On the Front Lines

The International Federation of Journalists recently issued a report documenting that 150 journalists and media staff died in 2005, the most ever recorded in a one-year time period. This statistic should debunk the old notion of the glamorous life led by war correspondents, if it has not been proved archaic already. But what this document does not touch on—and what the evening news neglects to report—is the price paid by the thousands who do survive. Safety, a new play by award-winning British playwright Chris Thorpe, aims to shed light on this disturbing situation. Safety is the second part in a trilogy of plays that examine various aspects of the human experience in response to violent political conflict. It is the dark and complex tale of Michael (David Wilson Barnes), a British war photographer renowned for his iconic global images in the late 20th century. He is an absentee husband and father who has trained himself to see the world through a lens—an occupational hazard of sorts. This allows him to remain at a safe distance, not only from the violent images he documents but also from his own family. But when a stranger named Sean saves Michael's young daughter from drowning while Michael was standing only feet away, he is forced to re-evaluate his roles as a journalist, husband, and father.

Thorpe's play, under the superb direction of Daisy Walker, maintains a heightened level of intensity throughout. This intensity is echoed in designer Kevin Judge's stark, white minimalist set, which doubles as a hotel room and Michael's living room. The set is startling in its emptiness, and in essence represents the dichotomy between the disturbing acts Michael has witnessed and the void it has left in him. The fact that the living room is without any family photographs—and he is a photographer—and that it also serves as the place where Michael carries on an affair with a journalist further illustrates this point.

On this blank canvas, the talented ensemble cast, led by Barnes, delivers compelling performances all around. They clearly relish playing the complex characters Thorpe has created. None are very likable, but none are despicable either. They are human and real.

Michael's wife, Susan, has given up on him and on their marriage. She used to be dazzled by his job and loved hearing about his adventures, but now she is disillusioned by the toll it has taken on her family. Katie Firth plays her with a dejected reserve that enables her to maintain a sense of strength and dignity.

Sean, played by Jeffrey Clarke, at first appears awkward and weak when he comes to the couple's house for dinner. He brings a jar of peanuts as a present, arrives soaking wet, and feels completely out of place in the upscale surroundings. This causes Michael to underestimate Sean's inner fire, a result of serving time in jail. He scorns Michael for his inablity to save his daughter and for his photographs that chronicle death without making an attempt to preserve life. Clarke's performance makes believable the young man's transition, in the course of one evening, from being feeble to being in control.

Susan Molloy plays the other woman in Michael's life. She is a features writer and celebrity interviewer who meets him on assignment and becomes infatuated more with his lifestyle than with their relationship. Susan is Michael 20 years ago, eager to take on the world and naïve about the cost.

But the show belongs to Barnes and his controlled performance as the conflicted photographer. Michael unapologetically embodies the contradictions of those in the profession and the difficulties they face. Barnes's performance--part blowhard, part masochist, part weakling—is equally unapologetic, and honest and raw. Perhaps for the first time is his life, Michael is exposed. After his daughter's near tragedy, he is forced in front of the camera without his weapon of choice—the lens—to rely on. Barnes skillfully captures the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that Michael experiences.

Thorpe writes in his program notes that Michael "and those who do the job in the real world are unquestionably brave, committed, and necessary." Safety allows us to begin to understand the psychological and emotional price that these men and women pay. A finely crafted play that is of the moment, it is one of those important works that will change the way you look at the world.

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