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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Credible Witness

Timberlake Wertenbaker

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To purchase Credible Witness

Title: Credible Witness
Author: Timberlake Wertenbaker
Genre: Drama
Written: 2001
Length: 54 pages
Availability: Credible Witness - US
in Plays 2 - US
Credible Witness - UK
in Plays 2 - UK
Credible Witness - Canada
in Plays 2 - Canada
  • Credible Witness was first performed in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London, 8 February 2001, in a production directed by Sacha Wares and starring Olympia Dukakis

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Our Assessment:

B- : overly earnest drama of displaced lives

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 15/2/2001 Michael Billington
The Independent . 14/2/2001 Jonathan Myerson
The Independent F 18/2/2001 Kate Bassett
The Observer . 18/2/2001 Kate Kellaway
The Times . 15/2/2001 Benedict Nightingale
TLS D 3/2/2001 Jon Barnes

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. All have some reservations, and some thinks it is a complete failure.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wertenbaker's ideas are fascinating, even if their dramatic resolution is not always plausible. The big mother-son confrontation packs the right emotional punch. But Wertenbaker also invents a harrassed immigration official rather too symbolically named Simon Le Britten. (...) Even if you feel Wertenbaker manipulates the dramatic situation to suit the argument, her play adds weight to the growing canon of asylum dramas." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Even though the refugees' stories are immortal, the story of the mother and son lacks sufficient human content to carry the debate. An intellectual debate maybe, but not a play. That requires passionate inter-reaction -- this was Speaker's Corner, minus the heckling and exuberance." - Jonathan Myerson, The Independent

  • "Unfortunately, the timeliness of this production does not make Credible Witness a good play. It's an embarrassingly clumsy piece of writing, oozing worthiness but actually coming perilously close to making you loathe its protagonists. (...) Her grand themes are laid on with a trowel in his opening lecture about multi-culturalism and archaeological strata." - Kate Bassett, The Independent

  • "Wertenbaker asks: how much does history matter ? Might it turn out to be excess baggage ? But she will not permit herself the security of definitive answers. (...) The play has the balance it needs to contain its different elements, its refugees and their histories" - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "(A)n intricate, if overintricate, meditation on the merits and demerits of culture and history. (...) The play's problem, aside from some uncertainty of motivation, is a lack of dramatic excitement. (...) Still, intelligence is everywhere, not least in the play's definition of history itself. (...) I can think of few if any other dramatists who could give so rounded an account of so immediate yet permanent a topic." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "Unfortunately, the play never makes good on this early promise. What might have been a taut, intelligent drama of ideas degenerates instead into a kind of staged seminar on the issue of immigration. (...) These aren't characters, they're articulate points of view --walking debating points, given a thin veneer of flesh and blood. Ultimately, the script is so self-consciously important that it almost collapses under the weight of its own hoped-for significance." - Jon Barnes, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Credible Witness is a refugee drama. It begins with a prologue, set in northern Greece, where Alexander Karagy, a Greek national of Bulgarian heritage teaches about Macedonian history -- something that is frowned upon in Greece.
       The play proper begins three years later, as Alexander's mother, Petra, arrives at Heathrow Airport in London. Alexander fled to the UK after being attacked in Greece for the history he was trying to keep alive, and his mother has heard nothing from him for three years. She is prepared to do anything to find him.
       There's a great deal made of the clash of cultures when Petra comes to England: her simple expectations are completely at odds with the bureaucratic machinery that deals with refugees. Alexander managed to slip through the cracks -- arriving under false pretences, on a false passport -- and stands outside the system. (Because of his unusual family background -- strongly Macedonian nationalist -- he is also a person without history in his (Greek) homeland, his birth documented only across the border in Macedonian Yugoslavia.) Meanwhile Petra finds herself caught inside the system, detained with asylum seekers from troubled spots all across the world (Sri Lanka, Somalia, Algeria).
       Alexander continues to try to be a teacher to children -- other displaced and damaged youths. Petra continues her search, with the help of some sympathetic figures from the bureaucracy, but it is only after she gets media attention for going on a hunger strike that she finds Alexander (or rather he finds her). By this time Alexander is no longer convinced that history is worth all the bother, and that the hold it had on him (and so many others) is worth the trouble:

I came here puffed with my history, Mamou, do you know what I found ? Everyone who comes here has a rich and bloody history on their shoulders. I look at the people in the tube, all these histories raging in their heads.
       He is ultimately quite willing to give it up and reinvent himself, much to his mother's shock and dismay.
       Along the way the sagas of other refugees -- all horrific -- are also recounted. One effective aspect of the play is that Wertenbaker nicely shows the miscommunication between the generally fairly well-meaning British authorities and the asylum seekers, as almost each fate is mishandled.
       Unfortunately, however, Wertenbaker has no sense of subtlety or effective understatement: every point is hammered home as bluntly and forcefully as possible. Beginning with the names -- Alexander, Petra, Simon Le Britten, as well as the various twisted and forgotten names of the refugees -- everything is made as obvious as possible, so that no reader/viewer could miss what Wertenbaker is trying to communicate. The horror stories also become too much: how much more effective it would have been to include a banal refugee story among all this overwhelming horror, but Wertenbaker prefers to revel in the extreme.
       Credible Witness is full of over-simplification, focussed on getting a message across rather than relating a story. Nevertheless, there is a sensible progression here, and the basic story is built up on soundly enough to make for a decent piece of theatre.

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Credible Witness: Reviews: Timberlake Wertenbaker: Other plays by Timberlake Wertenbaker under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama books

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About the Author:

       Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker was born in the US in 1951.

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