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Benefit of the Doubt (1967)

Courtesy of Contemporary Films

Main image of Benefit of the Doubt (1967)
16mm, colour/black and white, 65 mins
DirectorPeter Whitehead
Production CompaniesLorrimer Films
ProducersCarole Weisweiller
 Dominique Antoine
PhotographyPeter Whitehead
MusicRichard Peaslee

Featuring: Peter Brook, Michael Kustow, Michael Williams, Glenda Jackson

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A record of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Peter Brook's 'US', a play about the Vietnam war, showing extracts and interviews with writer-director Peter Brook and cast members.

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A documentary following US, Peter Brook's experimental play about the moral issues surrounding the Vietnam War, Benefit of the Doubt is the only known film record of the Royal Shakespeare Company production. It was filmed by Peter Whitehead concurrently with his Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967), on the surface a very different film, yet both share a central concern with the war, protest and Britain's political and cultural relationship with America.

Drawing on the improvisational techniques of the influential Polish experimental theatre director Jerzy Grotowski, US explored its theme through painstaking factual research of American cultural and political artefacts (including Whitehead's own documentary, Wholly Communion (1965), which included an anti-Vietnam War protest poem by the author of the play's 'libretto', Adrian Mitchell), as well as actual documents from the war itself.

Appropriately for a production so concerned with process, filming took place at a specially performed rehearsal at London's Aldwych Theatre. With no audience present and the actors only partially in makeshift costumes, the film captures the play in an evolving state. It takes on the appearance of a workshop, as though staged only for the benefit of the actors, as collective therapeutic research. Responding to the play's unconventional approach, Whitehead's camera crosses the threshold of the stage, tracking between the actors as they perform.

Although controversial in the right-wing press, the play was criticised for its ambiguity by many opposed to the war. In interviews throughout the film, Brook is at pains to clarify that his concern was not to provide answers but to interrogate the war's reality and Britain's place in it. Since the only experience of the war available to the British was images filtered via the media (Vietnam was regarded as the world's first 'television war'), it is only through this evidence that judgements could be formed - hence the play's methodology. Interestingly, the film brings the play back within the arena of images, enabling the viewer to respond, in turn, to the play within the film.

Although rarely screened since the time of its initial release, the award-winning film more recently experienced a resurgence of interest when it was shown, alongside Brook's own film adaptation of the play, Tell Me Lies (1967), at a 2003 meeting exploring similar issues of complicity raised by the invasion of Iraq - a war that would come to define the 2000s as Vietnam defined the 1960s.

Stuart Heaney

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Video Clips
1. Zapping the Cong (3:59)
2. 'I want it to get worse' (4:01)
Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)
Wholly Communion (1965)
I Was a Soldier (1970)
Brook, Peter (1925-)
Jackson, Glenda (1936-)
Whitehead, Peter (1937- )