity and brutality perpetrated upon bystanders. It brings home the holes in the system, as rife as those blasted by artillery. Think of it as a subtle, slow reveal rather than a bombastic slap with cold reality: for example, the statistics given in the final scene by a morgue attendant tells us 90% of all the dead are civilians. Mothers, students, housewives. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives. Or who were.

The Vehicle Failed to Stop is likely to stop you in your tracks and make you think. Again.

The details: The Vehicle Failed to Stop plays at Carriageworks, Sydney, until October 26. Tickets on the company website.