Talking to Terrorists
Out of Joint
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
Review by Philip Fisher
"How can you judge me unless you have lived the life that I lived?" This is the question asked by a terrorist seeking to justify his actions. At first, this sounds like a plausible rationale for murder and perhaps it is, but you can bet that his victims and their families will judge away - and why shouldn't they?
Robin Soans, the actor turned playwright, is fast recreating himself as the master of Verbatim Theatre. This is the art of editing the thoughts of a wide range of people, generally on a politicised subject, into a meaningful piece of drama.
He has already looked at sectarian conflict from an oblique angle in The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, which is being revived at the Tricycle next week. In Talking to Terrorists, he addresses the subject from a much wider perspective.
The title is a little misleading as Soans' talks have taken in not only terrorists but aid workers, diplomats and politicians, as he strives to obtain a balanced view of his subject.
The focus shifts around with Irishmen from both sides of the divide, a Palestinian, a Kurdish Turk and an African girl soldier from Sierra Leone talking of what made them act as they did. They often derive sympathy when they talk of their pasts and the personal consequences: typically years of incarceration combined with torture and on occasion rape.
The talks with the aggressors are balanced by interviews with high profile victims such as Norman and Margaret Tebbitt and Terry Waite and those on the periphery, the former Northern Ireland Minister (the unnamed but name-dropping) Mo Mowlem and a former Ambassador in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The latter was Craig Murray, who, according to Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian "cried foul over human rights abuses and was sacked by (Jack) Straw for his pains". Murray, after protesting against the use of torture to obtain information and getting summarily removed from his job stood against Straw on a Human Rights ticket in this year's General Election, winning over 2,000 votes.
Talking to Terrorists provides its audience with a very intense two and a half hours as they learn about what makes terrorists tick but also see their human side. The latter is well demonstrated by two Irishmen, UVF and IRA, in prison together who eventually forget their differences to become firm friends. This device of counterpointing different experiences is a Soans favourite and can be very effective, never more so than when we hear from the bitter, Brighton-bombed Tebbitts and "their" Brighton Bomber in what is practically an unwitting conversation.
The acting is of high quality. Chipo Chung as the young African soldier and Jonathan Cullen as the ex-ambassador give exceptionally moving performances in highly contrasting parts. Lloyd Hutchinson pulls off something of a coup with a great imitation of Terry Waite that caused a frisson in Row G where the real version was sitting.
This Out of Joint production, directed by Max Stafford Clark may be more Documentary than Verbatim Theatre as Robin Soans appears to have used a little poetic licence to lighten the otherwise oppressive mood. It might benefit from the excision of a superfluous character or two in the interests of getting its message across more cleanly but even so it is a political drama of the most powerful kind.
J D Atkinson reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.