In Philip Osment's new play, Collateral Damage, four notorious killers stand in wire cages at a maximum-security jail in Colorado, pumping iron and discussing their crimes. They are Timothy McVeigh, soon to be executed for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, and the Cuban gang leader Luis Felipe.
Bringing them together sounds like a dramatist's conceit - as though Osment had set out to blend one of Terry Johnson's imagined theatrical encounters with the political rigour of David Edgar - but this quartet really did occupy adjacent isolation cells for their one hour of daily recreation at the Supermax jail, in Florence, Colorado, in 2001, and their four dramatised conversations provide some of the most riveting moments in Collateral Damage, as McVeigh denounces the "tyranny" of the US government, the paranoid Kaczynski rails against "a system that doesn't allow us to see how things really are", Yousef attacks the hypocrisy of US foreign policy and Felipe questions the sanity of the other three.
The play has its first public performances this week, more than 18 months after Osment and the director Mike Alfreds began working with their vast cast: 26 drama students from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda). They were brought together for The Long Project, a Lamda initiative that gives students a precious opportunity to create a piece of new work with an experienced writer, instead of spending all their time exploring the classics or reviving recent plays.
The project has already been the nursery for two recent National Theatre successes. Adapter-director Di Trevis worked with Lamda students as she began transforming Harold Pinter's unfilmed screenplay of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past into the play first performed at the Cottesloe in 2000, and Mark Ravenhill developed the first version of his time-hopping tale of sex and sexuality, Mother Clapp's Molly House, at Lamda before it was taken up by Nicholas Hytner (Ravenhill will return for the academy's 2004-5 Long Project).
"The Long Project is part of an attempt to reinvent drama schools and make them a professional resource instead of the inward-looking institutions that they used to be," says Peter James, Lamda's principal since 1994. "I had looked at companies like Complicité and realised that they disappear into a room with an idea and come out three months later with a show. I thought we could do something similar, and give our students additional responsibility for the research and writing of a piece as well for as its performance."
Ravenhill, Trevis and Osment have, in effect, been commissioned by James as they would be by an artistic director, but without the usual obligation to deliver a finished script for immediate or imminent production. "We all sit down after the first three months and ask: 'Is there further life in this?'" James explains. "If we agree that there isn't, then the project can be called off without noticeable damage; we would just pick an existing play for the students to do instead."
Osment and Alfreds appreciated this pressure-free arrangement because, although they had collaborated on four of Osment's plays, most recently Buried Alive, a harrowing tale of domestic abuse and murder, brilliantly staged by Alfreds at the Hampstead Theatre in 2001, they had never attempted a devised piece. "We weren't sure we could work that way together," says Osment, "and it was wonderful to find out that we could."
They found their subject early in 2002, after hearing a radio interview with Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter, Julie, died in the Oklahoma bombing. "He talked about his journey from hatred to reconciliation and his friendship with McVeigh's father and sister," says Osment. "That was our inspiration." At first, Alfreds says, they had no idea which aspects of the Oklahoma story they would focus on: "The play could've been about capital punishment, about Waco, about the first Gulf War, about the nature of terrorism..." These were the topics researched by the students over their long vacation last year, and their homework fed into six weeks of afternoon workshops in the autumn term. Characters were created and scenes improvised, with Osment rewriting, editing and shaping the results into scripted form.
By late January, Collateral Damage was ready to be performed as a work-in-progress for an invited audience at the MacOwan Theatre, Lamda's studio venue in west London, and the result was 90 minutes of sober, moving and intelligent ensemble drama, split into more than 30 scenes and staged with stark fluency.
Its chronological spine is McVeigh's journey, from his hero's return to the US after the first Gulf War, through his seething resentment at the government's responsibility for the massacre at Waco, and on to the Oklahoma bombing, his imprisonment, trial and execution.
Branching out from the McVeigh scenes are the stories of his victims. The real-life characters include McVeigh's brother and sister and Welch, who passes from vindictive, alcohol-fuelled hatred (he tells his daughter's ghost: "I want to peel McVeigh's skin from his body, inch by inch"), to the hard-won acceptance ("I realised that if they kill Tim that won't make me feel any better") that prompted him to campaign against the bomber's death sentence. The imagined roles include bereaved Oklahomans, a TV news journalist reporting from the bomb site and the wife of an Oklahoma cop who is desperate to connect with the atrocity even though it has not touched her directly. Together, they embody the play's title and trace what Alfreds calls "the endless emotional ripples that radiate out from an event like Oklahoma".
In an impressive cast, there were stand-out performances from Laura Dos Santos, as a Waco survivor who delivers a haunting monologue, Aidan Clooke, who turns Felipe into a close relative of Al Pacino's Tony Montana in Scarface, all crotch-grabbing swagger and pitch-perfect Latino accent, Michael Diskint as the numbed Welch and Chris Jamba, who endows McVeigh with a fanatic's thousand-yard stare and unnerving calm.
Though Collateral Damage ends with McVeigh's execution in June 2001, it's impossible not to view the play through post-September 11 eyes, and to be reminded of how the al Qa'ida attacks relegated Oklahoma from America's worst terrorist atrocity almost to the status of an historical footnote. "Lots of Americans came to see the play in January and said: 'We'd forgotten about Oklahoma,'" recalls Alfreds.
Since January, the second Gulf War and the ongoing terrorist attacks around the world can only have enhanced Collateral Damage's pertinence and I strongly recommend going along to see the same cast perform a slightly revised version at the MacOwan Theatre this week, in what may well be its only London production. "Very few professional theatres could even conceive of doing the play with 26 actors: it's just too expensive," Alfreds acknowledges. "And if you were do it with eight to 10 actors and everyone doubling or trebling [their parts] then it would be a totally different experience."
Osment won't mind if this is the end of the play's life, because "this is what we've ended up with using this group and we're very proud of it", but suspects that he may return to the subject matter. "What's not clear to me yet is whether there's a different piece of work within Collateral Damage that focuses more on one story. It could just be about McVeigh and the other prisoners, or it could be three different plays about different groups, which you could watch consecutively."
As for the students, James hopes they will cherish what may turn out to have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because they could graduate next summer, enjoy regular, high-profile work on stage and screen for years to come, and yet never workon another new play. "I hope this has taught them that the biggest buzz of all comes from creating a role in a new play," he says. "There's nothing like it."
'Collateral Damage' is at the MacOwan Theatre, Logan Place, London W8 (020-8834 0500) tomorrow to 11 December
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