A noble – if misguided – effort to translate a historian’s work from page to stage, Bianca Bagatourian’s The Time Of Our Lies often feels a little too much like a lecture.
Despite its faults, The Time of Our Lies at the Park Theatre is a timely reminder that we should all make more of an effort to know our history. Running to just over an hour with no interval, the production is largely an imagined monologue, delivered by Howard Zinn, whose ‘A People’s History of the United States’ has become one of the twentieth century’s seminal works of popular history. Martina Laird (in place of David Benzali) gives a highly commendable performance in the central role, managing to find both mirth and despair in her portrayal of Zinn’s personal recollections and public opinions.
Laird also meshes well with her fellow cast members as the action shifted from Zinn’s internal musings to one of the intermittent “reconstructions” of individuals’ suffering throughout the twentieth century. The most moving of these was Trang Le’s portrayal of a Vietnamese girl’s reaction to the loss of her family at the hands of American troops. Interrogated by Claire Lebowitz King’s undefined camouflaged figure of authority, the scale of the young girl’s catastrophe was effectively, albeit painfully, realised through the well-devised dialogue. Despite being consumed by grief, she answers all her interlocutor’s questions merely by stating the facts: x number of soldiers had indiscriminately killed y number of her immediate family while she hid, helpless, in a bunker. Her measured responses reduce the interrogator from initial hostility to ultimate empathy and stress the importance of recording, understanding and evaluating the very personal impact of very public policy decisions, whilst reflecting Zinn’s own commitment in his work to championing the voice of the man or woman in the street and in particular, the man or woman in a foreign land who had been on the wrong side of the U.S.A.’s foreign policy.
Zinn’s drive to capture the other side of the story, the history of the bombed rather than the bombers, was most likely to have been derived, in part at least, from his own harrowing experiences of bombing French villages at the end of World War II and is demonstrated by the recurrent, mournful and haunting pleadings of a mystery, perhaps Middle Eastern woman. Her suffering, initially dismissed on account of linguistic incomprehensibility, eventually becomes jarringly immediate, through repetition at various stages during The Time of Our Lies and juxtaposition with the distressing “reconstructions” of personal anguish. Again for Zinn, both at home and abroad, not enough voices were heard, believed and understood in the context of their time to convey to a wider public audience the personal suffering that stemmed from public or foreign policy. As he said himself, ‘If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.’
The Time of our Lies contains well-crafted moments that induce raw empathy in the audience, and certainly at times challenge our thinking. However, as a whole, they’re numbed by a less nuanced, didactic tone to Zinn’s monologue. It often feels like the audience are being lectured: bombs are bad, governments are evil, etc. This is fine in the lecture hall on campus, but Zinn’s beliefs do not translate so well to the stage where drama – rather than one-sided invective – is expected. Bianca Bagatourian’s text would perhaps work better if Zinn was more of a peripheral figure, with the more arresting, influential dramatic interludes leading the progression of Zinn’s monologue; the history leading the historian, rather than the other way round. Still, at just over an hour, the lecture we receive isn’t too long and it’s worth listening to for the sporadic moments that make us really think how, for our own benefit, as well as for the rest of the world, we ought to make more effort to study and know our history.