Talking to Terrorists

Robin Soans

Out of Joint/Royal Court

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

(2005)

Review by J. D. Atkinson

There is a depressingly widespread delusion that people can only be tempted into the theatre by productions that imitate the action of films and video games. Two years after Out of Joint's riveting The Permanent Way, the company (in partnership with the Royal Court) proves yet again that audiences will happily sit through an almost action-free play if the words are worth listening to. And Talking to Terrorists, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, serves up some of the most unforgettable words you're likely to hear on stage this year.

A cast of eight plays an astonishing twenty-nine characters, all of them involved in some way with terrorism. Members of the IRA, UVA, Kurdish Workers Party and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade explain, directly to the audience, why they were driven almost inexorably to acts of violence. Hostages, Secretaries of State, and survivors tell their stories. In one of the most harrowing segments a Ugandan woman (Chipo Chung) describes how she ran away from home at the age of eight and was "adopted" as a child soldier by the National Resistance Army. For years she took part in murder, torture and dismemberment. "As a child I saw what a grown-up would expect to see only a glimpse of once in their lifetime… I'm twenty-eight years old now; sometimes I feel fifteen, sometimes I'm two hundred."

The play is a salutary reminder that terrorism has deep historical roots, a fact easy to forget in this age of sound-bites, spoon-fed "embedded" journalists and world leaders whose foreign policy owes more to the ethos of Marvel comics than to political reality. Soans also makes use of the well-known case of our Ambassador to Uzbekistan (Jonathan Cullen), who discovered that worthless "intelligence" about Al-Qaeda training camps had been obtained by means of torture (boiling alive, to be precise). On being informed by the Foreign Office that "Jack Straw loses sleep over this", the Ambassador replies that Jack Straw's sleep patterns aren't of paramount importance to the people on the receiving end of the boiling water. Another hard fact - this year's "rogue state" tends to be last year's "firm but friendly government"…

The play ends with the words of a Palestinian schoolgirl mourning the killing of her friend by an Israeli sniper. "When I saw the Twin Towers on television I felt sorry. But now I feel happy that they died. It's their turn to suffer. I could see many thousands of them die and I wouldn't feel a thing."

Having named two of the superb cast it would be unfair not to mention the other six - Christopher Ettridge, Alexander Hanson, Lloyd Hutchinson, Catherine Russell, Chris Ryman and June Watson. Talking to Terrorists is an unmissable piece of theatre and an unforgettable experience.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 14th May, then touring to Manchester, Ipswich, Coventry, Salisbury, Liverpool and London

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs.