Public Interest

Drew Ballantyne
Clever as Clever
New Diorama Theatre
(2011)

Public Interest publicity image

In September 2003 British forces in Basra arrested hotel receptionist Baha Mousa and some other staff at their workplace and took them away for interrogation. Two days later, after a beating that left him with 93 different injuries Mousa died of asphyxiation. His death led to the court-martial of seven soldiers and a public inquiry whose results have yet to be announced. That inquiry provides the material for the verbatim drama currently on at the Tricycle Theatre. It is also the source on which Drew Ballantyne has drawn for this his first play.

Whereas Tactical Questioning is a documentary recreation, this play, Public Interest, is fiction. It presents a meeting between two imaginary intelligence officers, one of whom is due to give evidence to that inquiry next day. Colonel Warner, looking forward to imminent retirement, has been in charge of teaching interrogation techniques to British soldiers, both methods that follow the rules of the Geneva Convention and those our troops might be subjected to by captors who do not observe them, which he claims as training in how to withstand them. His legal-trained protégé Captain Lucas, partly to pursue his own political ambitions, is trying to convince Warner that he should followed a prepared brief and deliver a carefully worded statement rather than answer with the open honesty he intends.

It is a chance to explore both military thinking and military training - these are both Army men through and through and when they find themselves trying to justify themselves to Ellie, the waitress who is the only member of staff on duty in the bar where they meet, it adds a more public level to their argument.

While Lucas feels Warner's honesty makes him "sound like the Amnesty International Anti-Christ", he seems infinitely preferable to Lucas with his spin-doctor thinking. One dreads what he would be like should he succeed in his political ambitions. As he comes out with the clichés Ellie tells him, "It's that national security and public interest that make me terrified."

The discussion is certainly fascinating. Not least Warner's declaration that violence is unproductive. More effective is the 'Harsh', a technique which consists entirely of verbal abuse by which you simply make use of any marked personal or physical defects; if they are 'a fat fucking cunt', you call them that. It is a technique that is illegal. But he also claims that not using physical violence could have the effect of changing the enemy's expectations. If terrorists don't have to train their operators to be tough they will be able to recruit more widely, the situation become even more dangerous.

Sidney Kean as Warner and Tim Dewberry as Lucas create believable characters and make their points with clarity and Rachel Marwood has some spirited moments as a rather enigmatic Ellie but deftly though Ballantyne packages the information I could never quite believe in the situation he has constructed. Would anyone actually conduct such a conversation in a hotel bar? Even though it happens that they are the only people there it seems an oddly public place for Lucas to choose. Or is the intention to remind us that Mousa was arrested in just such a location?

Although there is a back story involving the two men and the death of Lucas' lover, it emerges too late to provide the personal dramatic structure which would give reality to the encounter and deeply involve us with them as people, especially as Ballantyne throws in a confusing red herring at the beginning with a scene that suggests that Lucas has already slept with Ellie and then pretends not to know her.

In fact, at the end of the play when this scene is repeated, it appears the rest of the play has been a flashback. Why? Especially when it makes the whole play comes to a halt and a long hiatus while the actors have to put on their clothes before they can start the next scene. It creates an awkwardness that persists as director Kamaal Hussain has his actors roam away from the smart hotel furniture of Tom Power's set into the adjoining space. People don't normally get up and roam around public spaces while having private conversations; was this meant to be symbolic: a zone for a different level of interaction? It did not seem so but why else was everything moved to one side of the stage to leave this void?

Ballantyne is effective in the way he introduces information culled from the inquiry and in constructing the escalating argument but still has some way to go in developing dramatic structure. However as Public Interest is his first play it suggests he may be someone to look out for in future.

"Public Interest" runs at the New Diorama until 25th June 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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