‘Talking to terrorists’ opens in the US

Robin Soans’s play finds the normal in the extreme

By Kevin Cullen in the Boston Globe

There was a moment when she was reading Robin Soans’s script for “Talking to Terrorists” that Carmel O’Reilly found herself almost unconsciously nodding in recognition. It was the line in which a British Army colonel remarks that had he grown up in Crossmaglen, a village hotbed of the Irish Republican Army, “I would have been a terrorist.”

O’Reilly, artistic director at the Sugan Theatre Company, grew up in a small village in County Fermanagh, a rural corner of Northern Ireland, and Catholic boys she knew joined the IRA after they’d been beaten or humiliated by British soldiers in the early 1970s. She became a teacher in a technical school, and one night she was stopped by masked men who had mounted a checkpoint. But the masked men weren’t men, they were boys — Protestant teenagers who had joined a loyalist paramilitary group to battle the IRA — and she recognized their voices behind the masks. They let her go.

The next day in school, she and the boys behind the masks greeted one another as if nothing had happened.

Now O’Reilly is directing Sugan’s production of “Talking to Terrorists,” which makes its US premiere tonight at the Boston Center for the Arts. Drawing on interviews with those who have committed, witnessed, or been victims of terrorism, the play suggests that terrorists are not psychopaths but often shockingly normal — extremists made by extreme situations.

O’Reilly doesn’t have to be convinced that, given a particular set of circumstances and experiences, anyone can become a terrorist. “I’ve seen it,” she says, “with my own eyes.”

Real voices

It was last July, a few days after 52 people were killed when four suicide bombers blew themselves up on London’s Underground trains and a double-decker bus. The Royal Court, the Sloane Square theater where ”Talking to Terrorists” had opened a week before the bombings, was half-empty. Who wanted to talk to terrorists after this?

“It was dreadful,” Soans recalls by phone from his London home. Soans was heartsick, not just over the suffering borne by fellow Londoners but over the knee-jerk reactions he’d heard in the immediate aftermath.

“The serious discussion I had hoped might be held just didn’t happen,” he says.

But because of that tragedy, Britain’s own 9/11, his play became even more relevant, Soans says. He holds a Chekhovian view that theater doesn’t have to answer questions so much as pose them more precisely.

“It’s important for theater to raise issues that are not being raised in the public arena,” he says. ”Why do people become terrorists? It’s not being talked about.”

Soans and Max Stafford-Clark, who commissioned and directed the play, believe that when it comes to some subjects, the truth is far more compelling than fiction. Soans conducted about 30 interviews in Germany, in Ireland, and all over the United Kingdom, trying to figure out what makes a terrorist a terrorist.

While the characters are not named in the script, they will be recognizable to some. They include Mo Mowlam, the British secretary of state to Northern Ireland who used her unconventional, sometimes salty personality to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table; Patrick Magee, the IRA man who planted the bomb in a hotel in Brighton, England, that killed five people and nearly killed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; Terry Waite, the Anglican envoy who was kidnapped and held for four years by Islamic extremists in Lebanon; Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan who opposed using intelligence about Islamic radicals that had been obtained under torture; China Keitetsi, a child soldier with the National Resistance Army of Uganda; and Jihad Jaara, former head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.

The play consists of interwoven narratives. While the characters are from different countries and were involved in different conflicts, the themes are universal. The IRA man says he picked up a gun because he saw no alternative. The Palestinian character says his first memory was of an Israeli soldier kicking him when he was 5, then profanely insulting his mother after she took umbrage. Personal quirks make the characters’ statements more than dry testimonies. The British ambassador whose conscience won’t let him countenance torture leaves his wife to take up with an Uzbek belly dancer. The character based on Mo Mowlam laments the loss of her Cabinet post because the driver who came with it allowed her and her husband to get drunk and not worry about driving.

During his research, a psychologist told Soans that from a psychological point of view, there is little difference between a terrorist and an ordinary person. The main difference, Soans says, is that terrorists are emotionally “blocked.”

Keitetsi, he says, is a perfect example. She joined a rebel army at the age of 8 and was supervising torture by the time she was 13. In one of the more poignant moments of the play, her character describes how her father beat her as a child, “my stepmother moving the chairs back so he could beat me more easily.”

“She left home, a child of 8, to survive,” Soans says. “And her survival depended on her ability to block, to shut out emotion.”

And so she submitted to rape at the hands of older soldiers. She and her peers enthusiastically murdered friends who tried to desert, using their severed heads as footballs.

A search for understanding

Soans worried that some people would see his play as an apologia for terrorists. It isn’t, he insists, and he realized the importance of including victims’ voices as well as terrorists’. He says the characters based on interviews with Norman Tebbit, the former British Cabinet secretary, and his wife Margaret, who was left in a wheelchair by the Brighton bombing, were added during the writing to amplify the victim’s perspective that Terry Waite provided.

”We tried to understand terrorism. That is not condoning it,” he says. ”Innocent people get hurt. All the more reason to try and understand what would make someone do this.”

Peter O’Reilly, Carmel O’Reilly’s husband and the Sugan’s managing director, says the play is stretching the company’s mission of presenting contemporary Irish work, because the conflict in Northern Ireland is only one of a half-dozen referenced. But he says he and his wife read the play, were intrigued by it, and were surprised that they beat others to the US rights.

“There’s very little debate about this in America,” he says. “Larger companies would not touch something like this, for all different reasons. But we think it’s an important play, and somebody should do it.”

The Sugan Theatre Company presents “Talking to Terrorists” tonight through April 8 at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theatre. 617-933-8600, www.sugan.org.