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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 16th July 2005

Talking to Terrorists / Aristocrats / The Obituary Show


Poor Robin Soans. His new play, Talking to Terrorists, opened just three days before the bombs exploded last week. Most playwrights hope that their work will have some contemporary resonance, but not quite that much. Talking to Terrorists is a "documentary play" in which actual terrorists explain why they've committed various atrocities and anyone going to see it now will inevitably expect it to throw some light on the question of what makes someone become a suicide bomber. Can any play, however illuminating, withstand such intense scrutiny?

Fortunately, Talking to Terrorists is more or less up to the task. Soans, along with director Max Staffford-Clark and the eight-strong cast, spent a year interviewing a wide range of people with some experience of terrorism, from the man who planted the Brighton bomb to the ex-British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, and the upshot is a fascinating mosaic of different voices, nearly all of which throw some light on the subject. Soans's conclusion, if that's not too strong a word, is that terrorism involves an act of self-mutilation on the perpetrator's part in which he shuts down that part of the brain responsible for empathy and, in this way, avoids taking responsibility for his actions. In order to re-awaken his conscience you have to talk to him--or, rather, to listen to him--and Soans appears to believe that this play and the way it was put together is a model of how to tackle the problem.

Of course, this will strike some people as both platitudinous and shallow, but Soans is smart enough to include the testimony of people who don't share his point of view. The person I identified with most in this two-and-a-half-hour play was Norman Tebbit who's wife, Margaret, was paralysed from the neck down by the Brighton bomb. There's a wonderful moment in the second half when the former MP for Chingford describes his elation on discovering what he thinks is an IRA hit squad planning an attack outside his home:

I picked up the gun, slid out the side door...I'm in my dressing-gown and slippers...I looked up the drive...there's one bloke by the Range Rover and I can see the legs of another guy who's on the far side of the car. I was the happiest man in the world. A twelve-bore's gonna take out anyone with a hand gun.

Alas, the "hit squad" turns out to be a group of police officers checking to make sure no one's put a bomb under Tebbit's car and the dressing-gowned assassin reluctantly trudges back into his house.

Brian Friel is often described as the Irish Chekhov and Aristocrats, which was first performed in 1979, has an unmistakably Chekhovian air. Set in a decaying Georgian country house in the fictional village of Ballybeg, it charts the death throes of an Anglo-Irish Catholic family as it struggles to cope with dire financial necessity. It's strong on atmosphere--the family dynamics are beautifully rendered--but, as with nearly all Friel's plays, it feels more like a short story or a poem than a piece of drama. There's no plot, no conflict, no suspense. Aristocrats even boasts three sisters, as if Friel is inviting the Chekhov comparison, but he lacks Chekhov's ability to grab the audience from the very first moment and not let go. It's mildly absorbing, not least because the characters are so well-drawn, but it hardly deserves this lavish revival on the main stage of the country's most prestigious theatre.

Rather irritatingly, Aristocrats is shot through with Friel's particular brand of nationalist politics. The dying patriarch of the family is a terrible old bully who's destroyed the lives of all his children and we're clearly supposed to see him as embodying the class of English colonialists who, in Friel's eyes, have emasculated the good folk of Ireland for the last 800 years. Friel then steps back from this rather simpleminded position and suggests there's been an element of collusion between oppressed and oppressor, with the Irish themselves mythologizing their aristocratic masters. For some reason, I found this nuanced critique of English colonialism even more irritating than the hardline version.

I wanted to like The Obituary Show because there were only nine people in the audience, prompting a wave of sympathy for the 15-strong company. The actors certainly managed to put a very brave face on this sad state of affairs, performing as if to a full house, and even did a second curtain call to thank the people in the theatre for coming. But, alas, The Obituary Show isn't really my cup of tea. It's set in the obituary department of a national broadsheet and I simply couldn't get past the fact that almost every detail of the newspaper office was wrong. The company--a group calling itself "People Show"--certainly deserve 10 out of 10 for fortitude. What they lack is a piece of work to match their exemplary character.

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