theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
At one period in my life my phone would sometimes ring around 4 or 5pm and the editor of the TV programme I worked for would ask me to be ready to interview unusual people the following morning. I would go to a small, self-operated studio and, all alone, talk to crazies or people of deep conviction. He wanted scoops, confessions, admissions. I always hoped for illumination.
One of these people was an alleged terrorist. “Of course we must inform the police about him,” the editor reminded me. “But they shouldn’t arrive in the studio until you’ve got the interview. And, by the way, he could be armed.” Great! To the difficulty of getting the guy to confess to his actions, the addedfrisson of firearms.
I remembered this incident as I waited in the audience at the Royal Court Theatre for Talking to Terrorists to start. What was I to expect from a play which appeared to advocate both talking to and, by implication, listening to what terrorists had to say? The publicity promised it would ‘find out what makes ordinary people do extreme things’. I hadn’t enjoyed that past experience, what risks were we about to run now?
Eight actors impersonate about three times as many people in this re-telling of their real-life experiences of terrorism, as terrorists, victims or those who become casually embroiled in this web of everyday horror — politicians, a child soldier, an ambassador, a negotiator. A psychologist and a journalist provide a sort of irregular commentary, giving extra facts or perspectives to what we see and hear. There is limited interplay between a few characters but no acting-out of any incidents. Any sense of momentum comes from the juxtaposition of the content of the individual stories.
The actors achieve a fine sense of identity with their characters which helped to draw me into their individual worlds and occasionally to move me. The direction exercises a light and sensitive touch on the proceedings, allowing the performers room to do what they need, preventing them from becoming static but never looking unnatural or forced.
The Sloane Square audience, widely ranging in age and comprising a lot of teenagers and young people, seemed held throughout, responding to the carefully placed moments of humour and rapt at times of tension. The fine craftsmanship of the production had its effect. After the show some argued (“The American bashing is too cheap”), some were being reassured (“Oh, yes. It was all scripted”); I was confused. Who was it for? What was its purpose?
First, this is not a play. It is a well-crafted cut and paste job, transcripts assembled on the ‘compare and contrast’ principal. The material has been gathered from real people, sometimes by the actors themselves, so that they can personate the original’s words and apparent motivation in a theatre performance. As well as the minimal interplay between characters, there is no meaningful physical action and any tension comes from the actor telling us of action outside the framework of the theatre performance. This matters because it mitigates against audience involvement and against the reason for going to the theatre — there is no sense of danger. The more successfully these techniques are employed the more the performance turns into a TV documentary — edited and pre-recorded! In such a circumstance the audience gets the facts, the interviewees display their emotions and the spectators can sympathise in comfort.
The content in Talking With Terrorists is not new. I had heard or seen all of it before, as would any reasonably well-informed person. And if you were not well-informed, would you be socially aware enough to seek out this performance and increase your knowledge? Even in the unlikely situation that you did attend, what message would you carry away?
One character, an ex-Secretary of State, believes we should talk to terrorists, as “the only way to beat them. I can’t understand why Tony didn’t understand that. Perhaps he felt it might give them the ‘oxygen of publicity’? Another character, plainly Lord Tebbit, and much affected by his and his wife’s suffering in the Brighton bombing, asks “if I’m waiting for him [the terrorist] at the gates and I give him both barrels of my twelve-bore, is that murder? Or is it good housekeeping?” Is the script editorialising? Or giving us a range of opinion so that we can discuss it after the performance? Thrown out along the way are one or two suggestions as to why these ordinary people might do these extreme things. I do not question the liberal principles and moral probity of writer Robin Soans and director Max Stafford-Clark. My difficulty is with the clarity of the message and the use of theatre.
Given the moral complexity of terrorism (plus the socio-economic ramifications) perhaps I ask too much of this production — if it halts our use of torture it will have been worth while. But I regret that it has not used the power of theatre to make us share the incidents and emotions which might bring deeper understanding. Given that the facts it draws on have been in the public domain for about a year it would have been a fine achievement to have worked on them to produce a proper play of power, danger and such unsettling emotion and argument that it must have political repercussion. However, my editor of years ago would approve this show, it has no real discomfort commensurate with it subject matter. Just the confessions and admissions.
I am still hoping for the illumination.
Norman Tozer © 2005
Originally published on R&V on 07-07-05
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