Don't Shoot the Clowns

Follow Jo Wilding's activist evolution from tangerine thrower to tragedienne Trevilino in Iraq

Back in 1990, at the time of the 1st Gulf War, my dad thought it would be great idea for us kids to draw placards, take to the City Hall and express our outrage. A family outing, as it were. Rather than outrage, however, as a teenager my primary sentiment was one of acute embarrassment. My enduring occupation, as we stood by the gates waving felt-tipped slogans about 'Bush Fires' and the like, was the terrifying mantra 'what if girls see me?'.

Besides, we were constantly reminded in the news that Saddam was one goose-step away from Hitler and that Kuwait was the Middle East’s equivalent of plucky Poland. What was to protest against? The images, including that of the incinerated Iraqi cadaver in the burned out tank came much later for me.

I was reminded of that achingly awkward Saturday afternoon watching Don’t Shoot the Clowns, produced by the appropriately radical and front-line duo of Fuel and the Future is Unwritten. Don't Shoot the Clowns is set both before and after the second invasion of Iraq ('a war is when there’s two armies fighting,' as Bill Hicks once said).

The play is based on the memoirs of real-life activist Jo Wilding and was adapted for the stage by Paul Hodson. Wilding, like her theatrical alter-ego J, visited Iraq after tangoing Tony Blair with a well-aimed tangerine. Challenged by a journalist about what she really knew about Iraq, Wilding went there to see for herself the effects UN sanctions had on a relatively thriving and secular society.

What she found was a country in which 5,000 children died each month at the height of the sanctions. Wilding was to return to Iraq three years later, when the country was on the brink of its own personal Armageddon, with a children’s circus in tow. Laughter may not be the best medicine when vaccines and blood bags are in short supply, but what better way to bring a glimmer of joy to children with absolutely nothing?

The play is a telling analysis of the western media’s complicity in managing the truths we’re told. The role of the media and the revelation that we’re never quite told everything is paralleled in J’s unravelling relationship with her sister, an ambitious TV reporter. The sisters start off as two young idealists out to change the world, but for J’s sister idealism has to take a back seat if she means to make it in TV-world.

The possibly irrevocable rupture in their sibling relationship is demonstrated in a scene when J’s sister delivers ‘balanced’ sycophantic homage to Blair after the Hutton Report. For the sisters it is tragic and for the audience it is a discomfiting reminder of the heavily-nuanced info-feed that passes for ‘balanced reporting’ in mainstream media.

Riz Khan of Al Jazeera English famously once said American news channels just 'show the missiles taking off. Al Jazeera shows them landing.' This play shows us what happens after they land, and the bitter legacy of hate and desperation they leave behind.

The production benefits from a versatile cast, who intersperse the simply staged drama with sudden, intrusive, and appropriately clownish asides: the surreally unpleasant PT Barnum-style re-enactment of a US military atrocity, for example, and the grotesquely funny slo-mo re-enactment of Blair getting pelted.

The play takes a fast-paced, magpie approach, using a mixture of performance, projection and monologue to try and nail down the narrative and history. With the recent batch of Wikileak revelations of grotesque abuses in Iraq prompting the usual official huff and puff blarney of 'endangering operatives on the ground', this play is a supremely timely memento of the truth behind the news.

Maybe if I’d seen a play like this when I was 15, I wouldn’t have been so concerned about girls seeing me protest. In the end, what

Don't Shoot the Clowns

gives us is a painfully unvarnished, unsentimentalised and most importantly, unembedded account of the criminal human suffering in a far away place.