The Charlie Question

Mon 14th – Sat 19th August 2017

reviews

Dan Mahoney

at 09:46 on 17th Aug 2017

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Going into this show, ‘The Charlie Question’ for me was ‘Why make a show about Charlie Hebdo in 2017?’ The debates and themes surrounding the incident, those of free speech and its limits, are of course fertile territory; but is there anything new to say about the massacre that hasn’t been endlessly dissected elsewhere? ‘The Charlie Question’ aims to do so with a promisingly novel approach, but unfortunately it fails to offer a unique perspective and justify its own existence.

As I said though, there’s promise in the format. ‘The Charlie Question’ is a ‘semi-verbatim’ play, helpfully explained by the cast at the start as comprising primarily of the precise words taken from interviews at UEA and in Paris, with the addition of fictionalised scenes. As a way of approaching Charlie Hebdo from a new angle it’s not a bad idea, allowing for an exploration of the perspectives surrounding the incident, but the execution here is hugely lacking. The main problem for me was that most of the testimonies presented throughout the play simply weren’t that interesting and lapsed into repetitiveness across its runtime. There’s much discussion on what free speech means to people and its limits, but with a few exceptions none of the people portrayed have much to say that we haven’t heard a thousand times before.

There’s a real lack of momentum throughout these verbatim segments, as occasional interesting nuggets are buried in amongst repetitive and frankly uninteresting mires. The show’s best segment comes amongst discussion of the phenomenon of ‘Je Suis Charlie’ with the perspective of a woman of North African Muslim descent who “didn’t like Charlie”. Her exploration of the inherent colonialist context that colours the cartoons and attitude of Charlie Hebdo towards Islam is fascinating, and it’s this sort of underrepresented voice that ‘The Charlie Question’ should have focused on. I understand that for this to have impact in the play it must be first rooted in the more mainstream discourse, but the balance of power is all wrong throughout.

Complementing these verbatim sections are the brief fictionalised scenes which are something of a mixed bag. They depict two Charlie Hebdo survivors talking through the issues experienced by those left behind. Again, there are a few interesting ideas on display here as ideas of survivors' guilt and whether those killed would have approved of what followed, but the writing’s a bit on the nose sometimes and could have benefited from a tad more subtlety. These scenes aren’t bad per say and are acted well enough, but the characters are one dimensional and again fail to offer any truly fresh perspectives.

Towards the show’s end, the cast invite us to consider “What is The Charlie Question?” Unfortunately, the answer seems to be ‘deeply flawed’. It’s clear that plenty of work has gone into the show and there are glimmers of promise, but the repetitive and largely uninteresting verbatim segments mean that large sections of the show drag and fail to engage the audience on the issues. I’m sure there’s an interesting performance to be made out of Charlie Hebdo somehow, and maybe this semi-verbatim format could be the basis for it, but this is not it. Despite its noble intentions, ‘The Charlie Question’ fails to provide new insight on an already highly discussed topic.

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Anna Ley

at 11:47 on 17th Aug 2017

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‘The Charlie Question’ muses over the media’s immortalising power to create trends of fashionable news moving in and out of seasons. The problem is it does exactly that: it muses. Promising a probing insight into the rivalling reactions to the 2015 shooting of the satirical paper of Charlie Hebdo, Je Ne Sais Quoi fail to fully immerse into the many avenues of discussion here. As a piece of verbatim theatre, the script is partially constructed from interviewees’ thoughts, to which a plethora of voices could be heard instead of the repetition of rather similar arguments. This personal touch should also make it an intolerably intimate piece and utterly harrowing given the topic it is dealing with, which begs the question not only of the Charlie complex, but why the audience is left feeling so disconnected and uncomfortable at their emotionless response to such a sentimentally stirring story.

There were moments of radiance. From its physicality, a visual manifestation of the mental comprehension of such an unintelligible event- the picking up of pictures of the lost, staring at the faces and slowly letting go of the paper. While the added embellishment of cinematic interviews and news readings provided an informative undertone, it was the execution of such on stage that was lacklustre. This surprisingly two-dimensional piece did have many flat and flagging moments that stand out as absurd when documenting an event that was itself and in terms of its international response, so riveting. Its ever-changing characters, backgrounds and stories to tell crafted a production with the promise of capturing the complexities of the argument and the ricochet of its reactions yet acting often felt uncomfortably restricted where raw emotion should unleash.

Placing themselves in a precarious position, Je Ne Sais Quoi choose a dangerous topic and through their overly ambitious attempt, they perform treacherously- a risk that unfortunately does not pay off for them. While they use the platform to discuss the detrimental dangers of the frailties and invasions of freedom of speech, an idea difficult to approach in the world beyond the curtain, the audience is left questioning its relevance to the times. Such is alarming to a timeless event that is rife with resonance in an age of fake news and a fading freedom of speech. A missed opportunity.

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