The Dance Macabre

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Review of 'Talking to Terrorists' by Robin Soans, Touring

Out of Joints' powerful new production Talking To Terrorists asks a simple enough question: what makes a terrorist a terrorist? What could drive someone to take up arms and kill for a political objective? Surely they can't be human, share our values of a civilised society? Aren't these evil people beneath our contempt?

This is the sentiment of the political class, the government flunkies who determine what official politics is all about. But there's another way of engaging with this pertinent question of terrorism and its enduring appeal to the voiceless and marginalised, to illustrate through personal testimony how an ordinary person commits an extraordinary act - to examine the many causes that drive people towards this path and then to honestly look at the impact politically and personally.

Similar in form to Guantanamo, The Colour of Justice and others, this project is part of a new wave of verbatim or documentary theatre. What never fails to astonish is how eloquent ordinary people's testimony can be, how vivid, poetic, insightful and informative. The play presents a complex and multi-toned view of terrorism and its discontents. Here is Mo Mowlam doing her down to earth self-promoting shtick of how she got the peace process going; in come the IRA and UVF prisoners with their surprisingly similar backgrounds, then the Luton Muslims struggling with secular culture.

The cumulative effect of splicing differing players in this politically tragic scenario is to humanise the terrorist but also to ask uncomfortable questions. It juxtaposes a British colonel in Ireland who says, 'I realised that if I had been born in Crossmaglen or South Armagh, I would have been a terrorist,' against a Palestinian militant at the siege in Jerusalem. It leavens the serious politics with good humour and its insistent pace.

Though we hear testimony from all sides of the political spectrum the agenda is the need to understand the logic of the terrorist, to recognise that these are real people caught up in real situations - not phantasms of their imagination. The author Robin Soans quotes from a psychologist, 'Terrorists aren't psychopaths, they are mostly bright, intelligent, inquisitive, visionary, but they are "blocked".' But the truth, in most cases, is that the insurgents in Iraq and Palestine feel 'blocked' by 'political apartheid and severe economic deprivation'.

The second half is particularly compelling as the narratives exist within longer strands. Craig Murray, the former diplomat who stood against Jack Straw in the recent general election, tells his tale of how the hypocritical British Foreign Office refused to listen to his complaints of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, how the 'war on terror' had been used to justify the torture of the politically dissident. But there's also a humorous, wry portrait of his relationship with his coquettish young wife played brilliantly by Chipo Chung.

In fact the performances are all very strong, and Max Stafford Clark's direction is as intelligent and pared down as his last fine project, The Permanent Way. Another strong feature of the second half is the juxtaposition of testimony from the IRA volunteer responsible for the Brighton bombing with his then victim, the secretary of state and his wheelchair-bound wife. We can read into this dramatic dialogue the dance macabre that exists between the imperialist state and the terrorist - one never finally getting rid of the other, locked in an embrace that only mass action can break.


Touring until 25 June to Salisbury, Coventry and Liverpool and then at the Royal Court, London, until 30 July