Hearing the voice of the people

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There's a touching scene in David Hare's fierce and engrossing play The Permanent Way, about the effects of rail privatisation, when a bereaved mother recalls her pride in her now dead son's rise up the social ladder. "When I heard him on the phone I used to think: 'he doesn't sound like my son, he sounds like a proper lawyer,'" she says. Now, courtesy of her grim crash course in the language of judicial inquiries, she occasionally talks like him. "Later, when I was running the Disaster Action Group I would find myself saying things like: 'I put it to you'. It was like he was at my side". It's an odd moment; a woman with someone else's words in her mouth has hers put in the mouth of an actress - Hare's play is an artful composite of the interviews he and his cast conducted in preparing the performance. And Max Stafford Clark's production - for all its theatrical flair - is also at pains to preserve the awkwardnesses of ordinary speech. There are hesitations and self-corrections - and people interrupt each other occasionally to take control of a sentence. There are even cases where you can identify the original speaker. Almost everyone in the audience got Richard Branson solely by means of his intonations and speech patterns, but I guess a smaller group will have recognised Ian Jack's dry wit in the words of the character identified only as Scottish Literary Editor.

This theatrical ventriloquism is hardly new. Indeed, Out of Joint, the theatre company that perform The Permanent Way, have made something of a speciality of it. But recently there's been quite a bit of it around. Last year the Tricycle Theatre performed the latest of its ram-raids on the official record, dramatising the transcripts of the Hutton Inquiry and giving rise to a nicely surreal evening on which the MP Andrew McKinlay sat in the gallery applauding as the Andrew McKinlay on stage mounted a stout defence of parliamentary prerogative. Even television gets in on the act sometimes - on those occasions (as in the Hare play) when there are reasons why real people can't give their views openly. This week's Channel 4 documentary Pissed on the Job conveyed the experience of workplace alcoholics by using actors to replay interviews with real people.

The striking thing about these performances is how good actors have become at the rhythms of ordinary speech. It wasn't always so. About 20 years ago I remember trying to coax some kind of conversational naturalism out of an actor for a radio programme I was producing. "Could you just mutter it, as if it's occurring to you as you speak?" I asked. "Why did you bother to get an actor?", he snapped back. He wasn't a bad actor, either - just unhappy with the deliberate gaucheness that is one benchmark of casual speech. And I seem to remember that pastiche documentaries always used to be something of an embarrassment too. The one thing that a number of talented actors couldn't quite bring off was acting as if they weren't acting at all. Theatrical speech was sharply defined from ordinary speech and - though you wouldn't have wanted it any other way 90 per cent of the time - there were occasions when the gap showed.

These days the barriers between the two are much more blurred, and not just because writers like David Mamet have developed their own theatrical version of the rhythms of everyday speech. It's also because television has changed the rules as far as naturalism goes - not through its dramas, which are often as conventionally distinct from real life as any stage play - but through vox pops, documentaries and reality soaps. The rolling archive of television and radio means that it's virtually impossible to be ignorant of the way a whole range of people talk, in private to each other and in public to people they don't know.

But the really interesting thing about this recent flourishing of documentary theatre is that it brings us full circle. When the BBC first made radio programmes about ordinary people, it was common practice to record interviews with the subject, edit them, and then hire actors to voice the doctored transcripts. It was well-intentioned but, to modern ears, the results of this method are almost risibly unsatisfactory - as inauthentic as they are condescending. I imagine that the first pioneers of genuine documentary radio would be astounded to find that 70-odd years on the technique was still in use - and that it was producing such emotionally truthful work. They might be pleasantly surprised, though, to find that their innovations have helped give an old boast about theatre a literal edge - that it's one of the places where you can hear the true voice of a society.