Guantanamo - 'Honor Bound to Defend Freedom', Tricycle Theatre, London
Rough justice in paradise
Thursday 27 May 2004
The Tricycle has a noble tradition of "tribunal theatre". Thanks to its artistic director, Nicholas Kent (often working with the journalist Richard Norton-Taylor), we've been made witness to meticulous dramatic reconstructions of (among others) the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (in
The Colour of Justice), the Hutton hearings (in
Justifying War), the UN War Crimes Tribunal of 1996 (in
Srebrenica) and the
Nuremberg Trials of fifty years earlier.
The Tricycle has a noble tradition of "tribunal theatre". Thanks to its artistic director, Nicholas Kent (often working with the journalist Richard Norton-Taylor), we've been made witness to meticulous dramatic reconstructions of (among others) the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (in The Colour of Justice), the Hutton hearings (in Justifying War), the UN War Crimes Tribunal of 1996 (in Srebrenica) and the Nuremberg Trials of fifty years earlier.
There is one appalling difference between these instances and the case now up for searching scrutiny in the latest piece. There has been no trial - nor does there look to be even the prospect of one - for the men in detention at Guantanamo Bay. Or, and the piece is careful not to claim any moral superiority over the United States in this regard, for the foreign nationals who have been detained, on the certification of the Home Secretary, in Belmarsh since December 2001.
God knows, it was impossible to sit through the edited transcripts of the Lawrence Inquiry or the Nuremberg Trials without feeling deeply upset. But there was at least the feeling that justice of a kind was being seen to be done. Here, with Guantanamo (and Belmarsh prison and the prisons in Iraq) it's the stuff of your worst nightmare - a Kafkaesque situation plus the brutality thugs where there is no charge, no court of appeal, no right of unmonitored access to legal representation, and no need for the ordeal ever to be brought to an end.
With a text (compiled by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo) from spoken testimonies, Guantanamo is an eloquent indictment of the suspect political practices and mentality that have led to the creation what Lord Justice Steyn (whose Mann Lecture opens the proceedings) has called "the legal black hole". And it fulfils the major requirement of this sort of piece - that it takes us down into people's experiences at a level inaccessible to journalism.
With the stage flanked by the cage-like cells of the detainees in Cuba, the play interweaves accounts from the prisoners of the bizarre ways they came to be arrested and of soul-destroying prison life with reactions from their loved ones, a conceptually contorted press conferences from Donald Rumsfeld and the indignant analysis of the broader political import of all this (we're heading into a whole new era of social control) from liberal lawyers.
There are flashes of grim humour at the tunnel-visioned idiocy of the authorities. Just about to fly over a forensic expert from Bali, the Special Branch are foiled when the Argos catalogue convinces them that the dubious item found in the luggage is a battery charger. And you have to laugh to stop yourself weeping when you are arrested in the Gambia on suspicion of coming to blow things up, even though there is a dearth of targets in the Gambia, and besides, if you were a terrorist, you would scarcely have bothered to come through the airport when there are two hundred miles of porous border.
These stories of British and Asian Muslim, caught in a vortex of presumed guilt, are simply heartbreaking - all the most so for the restraint with which Kent's beautifully acted production presents them.
The programme prints a moving open letter from the mother of one of the men still held in Cuba. "I am not going to talk about my son's detention in Guantanamo using the sort of sentimental vernacular that is expected of an agonised mother," she announces. The production respects in all of the real-life participants what has been cruelly denied them by the Government: human dignity.
To 12 June (020-7328 1000)
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