In the 9/11 gallery theatre of the Newseum in Washington D.C., a quote by Rod Dreher is marked on the wall like a silent, certain truth: “There are three kinds of people who run toward disaster, not away: Cops, firemen and reporters.” Imago Theatre is an independent theatre company located in Montreal, dedicated to bringing to life the stories of unstoppable women. Their latest production, Intractable Woman, is not only a stellar homage to the work of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but a timely reminder of fighting for free speech under oppressive regimes. Directed by Micheline Chevrier, the production offers a poetic and productive theatre experience.
Focused on the writings of Anna Politkovskaya—the only journalist to report on the 1999 Second Chechen conflict between Russia and Chechen separatists—the play considers themes of silencing, censorship, and freedom of expression. The lyrical text of playwright Stefano Massini, moulded by Chevrier’s vision, is delivered effortlessly by a compact, multi-ethnic cast of three women.
Chevrier elaborated on her artistic vision in choosing the diverse cast.
“I didn’t want people to think this happened only to a Russian journalist,” Chevrier explained. “Journalists all over the world, of incredible backgrounds, [from] all kinds of countries, get killed for being journalists. For me, it was important that you see three women of various backgrounds on stage, to see them take her spirit on. In the end, they don’t really become her so much as they become her words.”
The narrative is structured into 21 scenes, all drawing upon incidents in Politkovskaya’s life. To make the events coherent for the stage was, according Chevrier, challenging. Substantial attention had to be given to staging the relentless, flurrying life of Politkovskaya without distracting the audience from the essence of the narrative.
“It’s all about finding the balance between the words and everything else on the stage,” Chevrier explained.
This balance is reflected in the chilling austerity of the production’s design. If only one word were to be used in describing the aesthetic of the play, it would be ‘minimalist.’ All aspects of the production design exhibit nuanced simplicity. For example, the set, developed by Eo Sharp, reflects the thematic hierarchy of the narrative. At the forefront is a compact three-tiered set, subordinated to the pipeline that traverses the troubled land. The highest level, however, is reserved for a screen on which Politkovskaya’s writing appears during the stage action. The constant presence of written words on stage emphasises the importance of writing: Its ability to impact change, to shape lives for better and for worse.
The influence of authorship on objectivity in journalism in a running theme in Intractable Woman. In one scene, Anna comes across a war film on state-controlled television that claims to be a true story. A quick dissection, however, reveals the clear propaganda motive behind the piece. While Politkovskaya is shown to condemn bias in media, the play does not simplify her as the pinnacle of journalistic integrity. Standing in front of a fire fuelled by human bodies, Anna’s documenting of the endless catalogue of violence is halting, but she perseveres. With tears in her eyes, she challenges the perception that journalism is easy because it is only about reporting facts. Intractable Woman captures, with vivifying rawness, the inner conflict of Politkovskaya to stay objective during her reporting on horrifying human rights violation.’
The ultimate message of Intractable Woman is constant vigilance.
“[We must] not take for granted what we have, [that] things need to be fought for, debated, questioned,” Chevrier said.
The production’s pacing is relentless and its tone biting: a lyrically descriptive encapsulation of Anna Politkovskaya’s life, Intractable Woman is a fierce commentary on taking action—which seems more relevant now than ever before.
Intractable Women runs Feb. 9 to Feb. 18 at the Centaur Theatre. Tickets reservations are available through the venue’s website.