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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Guantanamo
Tricycle, then New Ambassadors Theatre Summer 2004

The Tricycle Theatre in north London has for the past few years mixed in with its regular repertory a string of documentary plays, stagings of verbatim transcripts of real-life trials or investigatory hearings. Their current production, now transferred to the West End, is based on interviews with the British relatives of prisoners at the United States' camp for suspected terrorists in Cuba.

It is difficult to review a show like this, because it isn't, and barely pretends to be, a play in the normal sense. A few of the performances are very poor, and some of the characters are barely more than sketches or, in the case of the American government spokesman, cartoons. But they aren't really meant to function as conventional performances or characterisations, but rather as mouthpieces for the compilers' openly agitprop intentions.

By rounding up just about everyone in the world who might remotely be a suspect and holding them for several years without any of the legal rights and safeguards normally allowed either civil prisoners or prisoners of war, the United States has certainly opened itself up to legal and moral criticism by the world community. But I fear that this theatre piece, even if judged only as an expression of that criticism, is not a particularly effective argument.

We hear from and about a few men - a tourist, a schoolteacher in Pakistan, a businessman in Africa - who seem to have been picked up just because they were Muslims in places where the Americans thought terrorists might be found.  A father, a brother, and a couple of lawyers describe the men and tell what it was like trying to get them freed, while we also hear excerpts from the few letters home the men were allowed to write.

Presented more pointedly than authors Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo do, or directed with better pacing and energy than Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares give it, this might have been powerful or at least sympathy-inducing stuff. But the general sluggishness of the pace and unevenness of the performances leaves the audience - even those predisposed to be critical of the Americans - too much time to think - to realise, for example, that even if these men (who do seem to be totally innocent) had been guilty, their relatives would have experienced their loss in exactly the same way, so that the relatives' pain is really a red herring..

Similarly, while there is no question that the American violation of the prisoners' human rights is criminal by both domestic and international laws, repeated comparisons to concentration camps, medieval torture chambers and the Black Hole of Calcutta are only likely to make the listeners pause and think, 'Hey, wait a minute. No prison is good, but Guantanamo isn't THAT bad.'

And, while the most evocative and moving sections are the prisoners' letters, simply because their expressions of love and questions about the family are so real and banal in their domesticity, the most overtly political speeches, generally by the non-Muslim lawyers and political activists, are the worst expressed and paradoxically least convincing.

If this production plays some small role in affecting public opinion, and thus British government action, and thus American government action, it will more than justify itself. But as a piece of theatre, even political theatre, it has little to offer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Guantanamo - Ambassadors 2004