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Why all terrorists aren't psychopaths
Talking to Terrorists is an important play in today's current climate of fear. As the words terrorism and terrorists get bandied around the headlines in an endless news cycle, it is easy to become desensitised to the human stories and images we see. It is too easy to dismiss the people involved as fanatics and extremists.
Mathew Costin, Alyson Standen and Kyle Stewart - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
Originally commissioned by the Royal Court and Out of Joint in 2005 and written by Robin Soans it was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, England, on 21 April 2005 and has been performed around the world since then.
The narrative is constructed from the interwoven testimonies of real people who have been entangled in terrorism either as perpetrator or victim. It delves into what makes ordinary people do extreme things and how it is often intelligent, sensitive individuals who have been ignore and supressed that can often commit what we see as senseless acts.
The dialogue is important. We need to have discussions about terrorism to remind us that the biggest threat to our peaceful society is intolerance and a refusal to listen. After all, all anyone wants is for their story to be heard. In Australia we have endless avenues through which we can express ourselves, connect and allow our voices to be heard – it is being heard which is exceptionally important. With our liberties and freedom, we often take this for granted when judging the actions of others.
As Mo Mowlam, the former Secretary of the State for Northern Ireland says in the opening scenes "Talking to terrorists is the only way to beat them, if you want to change their minds, you have to talk to them."
Alyson Standen and Joseph Ju Taylor - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
It is a bold piece of theatre which wades through some pretty dark material. Yet these are stories that need to be told. In 2 hours you traverse the globe from Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Ireland, Afghanistan, Turkistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Uganda, and Serbia to the heart of the British Establishment. The stories are from peacemakers, journalists, politicians, hostage negotiators, hostages and terrorists. It is a tour through the violent events and bloody pages of history from the 1980s and 1990s. The characters are real people and this is their account of what happened.
The "Talking to Terrorists" Australian premier season is directed by Markus Weber. Presented in the style of verbatim theatre, where a documentary style of excerpts of the interviews are performed. Weber has interspersed the live performances with recorded video interview footage.
Joseph Ju Taylor - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
The set design is a simple red background. The actors stand on stage or sit in chairs to deliver their story. Props are minimal and the actors signal a change in character by adding or removing items of clothing. The lighting is used skilfully to herald a change of character or to move each scene forward. When the actors are on stage, it is an engrossing piece of theatre, however the video footage is at times jarring. I found it interrupted the rhythm of the stories being told. Due to a vague awareness of terrorist events in the 1980s and 1990s, I also found it hard to keep track of whose account I was hearing, not being familiar with all events. However none of this can diminish the importance of the subject matter and a well-executed production provided by a passionate Director and cast.
As we hear from the different characters and often the progression of their lives, you can't help but assess your own perceptions of terrorists. Is it just the fundamentalist waving the guns, or is it a government who promotes intolerance and fear then collaborates with hardline groups in the name of nationalism? The militia who recruit, train and fund civilian groups during armed conflicts? Those who do nothing when human rights violations occur? Or is it a world which simply turns its back on conflicts that do not affect them? Do the means really justify the end? There is an uncomfortable truth in it all.
Robin Soans captures it beautifully, "The difference between a terrorist and the rest of us really isn't that great". What would any of us be willing to do to preserve our beliefs or to keep our family safe. Any one of us has the capability to do terrible things, it is just circumstance which has allowed us not to have to make that choice.
Zuzi Fort - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
The stories of violence, combined with strong performances have created a candid piece of theatre.
The Cast - Mathew Costin, David D'Silva, Zuzi Fort, Kira Fort, Tiffany Joy, Alyson Standen, Kyle Stewart and Joseph JU Taylor play up to five parts apiece. Markus Weber cameos at the end with the Peter, Paul and Mary hit "Where have all the flowers gone". All of the performances are solid, however there are some standout moments:
Tiffany Joy shines on stage. As an ex-member of the National Resistance Army of Uganda her story is compelling. Her tale of becoming a child soldier is truly disturbing.
Tiffany Joy - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
David D'Silva brings dignity to Terry Waite's account of his kidnapping, imprisonment and torture. His is a harrowing tale of travelling to Lebanon, as envoy to the Church of England, to secure the release of four hostages, when he in turn was kidnapped, held hostage and tortured for years. Much of which was spent in solitary confinement. Yet the experience did not break him and he has devoted his life to humanitarian activities since.
David D'Silva - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
It is D'Silva's delivery of Waite's words "I could say in the face of my captors, you've tried to break my body, but you haven't; you've tried to break my mind, which you haven't; but my soul is not yours to possess. But then that's exactly what is being said by them, isn't it? You can invade my country, do what you will, but my soul is not yours to possess." that strike a chord for me and clarified the issues explored. There is no 'us' and 'them', we all want the same thing.
Zuzi Fort is enthralling as she switches between her roles as the frank and outspoken Mo Mowlam, to the belly dancing girlfriend of the ex-British Ambassador and her character caught up in the conflicts in Lebanon. Her tale of witnessing a beheading is brutal and intense.
Matthew Costin brings levity as the worn down Craig Murray, ex-British Ambassador who was recalled by the Foreign Office because of his uncompromising views on the violation of human rights in Uzbekistan, and who stood against the Foreign Secretary. Costin's portrayal as an ex-member of the Irish Republic Army (IRA) with his tales of violence and incarceration is sobering.
Matthew Costin and Zuzi Fort - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
Alyson Stande is charismatic making her character likeable while explaining her role in a failed bombing attempt as an ex-member of the Ulster Volunteer Forces (UVF).
The narrative is thought-provoking. Throughout history, the question of morality has always arisen when acts of violence are perpetrated in the name of war. It can be difficult to define who the real terrorists are. Often it just depends on what side of an ideology you are standing on.
Mathew Costin - Talking to Terrorists - Image by John Keenan
It is summed up in the line "People who kill someone also kill part of themselves. They lose part of their humanity." In that sense, Talking to Terrorists is a study in tragedy as we are hearing the stories of those who have had their humanity stripped from them.
In the end, we need to talk to terrorists to retain our own humanity.
If you want to see a thought-provoking piece of theatre about a relevant yet difficult subject, support independent theatre and go and see this production.
Tickets are now on sale through the King Street Theatre website
Where: KING STREET THEATRE – 644 King St & Cnr Bray St, Newtown.
(Entrance on Bray St, Above the South End Café)
Date: 23 May – 3 June, 2017
Tickets: $35/ $30/ $27 for group bookings of 10 / $22 School students