THE GUARDIAN continued

There were a handful of police there, but they watched the misery from a distance, holding rifles and pump-action shotguns like prison guards. We were warned we would cross the police line at our own risk, but inside the convention centre there was no sign of aggression, just desperation, and a complete absence of food or medical help. The bodies of two old women who had not survived the previous night had been left by a back door.

A lone soldier from the 101st Airborne arrived in a pick-up to take a look. "Kind of reminds me of Baghdad in the worst of times," he said, before driving off.

Four years on, the memories are receding and that initial sense of disbelief has begun to take over once more. Surely that had not been allowed to happen? It's a good time, then, for a play that reminds us powerfully that it did.

Katrina is written by a British playwright, Jonathan Holmes. He runs an experimental theatre company, Jericho House, which takes on global issues. Two years ago, it produced another play of his, about the siege of Fallujah in Iraq. But Holmes is also a published scholar on Donne and Shakespeare, and has taken his ear for poetry to New Orleans.

Doing the play verbatim is also a useful weapon against the audience's first line of defence: disbelief. "It transforms the relationship with the audience," Holmes tells me. "The sense of witnessing an event is more visceral and more immediate." This week that immediacy will be heightened by the choice of venue. The action will play out in a disused warehouse on the Thames in central London, decked out to convey the feel of New Orleans both before and after Katrina hit. One floor is cluttered with huge, incongruously gaudy papier-mache masks, in storage awaiting their turn atop a Mardi Gras float that will never come. Next door is the "Funky Butt" bar, once a classic New Orleans jazz haunt that was killed off by the hurricane, and a "shotgun" house, a typical home from the Ninth Ward, the poorest, blackest part of town. The structure gets its name from its design, with all the rooms lined up on one axis front to back, so you could fire a gun all the way through."To do a verbatim play in a traditional theatre seems to me like it would be going halfway," Holmes explains. "You're trying to get close and then backing away."

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