Inspired by the testimonies of workers for the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, Tiago Rodrigues’ As Far As Impossible faces the impossible task of conveying the struggles of those who experience indescribable horrors and situations we do not dare to imagine. Performed by a cast of four actors – Adrien Barazzone, Beatriz Brás, Baptiste Coustenoble, and Natacha Koutchoumov – this verbatim performance takes us into war zones and regions in crisis, delivering the testimonies of those who have seen the best and worst of humanity, on both sides.
The aid workers portrayed are unassuming individuals, surprised that a theatre company would be interested in hearing about their experiences in the “impossible”. These workers’ nerves, joy, and even ambivalence towards the idea of a show about them is endearing, creating an intimacy between us and them. From then on, each of the four performers take turns to recall an experience shared by the aid workers about their time in the “impossible”. The accounts are given in English and French, the official languages of the ICR, with a few asides in Portuguese as well. We are given no names of people or places; clues to the time period or geographical region are rare and fleeting, sometimes a cultural reference, other times a brief inclusion of the native “impossible” language. In doing this, the universality of the “impossible” ties together these fragmented narratives.
It is through these stories that we hear about the incredible lengths humanitarian workers go to in order to make even the smallest difference for a person or community in crisis. To a degree, the show’s understated opening creates a false sense of security for the audience, for once the stories begin, the mood rapidly descends into a void of horror, despair, and hopelessness as the actors recall the traumas endured by these humanitarian workers and those living in the “impossible”.
Accompanying the actors onstage are large hanging white tarps, which in turn resemble pop-up hospital tents, mountainous terrain, and an approaching storm. As they are slowly raised, they also reveal musician Gabriel Ferrandini, whose constant percussion – sometimes echoing gunshots or explosions – leaves you feeling on edge. Otherwise, the actors are equipped with little else but their own voices and the words of the workers interviewed. It is a testament to the actors that their storytelling is able to capture their audience without the need of props or projected visuals. With the exception of a gut-wrenching rendition of a Portuguese lullaby by Brás, the understated, lack of performativity in their performances is what makes As Far As Impossible such a staggering piece of work.
It is unreservedly a privilege to hear the stories of the remarkable individuals who risk their lives to help others, with their work often unacknowledged – and sometimes even resented or unappreciated. And yet, the impact of these stories is lessened by As Far As Impossible’s runtime. Coming in at two hours without an interval, the paradoxically slow yet relentless pace of the stories becomes too much for some audience members who leave mid-performance. The show is somewhat unforgiving, offering the audience little time to process what they have just heard. While it would serve no purpose to sanitise these stories, there is a risk of the audience becoming desensitised. It is also unexpected that minimal attention is given to more hopeful stories about humanitarian efforts. Even the final story, which brings each of the performers together in a single moment, reminds us of the limits of the human condition and these humanitarian organisations.
Nevertheless, while As Far As Impossible offers a harrowing glimpse of life as a humanitarian worker, it’s in the very existence of these stories that we can find hope. For by hearing these stories, we are reminded of the profound goodness that drives people to act in the face of conflict and crisis – even if they only able to help pick up the pieces.