Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Trafalgar Studio 2
Championed by David Hare, Lidless, a first play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, winner of the 2009 Yale Drama Series Award, recipient of Edinburgh Fringe's 2010 Fringe First Award and now brought to London's West End by HighTide Festival Theatre Company based in Suffolk where the play had its UK premiere in April 2010, carries the heavy burden of its success. Can it hold its own in the metropolis?
Yes, it can. Heavily metaphored, strongly influenced by W B Yeats' bird imagery, at once poetic and political, brutal and tender, looking back to Greek drama and forward to the future, it is a tragedy of the human condition, an investigation of the close alliance of its hatred and love.
Time-shifting between 2004 in Guantanamo Bay detention camp and the family home of Guantanamo interrogator in Minnesota fifteen years later, the play examines the long-term fallout and repercussions of that psyche-damaging job. How does one live happily ever after that?
Post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome as well as Stockholm syndrome. Crimes against humanity and oneself follow the compulsive pattern of the past, the traumas of forefathers: the Second World War, Vietnam, Iraq, and now the crimes of Guantanamo. Nothing changes.
Twenty-five-year-old Texan soldier Alice tortured Muslim detainees by the Dick Cheney inspired 'Invasion of Space by a Female', preferably a menstruating one, sexuality as a weapon, but the end result is two tortured people, their lives intertwined forever. Is it worse that the torturer is a woman? One thinks of German female concentration camp guards. One thinks of Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib.
Lidless is The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani's 1974 film, in reverse. That inextricable bond between gaoler and jailed, the confusion of the real world with that make-believe twilight world. Both are casualties of war, its sacrificial victims. Only the damaged can understand each other. Is this enough of a redemption?
Little does she suspect but redemption is thrust upon Alice, who barely remembers anything of the past - there are pills provided by the army to obliterate that now - when former detainee Bashir comes to her flower shop to ask a favour on her fortieth birthday. But pills cannot erase questions.
She raped him, now he wants a piece of her flesh. He has liver damage. She was a hepatitis carrier. He wants her to donate half her liver to him, so he can live long enough to see his daughter. He remembers it all. In pretending that she was his wife, he became complicit. Now the hallucinations pursue them both. When did the make-believe become real? Do minds deceive bodies? Can wrongs be righted?
The play's schematic plotting and contrived coincidence packs a lot into its fifteen short scenes, its sixty pages translated to the stage in an intense seventy-five minutes. Alice's best friend is an Iraqi medic, the daughter of a man mutilated by Saddam Hussein. Her daughter Rhiannon's asthma vanishes when she is with Bashir, to whom she seems strangely drawn.
Rhiannon likes role-play, too, but it costs. There is always a price to pay for the poisoning of the well. There are always consequences. Circularity and parallels, family loss mirrored and reflected in each tribe. When will we learn that we are all the same? We all hurt. When will the cycle of inhumanity end?
America will be feeling the effects of its policies for generations. At least, the young are addressing them - Lidless is an indictment of America's cowardly selfish, corrupt and corrupting mindset.
Penny Layden carries the play as the angry and confused Alice in an unsympathetic unselfconscious but true performance. Mostly in white and grey, the actors are like ghosts from the recent past confined in Trafalgar Studio Two's tiny in-the-round space, a white rectangular box with an under-lit floor, outlined by white strip lighting, electric fencing that crackles and spits. Simple, bare and spare - it is all in the mind. It's the words, poetry and passion, that count.
Till 2nd April 2011
The Fifth HighTide Festival will take place in Halesworth, Suffolk, from 28th April 2011
Reviewer: Vera Liber