Talking to Terrorists

A play currently running at the Royal Court Theatre addresses the painfully immediate issue of terrorism and gives a voice to those involved or affected by it.

Reviewed by Andrew Haydon (prior to the London attack)

With Talking to Terrorists, writer Robin Soans and director Max Stafford Clark have produced one of the sanest, most thought provoking and intelligent discussions of terrorism in any media since 9/11.

Its format is simple, Robin Soans has interviewed a number of people who have been involved in terrorist movements – the IRA, the UVF, the Kurdish PKK, the Ugandan NRA and the Palestinian AAB – and a number of people affected in some way by terrorism – Terry Waite on being held hostage in Beirut, Mo Mowlam on her time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Norman Tebbit and his wife, who was crippled by the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel, as well as former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, an army colonel, a worker from Save the Children and a psychologist – and collated these interviews into two hours of theatre.

The result is fascinating. One problem with verbatim theatre in the past has been a tendency to patronise its sources with a layer of caricature, of knowingness, in the portrayal of the speaker, undercutting the words with an imposed commentary on the person who said them, often for the sake of cheap laugh or an easily scored point. There is none of that here; there is no need. Instead there is the sense of watching real people telling real stories, giving their own opinions, barely mediated at all by the fact that you know you’re watching actors.

One of the main triumphs of the piece is its even-handedness. Certainly it has a thesis, suggested explicitly by Mo Mowlam in the opening minutes, that talking to terrorists is a good deal more productive than killing them. But it also shows the alternative view, offered most explicitly by Norman Tebbit who, on hearing that the man who nearly killed him, and left his wife in a wheelchair unable to ‘hug her grandchildren’, is to be released from prison, asked whether ‘If I’m waiting for him at the gates and give him both barrels of my twelve-bore, is that murder? Or is it good housekeeping?’ Indeed the play as a whole displays an admirable willingness to allow for conflicting viewpoints. This is almost certainly the first time that a Tory politician and a high-ranking army officer have been given a fair hearing on the stage of the Royal Court.

The quality both of the interviews and the interviewees is striking. Soans has assembled a first-rate and wide-ranging list of source material, from Patrick Magee, who planted the Brighton bomb, through to Norman Tebbit who was injured by it; a former Ugandan child soldier to an exiled leader of the Palestinian Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He has also achieved material notably better than many television interviews, perhaps in part because of the lack of a camera present. Soans uses this opportunity to record the irrelevant moments as much as personal testimonies – such as where Mo Mowlam wants a Hob Nob, where Craig Murray’s new girlfriend sitting in on the interview interrupts him; ‘You do not tell me this before’, where Norman Tebbit begins the interview without his slippers on ‘rather an elaborate way of proving I don’t have cloven hooves’ – which bring home the everyday normality of these people.

Also well-judged is the use of interviews with ‘experts’, the army colonel and the psychologist, who are able to put the other interviews into a wider context, without deviating from the interview format. Most compelling is the interview with the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, who talks about the British government’s continued use of military intelligence concerning terrorist activity gathered from confessions gained by torture which has no military value whatsoever.

Because the play is nominally restricted by its interview format from advancing a viewpoint of its own, it would have been very easy to use these ‘experts’ as some form of intervention on the author’s part, as a means of advancing a strong party line. This temptation is resisted, with the speakers giving more of an insight into their own ways of seeing the world than definitive answers. That said, the mixture of theory with personal testimonies contributes a rich new level, and one which substantially enhances an already fertile piece.

A question that is frequently asked about verbatim theatre is whether it really has any place in the theatre at all. Talking to Terrorists offers the clearest possible defence yet. The acting is first rate, with each of the eight-strong cast handling several of the 24 speaking roles, switching seamlessly between parts. But more importantly, putting this material in a theatre, rather than on television or in a newspaper, makes it more focused. It allows the audience concentrate harder and lends the evening a vital edge of being an activity undertaken as a community. This is not so much verbatim theatre as imperative theatre.