Stripped-back staging lets Testimonium speak for itself

CHARLES Reznikoff led a double life. By day, he was a law graduate summarising court records for reference books. By night, a poet and leading light in the objectivist movement – a group of 1930s American writers committed to looking honestly at the world around them.

The pared-back set design, script and staging allow previously unheard voices to shine through in Testimonium. Picture: Daviel Shy

The two sides of Reznikoff’s life came together in Testimony: The United States 1885–1915, a 500-page poem that used as its raw material a set of witness statements from 19th-century court transcripts. Stripped of human colour and the judgments handed down, they tell a brutal story of workplace negligence, industrialisation and state control.

It is a section of this extraordinary work that has inspired Testimonium, a provocative performance piece by Every House Has a Door. “It’s about law and justice,” say director Lin Hixon. “It’s dealing with our history of violence in the US. The poems recover these voices that were often not heard during that time.”

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While actor Bryan Saner recites a reimagined text based on Reznikoff’s poem, he is joined on the courtroom-style set by performance artist Stephen Fiehn, going through a series of actions in response to the testimonies, and Chicago band Joan of Arc, whose latest album is inspired by Reznikoff. They play so loud the audience has to be given earplugs.

“We have these three elements that are quite discrete, but they weave together in some kind of alchemical way to produce the performance,” says Hixon. “We wanted to see what happens when those three things butt up against one another. For me, some of the violence from the testimonies about workplace negligence or murder gets viscerally played out by the pounding music.”

The script sticks to the facts and cuts out emotion, just like court testimony. Hixon says: “Reznikoff talks about hearing life, and life comes through the voices that speak it. We’re trying to capture that force of life.”

• Testimonium is at Tramway, Glasgow tomorrow and 23 November