One sure way to get attention on the Edinburgh Fringe is to do a show about a modern ogre, or more accurately one which addresses the phenomenon: the tabloids can be relied on to claim that it's "about" them. A few years ago it was Myra Hindley; then, in 2001, the murderers of James Bulger; this year, two pieces are competing for the shock-horror responses to their portrayal of Abu Ghraib torturer Lynndie England.
Guardians is by far the more interesting and intelligent piece. Writer Peter Morris has more or less followed the structure of his "Bulger" play The Age Of Consent, by presenting two intercutting monologues. Here, speeches by an unnamed female soldier who is plainly meant to be England alternate with segments by an English tabloid journalist recounting how his S&M sex games gave him the idea for faking pictures of similar torture by British soldiers in Iraq. Sex, truth, escape... it all boils down, in this version, to power.
Although often compelling in itself, Guardians is fundamentally no different from any Morris play I have ever seen. He advances his social/ideological agenda not under its own colours but by denigrating other modes of thought around it, and he is simply not interested in people as people. His characters almost invariably turn out just to be more articulate, slightly more complex versions of standard stereotypes – here, the redneck girl keen to escape her moribund Appalachian world and the smug, callous English media power-whore – whom he uses as tools of his dramatic dialectic rather than letting them appear or interact in a natural human light.
His approach is nevertheless far in advance of Judith Thompson's in My Pyramids! Her (explicitly named) version of Lynndie England likewise recounts real or imagined biographical episodes with the supposed aim of showing her to be merely a pawn in a nexus of larger and more complex affairs. However, the 40-minute play doesn't work like that. I found myself faced with an invidious choice. On the one hand is the possibility that Thompson is naïve enough to believe that her pen-portrait of England is genuinely even-handed; on the other, the inference that the writer knew we would come only to one conclusion, and that her material simply gives England enough rope to hang herself and is therefore an exercise in authorial bad faith. Neither option is flattering to the playwright.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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