TERROR IN THE FIRST PERSON
“Not one inch should we give to these people”. The words of the Prime Minister at his monthly press conference rang through my mind as I set off to Chelsea to watch Robin Soans’s production Talking to Terrorists. The armed police unit outside Sloane Square Tube station, adjacent to the Royal Court, acted as a reminder of the reality outside.
Out of Joint, the theatre company directed by Max Stafford-Clark, gave “these people” rather more than an inch – two hours and twenty minutes, in fact – in the latest in a genre known as verbatim theatre. Still, that must be less of a gift to the terrorists than jettisoning 200 years of hard-fought civil liberties, which some appear to suggest as the best way to counter such threats.
No doubt, well-paid lawyers and barristers will be able to deliberate as to whether such a production constitutes “incitement” to terrorism. I suspect the new three-part BBC Two documentary The New al-Qaeda might be somewhat more effective in that sense presuming, as it does, sufficient instinctive indignation among viewers to avoid a robust argument with those interviewed.
Talking to Terrorists seeks to throw light on characters by faithfully repeating the content of recorded interviews. This is both its strength and its weakness.
Certainly, the confusion of people’s public actions with their private asides makes them sound more real. The audience may sympathise with the hardships endured by some of the characters and wonder, along with the play’s British army colonel, whether they too, in similar circumstances, might have ended up as a terrorist.
But the play also depoliticises conflict. As it is only possible to talk to individuals, not to actions or agendas, the presentation is more focused on personal emotions than social realities and motivations.
In Northern Ireland, the Women’s Coalition may well have been a great way for the Secretary of State to separate “Shinners” from Loyalists at dinner parties, but its inception was primarily designed to undermine the majoritarian politics that was perceived as having reached an impasse.
Maybe democratic debate is one of the values Tony Blair has in his mind when he talks about defending “our values” and “our way of life”?
Notably though, most of the perpetrators, relatives and victims – so wonderfully characterised, juxtaposed and presented here – belong to the age when terror was largely used as a means for achieving a greater political end.
Today we are confronted by a form of terror that is an end in itself. No one claims responsibility or declares their agenda, leaving all the pundits to project their own pet prejudice as to the meaning behind such attacks. Symbol has triumphed over substance or, as the play suggests occurs at Cabinet meetings, “speak” drowns out content.
This new form of terror may be much harder to perceive and interview for, being uncomfortably close to home. The nearest we get in the play is when a psychologist suggests setting up a campaign against four-wheel drives in Chelsea, noting how the security service interrogators would provide the group with its name and vocabulary.
“The key to the ideology of violence is to see your enemy as sub-human”, he reminds us. Judging by the ripple of support in the audience for blowing up all of the four-by-fours in SW3, we may be in for a rough ride.
First published in the Times
Higher Education Supplement, 5 August 2005