Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"I could have lived his life": Talking To Terrorists

"I could have lived his life": Talking To Terrorists

Because I think it's a good idea* I've decided that, from now on, I'm going review on here any plays that I see. Indulgent, ooops-I-might-talk-about-the-ending reviews, admittedly. But reviews nonetheless. So, with no further ado, I present my review of Out of Joint's production of Robin Soans's Talking To Terrorists.


In 2003, in David Hare's The permanent Way, Out of Joint did the seemingly unthinkable and made the story of the railways post-privatisation into not only a critically acclaimed piece of theatre but also a resoundingly interesting one. Using the same techniques of personal testimony and workshopping they have now turned their attention towards a much bigger and infinitely more prickly subject matter - terrorism.

As the title would suggest talking to terrorists is both the origin and the substance of the play. Over a number of months Max Stafford-Clark, Robin Soans and a number of actors visited numerous people on both sides of the terrorism divide. Thus Patrick Magee, the Brighton Bomber, stands alongside a former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, The Palestinian former head of the Al AQSA Martyrs Brigade with a child soldier of the Ugandan National Resistance Army. Beyond this come those whose jobs or lives have brought them into contact with terrorists - a spirited Lebanese journalist, a school girl in Bethlehem, even Norman Tebbit whose wife, the onstage counterpart of whom makes a brief and poignant appearance, was paralysed by Magee's bomb. It makes for both a diverse and at times shocking play.

With such a range of characters the emphasis undoubtedly falls on the actors to differentiate and grasp their stories and viewpoints, often with only minimal stage time. Put quite simply all seven actors are outstanding, however you try and divide it there is simply no weak link. Of particular note, however, are Chipo Chung and Lloyd Hutchinson. Chung's child soldier marches around the stage, filled with unabashed joy at something she perceives as being a game but which will prove to have consequences far beyond her expectations. Starkly she will later recount both the gruesome murders she was forced to take part in and her own rape. In this particularly demanding role Chung excels, capturing the full tenor of emotions and never letting the audience forget the innocence which has been destroyed. Hutchinson gives two stand out performances on either side of the terrorism spectrum, his understated and endearingly witty Envoy - based on Terry Waite - recounting his near execution provides one of the most heartrending moments of the play. It is Hutchinson's portrayal of the Former IRA Member - based on Magee - however, which lingers long in the memory. He is intelligent, articulate and painfully human, engaging the sympathies of the audience in the most unlikely of places. Balanced with this is the fact that Hutchinson never attempts to over-compensate for his undoubtedly horrifying actions. It's a difficult line to walk but Hutchinson seems to revel in it.

For all the multiple viewpoints, with the assortment of accents, colours, religions and clothes which pervade the play, Soans's script attempts to move towards unifying and creating connections. As the Psychologist states "The difference between a terrorist and the rest of us really isn't that great" and it is towards this that the play moves. Thus there are a number of recurring themes - children, mothers and fathers, food and eating, illness, colours, reading, captivity - which connect the characters. Of the numerous themes the two that resonate most throughout the play are violence and, conversely, laughter. The Former Member of the UVF comes to recognise that he has been both victim and perpertrator of violence and this holds true for many of the characters. Laughter, however, unites even more. Indeed for a play concerned with such a serious subject matter there are numerous moments of humour, noticeably in some of its darkest points. Thus the paralysed wife of the former secretary of state reveals how there was so much laughter in the spinal unit that she didn't have time to mourn what had happened to her, the Envoy laughs as he is unwittingly given a book about breast feeding by his non-English speaking guard, the Palestinian and his bodyguard end up laughing over the story of the Palestinian's near assassination. It is only in the final moments of the play when the laughter, devastatingly, stops. For the child in Bethlehem whose school friend has been killed by an Israeli sniper the situation is profoundly unfunny. And from this emerges a much more perverted laughter which points, not to reconciliation and hope, but to more devastation and destruction.

For all the exploratory and documentary nature of the play what emerges, much to the credit of both Soans and Stafford-Clark, is a profoundly theatrical production. Possibly the most effective moment comes when Hutchinson's detailing of his actions in planting the bomb at Brighton is intercut with the parallel narrative of the experience of the night the bomb went off by June Watson's Caroline. There are no dramatic stage effects or lighting, instead it depends simply on the juxtaposition of these experiences. It is devastatingly effective.

If the play has flaws then it is possibly in its intended scope. Every story heard in Talking To Terrorists is worthy of its own play and thus sometimes you are left with the nagging feeling that you haven't heard all of the story, that the need to talk which the play emphatically proclaims, isn't quite fulfilled. In these respects it leaves many more loose ends then either Hare's Via Dolorosa or Stuff Happens, both of which it shares ground with. In trying to eradicate differences it sometimes goes a little too far and over-simplifys what are hugely divergent and difficult issues. This does not, however, denigrate the depth of achievement or the epic scope which Out of Joint have aimed for.

Ultimately this is fast paced, emotional and complex theatre. As the actor Jonathan Cullen noted in the post-show discussion, it is not an easy play for an audience - it is as much about them keeping numerous balls up in the air as it is for the actors. This, however, is surely a compliment for the production and not something which the audience should be scared of. Talking To Terrorists displays some of the best aspects of modern British theatre. It is engaging, funny, often deeply moving and overwhelmingly relevant. It seems that theatre, more than any other medium, is embracing the idea of saying something important. Long may it continue.

Talking To Terrorists, Oxford Playhouse, 26/04/05.


If it's not clear, I absolutely loved it. And not just because I got a free ticket and then got to hear Max Stafford-Clark talk after wards.

It would seem the rest of the audience loved it too. When it finished the mood was electrifying, there was even non-Fox inspired whooping.

And I cried. Keep your films and television, give me theatre any day.

*Put then I once thought that orange clothing was a good idea. Regardless of how much is currently in stores, for me (Dulex Shade: Translucent) it isn't. I know, I've still got the photos.


Val said...

Brilliant Corinne! I love Max Stafford Clark and Out of Joint and their approach to developing and producing a play. (have you read 'Letters to George'? If you haven't you should)It sounds exhilarating, thought provoking, uncomfortable at times, and all that theatre should be. You're right, at its best theatre to me offers so much more than film of tv - that shared experience between actor and audience can produce a shiver down the spine, and you know a production is never going to be the same twice.

God, I love theatre, and I'm not even slightly bitter that you got free tickets :)

Corinne said...

I haven't read 'Letters to George' but I'm definitely going to now! I was entirely blown away, the best thing that I've seen in a long time.

'Twas a good night - free ticket, free talk and a programme that cost less than the JCS one but which had the script in. I got massively over-excited when I realised that bit!

Val said...

I've just had my 'e-bulletin' from the West Yorks playhouse, and this is on there the week after next - I'm very tempted!

Corinne said...


If that wasn't clear enough I think you should go and see it!