11th May 2005. The Iraq War at its bloodiest. Tony Blair’s move to topple Saddam Hussein had been initially successful, but the fallout was now telling. In a camp in Basra, British troop commander James Farrell and his Lieutenant, Dan, find themselves with the vital task of interrogating Mohammed bin Osama bin Laden, the son of the Al-Qaeda leader, to ascertain the details of an imminent attack.
There’s more than one way of skinning a cat, as the old saying goes. James favours a Softly, Softly approach, luring the terrorist into a false sense of security, dropping the emotional hot brick of an update on his wife and kids, teasing out the truth as a psychological victory. Dan, on the other hand, favours the threat of violence and punishment, and thinks torture is the only sure way to get what they want. But Dan has his own reasons for revenge; he attributes the death of his father to the terrorists, so this time it’s personal. Together they adopt a kind of nice cop, nasty cop tactic, crossing between each other to unsettle the suspect. But it’s not working, and the terrorist knows he’s winning. When he sees his two interrogators at each other’s throats with despair at their lack of progress, his mind is made up to stay silent. Shoot me and make me a martyr is his goading wish.
This is a very powerful play, with great characterisations and performances from actors whose work I’ve already admired, in The Accused, and The Night Before Christmas. Alexander Forrester-Coles is excellent as James, clearly an officer by birthright, with an innate nobility and natural authority. You can almost see his brain whirring away as he works out the best way to outwit the terrorist, and there’s no mistaking his clipped irritation when things don’t go his way. Chris Tyler is also superb as Dan, with his redoubtable physical presence being put to great use as he dominates the wretched terrorist and tries to dominate his senior officer – who’s having none of it. Radostin Radev makes up the cast as the silently mocking Bin Laden Jnr, sticking to his story of being an honest farmer, singing verses from the Koran, alternating perfectly between innocence and insolence; and being on the receiving end of the most vicious stage combat when Dan can hold back no more.
I say stage combat; there’s a fine line to be drawn between performing this vital and difficult skill perfectly, and getting it wrong. Nothing looks more risible than a stage fight where it’s so obvious that no one’s touching anyone; they may as well be doing ballet. On the other hand, there’s the kind of stage combat where the hits are clearly landing, and landing hard. In the course of the torture, Mr Radev is, inter alia, smashed over the head with a tin tray that buckles with the force and has his head plunged several times into a bucket of water. Not so much stage combat as…, well, combat. Whilst it was incredibly effective to look at, and really brought the tension to a head, I couldn’t help but wondering where acting ended, and assault began. I asked Mr Radev afterwards how much he hurt, and he replied quite a bit! I’m not sure how well received the idea of that kind of physical pain would go down if the cast members weren’t mates too. Just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind – unlike the nagging ache at the top of Mr Radev’s head.
The brutality of the events on stage were echoed by the brutality of some of the images on the accompanying video clips; I know that Iraq is hardly playing doctors and nurses but maybe the selection of some of the video was a little more forceful than it needed to be – at least without some prior warning. If they were trying to shock us, it worked.
A production that maybe lacked just a tiny bit of finesse, but with absolutely no questioning the commitment of the cast or the dramatic intensity of the piece, which was riveting throughout. Great work!