Out of Joint and the Royal Court present
Talking to Terrorists
by Robin Soans 2005
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‘I will be astonished if the year turns up a more important, illuminating or moving play than this’ Daily Telegraph
Talking to Terrorists is a play commissioned by the Royal Court and Out of Joint. The writer, director and actors interviewed people from around the world who have been affected by or involved in terrorism. They wanted to know what makes ordinary people do extreme things, often at a shockingly young age.
Peacemakers, journalists and hostages. Significant figures from recent history. And those who have crossed the line. Their stories take us from Africa, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Ireland to the heart of the British Establishment.
T2T was made possible thanks to PEACE DIRECT
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Designer: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting Designer: Johanna Town
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
FIVE STARS ‘unmissable’ Independent
‘highly recommended’ Independent on Sunday
FOUR STARS ‘extraordinary’ The Guardian
‘truly remarkable’ Daily Telegraph
FIVE STARS ‘fantastic performances’ Mail on Sunday
FOUR STARS ‘you must see this play’ Sunday Times
FIVE STARS ‘startling’ Sunday Express
FIVE STARS ‘great theatre’ Metro
The Independent – Paul Taylor (02/05/05)
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.
Independent on Sunday – Kate Bassett (01/04/05)
Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint company, previously acclaimed for The Permanent Way, has produced another superb investigative docudrama (in conjunction with the Royal Court). Talking to Terrorists has been deftly woven together by Robin Soams using interviews with militant resistance fighters and people they’ve targeted, with ministers, diplomats, an army expert, a psychologist and everyday folk from London, Belfast, Uganda, Turkey and the Middle East.
The witnesses identifiably include Terry Waite, Mo Mowlam, Norman Tebbit, one of the IRA unit who planted the Brighton bomb, and the ex-ambassador Craig Murray who objected to the government using foreign intelligence apparently extracted through torture. Glimpses of these professionals’ domestic lives are deliberately kept in the script, subtly qualifying the stated moral stances.
A quietly superb team of eight actors – including June Watson, Lloyd Hutchinson, Jonathan Cullen and Chipo Chung – play all the parts, just slipping into a different jacket or another accent. The individual stories are fascinating while the underlying point is to find the common denominators. This piece wisely draws its parallels with a light touch and keeps its psychological conclusions subjective, but the issues contemplated involve social deprivations, youngsters as prime impressionable material and the lasting mental scars of witnessing such violence. There are harrowing accounts of mass slaughters and torture, plus scorching condemnations, by insiders, of the workings of Blair’s government and the situation in Iraq. (“It’s a complete disaster. I’m not saying we will, but, oh yeah, we face strategic failure.”) The piece is also, remarkably, entertaining and touching, not least when the ambassador is interrupted by his belly-dancing wife, and when Hutchinson’s Waite recalls the two fantastically inappropriate books his captors gave him: Great Escapes by Eric Williams and A Manual of Breast-feeding – and “it wasn’t even illustrated”. You couldn’t make it up. Inevitably, not the whole picture, but an arresting piece of work and highly recommended.
The Guardian – Michael Billington (28/04/05)
Verbatim theatre is not just living journalism. If it is to succeed, it has to have the shape and rhythm of art. That was true of the Tricycle’s Bloody Sunday and The Colour of Justice. And at its best it’s also true of this extraordinary kaleidoscopic collage created by Robin Soans and co-produced by Out of Joint and the Royal Court.
The whole show is based on the testimony of those who have had experience of terrorism. And there is a moment in the second half when it juxtaposes the words of perpetrator and victim with a directness that would be hard to achieve in fiction. At a desk sits the ex-IRA man responsible for the Brighton bombing of 20 years ago. A few feet away stands a Tory landowner who was in the hotel on the night of the explosion. And their intersecting recollections produce remarkable theatre.
The bomber explains, with mathematical precision, how he took a room in the Brighton hotel and set the timer to explode during the Tory conference. “Of course I regret the suffering I caused,” he says, “but circumstances made our actions inevitable.” The female survivor who was staying in the hotel then describes the shock of the explosion, the astonishing lack of panic as people exited through the debris, and the strange air of almost wartime stoicism. The moment provides not just a tonal contrast. It pinpoints the divergence of outlook and attitude between bomber and victim in a way that is unique to theatre. It is played by Lloyd Hutchinson and June Watson at just the right unhysterical pitch.
What Soans’s script does for much of the evening, however, is offer insights into terrorism and explain its multiple causes. A psychologist, smoothly played by Christopher Ettridge, is particularly enlightening in defining its origins. He pins down the need for an organising guru who eventually retreats into the background. He talks of the importance of recruiting adolescents who crave status, who like to feel they are shaping history and who have “a strong illusion of immortality”. What is terrifying is that he explains how relatively easy it would be to organise such a group for such a limited, local cause as blowing up four-wheel drives in Chelsea.
The inherent danger in a show like this is that it romanticises terrorism. But it strenuously avoids this by showing how torture and oppression often create their own violent antidote, using Uganda and Kurdistan as potent examples. It never lets us forget that terrorist acts punish the innocent as well as the guilty. One of the most moving testimonies comes from an envoy, clearly Terry Waite, who found that attempted negotation turned him into a Lebanese captive. There is even a wild humour about his revelation that, pleading for something to read while incarcerated, he was offered Great Escapes by Eric Williams.
Soans’s script strives hard to balance cause and effect. But it would be faux-naif to pretend that it doesn’t have a political agenda. If any theme runs through the show, it is that terrorism can never be countered by retaliatory force alone. It also touches on current concerns by including testimony from the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan: the man who was recalled after revealing that CIA intelligence about armed Islamic units roaming the mountains above Samarkand was patently untrue. What the show doesn’t say is that his outrage at British faith in false intelligence has led him to stand as an independent candidate in Blackburn.
But the eternal question raised by factual theatre like this is whether it does anything fictional theatre can’t. Watching Max Stafford-Clark’s calculatedly low-key production, I would say it does. It sheds light on a dark subject. It forces us to think about what actually constitutes “terrorism”. It shows that people acquire a strange eloquence when talking about subjects close to their hearts.
It is not the only form of theatre. But this show, staged very simply against Jonathan Fensom’s set of graffitti-strewn concrete blocks, is aesthetically satisfying and well acted by an eight-strong cast including Jonathan Cullen, Alexander Hanson and Catherine Russell. Just occasionally I could have done with more instant identification of who the speakers actually were. But this is a quibble in an evening that takes a subject surrounded by fear and panic and offers progressive enlightenment. At its highest point, as in the contrapuntal recollections of the Brighton bombing, it is also proves that edited memories can achieve the potency of art.
Telegraph – Charles Spencer (29/04/05)
CHILLING, MOVING AND MESMERISING
I will be astonished if the year turns up a more important, illuminating or moving play than this. Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint company has a superb record with verbatim theatre, ranging from Robin Soans’s A State Affair, about life on a Bradford council estate, to David Hare’s devastating The Permanent Way, about the dire state of Britain’s railways.
Now the company is tackling perhaps the most pressingly urgent and scary subject of our times, terrorism, against which the West is currently fighting such an amorphous, ill-defined war.
Once again compiled by Soans, Talking to Terrorists consists entirely of the words of those with direct experience of terror, elicited in interviews conducted by Soans, Stafford-Clark and a team of actor-researchers, several of whom appear in the show.
The range is amazing. We hear from a child soldier in Uganda, former members of the IRA and the UVF in Northern Ireland, from Kurds, Palestinians, and those who have seen action in Iraq. There is also an exceptionally lucid psychologist who explains just how attractive terrorism can seem to a confused teenager.
Some of the speakers are readily identifiable, among them Mo Mowlam, who proudly claims to have split Sinn Fein from the IRA and cheerfully describes Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as “normal family men”, and Norman Tebbit, whose wife was so terribly injured in the Brighton bombing. Terry Waite also gives a graphic account of what it was like to be a hostage in the Lebanon for five years and face up to imminent execution.
It has often been said that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and there are moments here that make the cliché seem vividly true. The accounts of state-sponsored torture and brutality that spurred several of those we hear from into action are chilling indeed.
Soans seamlessly interweaves the testimonies, creating a flow of evidence and graphic detail that has you hanging on to every word. The accounts of human cruelty are often almost unbearable to listen to, and I shan’t easily forget the description of the man who was boiled alive to obtain dubious evidence about Osama bin Laden, or the child soldier in Uganda who was supervising torture at the age of 13.
Yet, surprisingly, the play isn’t entirely depressing. We hear of great courage here, as well as great suffering, of triumphs of the human spirit as well as its collapse into barbarism. There are even moments of humour. Tebbit – who, as one might imagine, takes a robust view of terrorists and yearns to take out a couple of IRA men with his shotgun – mordantly announces that he appeared barefoot at his interview to prove he hadn’t got cloven hooves. And a former British ambassador in Uzbekistan, appalled by evidence of British complicity in torture, proves to be hilariously entangled with a local belly dancer.
Stafford-Clark directs a lucid and enthralling production that never nudges the audience into a response but allows us to draw our own conclusions. And there are, of course, no easy conclusions to reach, beyond the truth grasped so long ago by the ancient Greek tragedians – that blood will have blood and more blood. As the reformed UVF hard-man observes: “People who kill someone also kill part of themselves. They lose part of their humanity.”
The eight actors are flawless, playing up to five parts apiece with great versatility, and resolutely refusing to milk the traumatic material for easy pathos. It is all the more moving as a result, but this is, in every respect, a truly remarkable piece of theatre.
Mail on Sunday – Georgina Brown (02/05/05)
There are several unsettling moments in Talking to Terrorists. In one, a psychologist comments that the difference between a terrorist and the rest of us ‘really isn’t that great’. What he means is that of 100 people vaguely worked up about an issue, even one as trivial as four-wheel-drives in Chelsea, you will find one person who suddenly finds a real sense of purpose in becoming a tyre-slasher.
In another, a pukka colonel admits to an epiphany when he was 28 and serving in Northern Ireland: ‘I realised that if IU had been born in Crossmaglen or South Armagh, I would have been a terrorist. And that’s an understanding every soldier should have.’
Robin Soans’s powerful and probing piece of theatre expertly selects, cuts and interweaves the verbatim accounts from former terrorists, their victims and the politicians who attempt to negotiate with them.
Though unnamed, you’ll recognise the down-to-earth Mo Mowlem, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who misses the chauffeur-driven car that came with the job (John and I could go out in the evening and get p***ed’), and Norman Tebbit, who, with equal candour, if rather less forgiveness, confesses he would cheerfully show a terrorist both barrels of his 12-bore but for the problems that that would cause his wife, paralysed in the bomb attack on Brighton’s Grand Hotel.
While the revelations of a child soldier cannot be anything but harrowing, and the vengeance of a Birmingham Schoolgirl whose friend was killed by an Israeli sniper is truly shocking, the piece is serious without being po-faced or relentlessly grim.
A devout Muslim, sickened by the lewd and undisciplined nature of contemporary Western culture says ‘it’s better that you’re gay and Muslim than just gay’ because, whatever happen, you will find Allah; an unbeliever will just rot. And, by the way, he hates Muslim fanatics for stirring up religious prejudice as much as the rest of us.
Terry Waite reveals how when he was held hostage for five years, he longed for books. His guard kindly bought him A Manual of Breastfeeding (‘it wasn’t even illustrated’) which didn’t quite hit the spot.
Max Stafford-Clark draws fantastic performances from his outstanding company. The result gives a platform to voices either never heard before or heard only as gunfire or tears. It opens your eyes and alters your attitude.
Sunday Times – John Peter (08/05/05)
In the theatre, questions are usually more important than answers. Robin Soans’s documentary play puts its toe in dangerous waters. The unnamed characters, some easily identified, include Belfast terrorists, British cabinet ministers, famous hostages, ambassadors, rebels in Uganda and Iraq, jihadists, terror victims, torture victims, bystanders. Sometimes the focus changes too quickly or too often, which makes the text sound too fragmented, but Soans’s argument still emerges crystal-clear. Torturers and terrorists are made, not born.
It is cruelty and oppression that makes them what they are. You can and should talk to them, liberate their minds from what the world has done to them. Only a thoughtful, generous, idealistic Englishman could have come up with such a gospel. The fact is that you can’t talk to terrorists, except if and when they think that terror isn’t getting them anywhere. There are people in whom cruelty lies dormant and unsuspected until it is awakened by cruelty, oppression or dishonest compromise. There are others — most people, in fact — who can’t do it, or won’t, or just want to go on living and abstain. This is a gripping, provocative work, directed by Max Stafford-Clark and acted with understated power. You must see this play. It does what the theatre is best at: asking dangerous questions.
Sunday Express – Mark Shenton (10/07/05)
Opening just three nights before London fell victim to a massive terrorist attack last week, Talking to Terrorists couldn’t be a more topical, important, shocking or resonant play. While terrorists are, understandably, being demonised, there are many who now say it’s more important than ever to also try to understand them.
Thus Mo Mowlam says in the opening in the opening scene of this play, talking to terrorists “is the only way to beat them”. And that is exactly what Robin Soans’ play has done: he has spoken to a number of the perpetrators as well as some of the victims of terrorism from around the globe, from Ireland and Iraq to the Lebanon and Uzbekistan, and uses their own words to provide a bracing and chastening exploration of the causes as well as the effects of terrorism.
Director Max Stafford-Clark has folded these disparate stories together into a theatrical whole with a piercing clarity. In the destabilising climate of fear that we now all live in, here is a play that confronts that fear full-on and gives it a human face.
It’s still a terrifying sight, but being able to see it and to try to understand it is the first step towards conquering it.
A superb ensemble cast that includes Alexander Hanson, Lloyd Hutchinson, June Watson and Jonathan Cullen animate these stories with a powerful intensity and intimacy. It’s frequently hard to watch but this is, unquestionably, the most startling and challenging play in London.
Metro – Kieron Quirke (06/07/05)
Great theames and great theatre are on offer at the Royal Court. Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint company and writer Robin Soans have taken dictation from politicians, hostages and terrorists to compile this documentary asking what terrorism is, what motivates it and what to do about it.
It’s a piece as extraordinary for its artful construction as fro its testimony. A psychologist explains the appeal of terrorism to the young, while a girl soldier from Sierra Leone recounts her recruitment by a guerilla army. A bomb-maker and a victim relate their experiences in poignant tandem.
CHaracters parade past – some famous, most not – all given full, individual life by a superb, shape-shifting cast of eight. From the activists, there are the expected moments of horror and redemption. But a series of commentators, British establishment types, provide humour with their insight. An ambassador manages his feisty Uzbek bride as he condemns the use of torture in the war on terror. A Mo Mowlam ringer radiates pride to the point of smugness.
It’s cosy – almost inappropriately so – and as these characters wink and conspire with the Sloane Square audience, the show becomes not only about terrorism but about our inadequate reaction to it. However much we study and acknowledge responsibility, how can we, the unoppressed, ever fully understand this phenomenon. An evening to make you question the world and yourself.