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Guardians

Peter Morris
MahWaff Theatre Company
Theatre 503
(2005)

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Guardians is a new play by Peter Morris, which won a Fringe First at Edinburgh this year but has been updated to take account of current events. It is inspired by the story of the 'trophy' photographs taken by American soldiers which depict them torturing Iraqi prisoners of war. Similar ones showing British soldiers were printed in a national newspaper, but these turned out to be fake and the editor was summarily sacked.

The title of the play works on several levels: Guardians of peace and freedom is what we were led to believe we were when we went to war in the first place; the American soldiers were guardians of the prisoners; and the leading male character who is called simply 'English Boy', currently working on the bottom rung of a tabloid newspaper, has ambitions to be a Guardian columnist. In each case, of course, the aspiration is very different from the reality.

From the outset, the piece played with our expectations. As the audience entered, both actors were sitting on stage silently waiting, rather than the other way around. At first everyone watched in anticipation, but soon began to chat until the action began. The playwright, Morris, makes his first point: we're all too busy with our own lives to bother about much, unless a big noise is being made.

And soon there is. The play takes the form of two monologues. The first is from a twenty-something journalist (played by Hywel John); the second is from an American Girl (played by MyAnna Buring) who is one of the soldiers who have been tried for prisoner abuse. They are worlds apart but their stories are soon linked. John plays an ambitious journalist with a sideline in S & M. Buring is a naïve twenty-year-old whose only motive in joining the army was to blast her way out of her West Virginian backwater, only to be shipped, to her bewilderment, to a hell-hole called Eye-rack.

The journalist begins a sadistic relationship with a member of the TA, and through him is introduced to the world of the trophy photographs. By comparing pornography to journalism, it's only a short leap from turning the exploitative photographs into a career opportunity. Using his boyfriend's army mates, they mock-up similar photos and he manages to convince his only-too-willing superiors to print them.

Meanwhile, the American soldier is in the throes of an abusive relationship with her superior. A love-starved innocent, she believes it is "a lot like fun, of the bad kind". Unable to reconcile her mixed emotions, her superior tells her to take her frustrations on the "brown people". Which she does. There's the inevitable "I was just following orders" rant, which despite the despair in her voice, has a hollow ring.

Ultimately of course, the photos are uncovered as fakes. But the journalist manages to distance himself from them and is promoted to a columnist (quite how convincing this is in real life, I don't know. If he acknowledged the photos came from him - which he did - I'm sure his part in the subterfuge would be quickly discovered). The American soldier is not so lucky. Having been a guard, she is now a prisoner, and a pregnant one at that.

Hywel John gave a good performance as the ambitious, self-centred journalist who had no qualms about "turning over" his victims and there were some shades of Rik Mayall's performance in The Young Ones, which was in keeping with the character in the script. MyAnna Buring succeeded in making us understand why her character acted the way she did, without forcing us to condone it. She was very convincing as a young West Virginian, every bit as bewildered as the people she was oppressing.

The production was simply but well staged by the director Michael Longhurst. And the sound design by Toby Knowles, which included the whirr of camera shutters, kept us firmly focused on the subject matter.

Morris (who has twice won The Sunday Times Playwrighting Prize) has written a clever, thought-provoking script that is not afraid to tackle the big themes facing today's society: power, inhumanity and corruption on a grand and personal scale. However, the writing tends to lead from the head rather than the heart and I felt he was a touch too cynical about the press in general. Despite the gloomy subject matter, the dialogue is often witty and he is committed to keeping the production fresh by rewriting (George Bush's revelation that God told him to go to war was included, as was 'pity party' a phrase used by Jennifer Aniston when describing how she felt after her marriage broke up). A very topical play that provides some insight into the shocking stories that hit the headlines last year.

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart