Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 4 July, 2005

When growing up in Northern Ireland, I could never understand people who said that even talking to terrorists was a form of giving in to their violence.  How else are we supposed to understand?  This is the approach underlying Robin Soans’ excellent verbatim drama. He interviewed dozens of people with diverse experiences of terrorism, and has created a play which uses their exact words to build up its picture.

Like the Out Of Joint company’s last verbatim play The Permanent Way (about rail privatisation), no character is identified by name, on stage or page.  They are listed as “an ex-Ambassador”, “an ex-member of the IRA” and the like.  But a number of people can be easily identified: Mo Mowlam, Terry Waite and Norman Tebbit are among them, as is Craig Murray, the UK ambassador who protested at torture in Uzbekistan.

Other figures include Ugandan, Kurdish and Palestinian rebels or dissidents, and ordinary people like a group of devout Muslims in a Luton mosque who disavow extremism but find themselves abused as “Bin Laden” on the street.  Director Max Stafford-Clark and his cast of eight don’t overplay things.  As with all verbatim plays, the drama emerges from the real testimony of real people. This isn’t escapist theatre.

Part of Soans’ skill is in juxtaposing or intercutting different interviews.  A Ugandan child soldier’s words take turns with a psychologist explaining how adolescents provide such a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists.  Norman Tebbit and another victim of the 1984 Brighton bomb are heard alongside the recollections of the IRA man who planted it. He doesn’t apologise for what he did, and they don’t forgive.

There’s a slightly different emphasis after the interval, shifting to how governments and their agencies, rather than individuals, respond to terrorism.  Here, then, we get Craig Murray’s story of how his warnings about people being boiled alive and the like in Uzbekistan were ignored by his Whitehall masters.  We also hear about the siege of Falluja in Iraq, and how ill-advised it is to destabilise a country you’re occupying.

This play might strike people as too ready to listen, too slow to condemn.  But surely listening and trying to understand are essential if we are to overcome terrorism. All the testimony here, even when we may find the cause repellent, points us the same way.  We sorely need to take on board the play’s central message: it could so easily be us. And sometimes it is. All the best drama tells us this truth.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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