‘Talking to Terrorists’ a review of the US production

Craig Murray portrayed in the American version of 'Talking to Terrorists'

From South Coast Today

The Sugan Theatre Company is producing the American premiere of one of the most thought-provoking political plays to come down the pike in a long while.

“Talking to Terrorists” by Robin Soans challenges a basic assumption held by many since 9/11–that terrorists are subhuman and should be treated as such. It’s an easy conclusion to reach and it may have made it easier to hunt down terrorists with few legal restrictions. But it has led to serious problems, such as the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, a controversial Iraq war, and a steep decline in how the United States is viewed by its allies.

There are serious questions as to whether this approach to terrorists is leading to less terrorism worldwide or actually fueling it.

“Talking” proposes that it’s fueling it and that it would be far more effective to talk and listen to terrorists without condoning their horrendous acts.

“Talking to terrorists is the only way to beat them,” said Mo Mowlam, former British Secretary of State, in a line that appears in the play and led to its title. “You’ve got to listen to them if you want to change their minds.” It may seem like a radical notion to many Americans, but it’s worth considering given the high stakes and questions about how effective our government’s approach has been.

Ms. Mowlam is one of 29 people who were interviewed by Mr. Soans and Max Stafford-Clark and whose words are used as the play’s script. Others portrayed in the show include a group of English Muslims, an ex-member of the Kurdish Workers Party who targeted a corrupt politician, and a Palestinian leader who sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Not all of the characters are terrorists by any means. We hear from a former British ambassador, a Lebanese journalist, and a psychologist, among others. The play is structured primarily as a series of interwoven monologues with occasional scenes between two people. The orientation of the play is British, but the issues are universal.

What makes it so compelling is that we are no longer looking at terrorists or those involved in fighting terrorism through the black and white lens typically offered by governments or through the homogenizing lens of journalism. We are actually hearing from them as individual human beings.

The material leads to riveting performances from each of the eight cast members. Director Carmel O’Reilly is terrific at keeping the performances honest and free of theatrical embellishments, so that the material is allowed to speak for itself.

Eve Kagan gives a searing performance as an ex-child-soldier in Uganda who tells how she became involved in acts that no person, especially a child, should ever have to witness or commit. At age 13 she was supervising torture and providing sex on command to her military leader. Ms. Kagen straddles the world of adults and children as she tells the story.

Dafydd Rees gives an extraordinary performance as Terry Waite, the archbishop’s envoy who sought to negotiate the release of hostages in Beirut only to find himself a hostage for 1,763 days. Some of the details help to lighten the dark material, including his account of how the books he was brought to read were about breast feeding and child rearing, until he finally drew a penguin and said bring me any book that has this image on its cover.

Mr. Rees is equally good as Patrick Magee, the cool ex-member of the Irish Republican Army who tells how he planted a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, during the annual Conservative Party conference.

Geralyn Horton is terrific at fully embodying a variety of English women ? from Ms. Mowlam to the wife of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw ? and making them all feel remarkably different from each other.

Set designer J. Michael Griggs uses screens and, in the second act, many lamps lit behind a scrim, as an evocative symbol that’s open to interpretation.

A script based on interviews and with numerous monologues has its limitations. One welcomes the longer scenes with two people, such as the one that involves Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who complains about the United Kingdom sending suspected terrorists to Uzbekistan to be tortured. At times, there’s a danger of our being mentally numbed by the horrific accounts. But the play makes such an important contribution to the discussion of terrorism that any shortcomings in its material or form quickly fade from thought. It’s a play that anyone concerned about terrorism should see.