Talking To Terrorists, Playhouse, Oxford

When you're forced to listen
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The Independent Culture

Chekhov once said that the function of art is not to provide solutions, but to state the problem more clearly. I was reminded of this while watching Out of Joint's Talking to Terrorists, the latest superb piece of verbatim theatre from those masters of the form: the director Max Stafford-Clark and the writer Robin Soans.

The piece is entirely composed of interwoven testimonies - from ex-terrorists and former freedom fighters (distinguishing between those two categories being itself sometimes a dilemma); from the victims of terrorism (whether it be Lady Tebbit, confined to a wheelchair after the Brighton bombing, or those people who were recruited into terrorism, or drafted into brutal armies, when too young or damaged to resist). We hear from people all over the world - from the ex-head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Bethlehem to a former member of the National Resistance Army in Uganda to Craig Murray, the ex-British Ambassador who was recalled from Tashkent by the Foreign Office because of his uncompromising views on the violation of human rights in Uzbekistan, and who is standing against the Foreign Secretary.

There is so much valuable material packed in here that the result could have been a moral and aesthetic mess: congested, inclined to sentimentalise terrorists, moving round in circles etc, etc. But thanks to the skills of Stafford-Clark and Soans, Talking to Terrorists transcends journalism and emerges as a work of art in its own right. It truly gives us pause as well as "points". It does not editorialise, nor yet does it take the vacuous position that to understand all is to forgive all. And it brings home to you, as well as anything that I have seen, the complexity and the intractability of a world where people are reared in almost unimaginable and unequal circumstances.

"As a child, I saw what a grown-up would expect to see only a glimpse of once in their lifetime. An old person grew in me like wildfire," says a girl who, at the age of eight, was being drilled and abused and taught to kill in the National Resistance Army in Uganda. The Palestinian Al-Aqsa Brigade member exiled in Ireland, away from his wife and children, asks, "How can you judge me unless you have lived the life I have lived?" There's a perspective from which there are many answers to that question, and a perspective from which there is none.

Talking to Terrorists allows you to see from both points of view in the humane and untendentious way it shuffles and shapes the material, creating telling juxtapositions and stage pictures (the piece is played on simple set of graffiti-defaced concrete blocks). It is shot through with rueful humour and a sense of the quirkiness of fate. Terry Waite reveals that, while in captivity as a hostage, he was once given a single book that depressingly turned out to be a breastfeeding manual that "wasn't even illustrated". The Brighton bomber studies for several degrees while in prison, including a doctorate on The Misrepresentation of the Conflict in Popular Fiction. There's a brilliant sequence where his account of the build-up to the bombing is intercut with a Tory wife's account of her dazed and almost heroically non-heroic experiences in the immediate aftermath.

It would be invidious to single out particular performers from the splendid multi-ethnic cast. Adopting a variety of identities, and getting into the skin of discrepant persons, they offer a symbol of large-minded, communal activity that is the reverse of the narrow concentration of the terrorist cell and its teaching that the other side are worse than animals.

There's a wonderfully haunting close when the cast take the Western hymn "O little town of Bethlehem" and give it spine-tingling Middle Eastern musical inflections, blunting the notes into more plangent being. Unmissable.

Touring to 30 July (