Talking to terrorists was written by English actor and playwright Robin Soans, following an extensive research process. That process involved Soans, along with the play’s original director, Max Stafford-Clark, and its original actors, conducting interviews with individuals across the globe either directly involved in or somehow impacted by terrorism.
What resulted was Soans’ creation of a verbatim play, which premiered in England’s Suffolk county in April 2005 – a mere few months before the events of July 7, in which 52 people lost their lives and more than 700 sustained injuries in a series of suicide bomb attacks throughout central London.
Twelve years on, it’s an obvious statement that the themes of the play are no less germane. Today, the world grapples with how to deal with the unremitting threat of ISIS, and is still reeling from the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing on 22 May, in which a suicide bomber orchestrated an attack that killed 22 concert goers and injured many more.
It seems therefore an apt time for EMU Productions to present the Australian premiere of Talking to terrorists. Directed by Markus Weber, Soans’ play has been staged in a production at Newtown’s King Street Theatre. It affords local audiences the chance to hear for themselves the words of the many individuals to whom the playwright and his team spoke, including an ex-Secretary of State (Zuzi Fort), a psychologist (Joseph Ju Taylor), a student of a school in Bethlehem (Kira Fort), as well as former members of the Irish Republican Army (Mathew Costin), the Kurdish Workers Party (David D’Silva), Uganda’s National Resistance Army (Tiffany Joy), Northern Ireland’s Ulster Volunteer Force (Alyson Standen), and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (Kyle Stewart). In fact, nine players (including Weber) take on a total of 28 roles across the piece’s two-and-a-half hours.
Soans’ play has the mission of giving a voice to those individuals who feel unheard. It’s an insight into the diverse walks of life from which participants in terror have emerged and the circumstances that can lead the disenfranchised along a path to membership of organisations determined to inflict horrors on their perceived enemies. The stories told pertinently remind of the catastrophic acts that may be carried out by those who believe that no one is listening to their concerns.
However, it’s important to note that Soans’ piece doesn’t suggest there’s anything noble or just in the actions of terrorists; interview quotes preserved in the text include graphic descriptions of the pain and suffering associated with atrocities that have occurred. Instead, it’s both an attempt to examine why terrorist events occur and the impact of terrorism on the lives of many individuals, including those not involved in perpetrating acts of terrorism, but ultimately impacted by their occurrence.
There are a number of poignant moments in the piece that move and prompt reflection. Standen is particularly effective in portraying each of her four characters – a relief worker, an ex-UVF member, a member of a Foreign Office Committee and Caroline, a land owner. Each portrayal is characterised by impressive believability. Zuzi Fort also convinces and engages, particularly in taking on the role of an ex-Secretary of State and then the wife of another ex-Secretary of State. D’Silva delivers a confronting monologue, detailing acts of torture inflicted on his character, with great sensitivity. And Taylor is also memorable in each guise that he assumes.
A problem that lies in Soans’ text is that in providing a platform for so many voices to be heard, he may have impacted the clarity and the potency of each individual tale (perhaps that in itself is indicative of a major societal issue – with so many voices to be heard, to how many are we prepared, or even able, to listen?) It’s difficult not to compare Talking to terrorists to Stuart Slade’s similarly-themed BU21 (which also played in Newtown recently, at the Old 505 Theatre) which, although fictional, was also presented in the style of verbatim theatre and told the story of six characters impacted by a terrorist attack. Perhaps a narrower focus on a selection of the stories told in Talking to terrorists would heighten the overall dramatic power of the piece.
Talking to terrorists is a thought-provoking theatrical piece that, more than anything, promotes the need to listen to those on the opposite side, be that in the context of terrorism or even in day-to-day dialogue between persons with diametrically-opposed political stances, at a time when, more than ever, we exist in bubbles which reinforce our own beliefs.