It’s safe to say the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker will be a Republican-free zone in the coming days, not just for the duration of the convention but for several weeks thereafter. Just in time for the GOP’s grand old hootenanny, the Culture Project has imported to 45 Bleecker this sober, chilling expose of the U.S. government policies and practices that have resulted in hundreds of men being incarcerated indefinitely in Cuba, with few charges being brought against them, and little or no access to legal counsel. The production may not bring revelations to audiences already engaged by news coverage of the story — on Aug. 24, the first military tribunal proceedings got under way — but it exposes with painful clarity the harsh, specific human costs of this particular flank of the “war on terror.”
First seen at London’s Tricycle Theater, and currently playing in the West End, the play is the latest installment in a movement sometimes called “verbatim” theater. In both its unadorned presentation and its activist aims, it recalls a previous entry in the genre, seen at the same address: “The Exonerated.” That play used interviews with former death-row inmates to quietly denounce the manner in which the death penalty is administered in the U.S.
“Guantanamo” is constructed mostly of interviews and letters from current or former inmates of the military prison camps in Cuba, supplemented by testimony from their anguished families back in the U.K. (all the subjects are either U.K. citizens or former residents). It squarely sets out to prove that the prisoners’ treatment constitutes a gross violation of internationally accepted ideals of justice. It does the trick, handily.
The play’s authors, Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, use a speech given by a high-ranking British judge in November 2003 to establish the tone: Lord Justice Steyn refers to the Guantanamo military installation as a “legal black hole” specifically designed by the U.S. government to put the prisoners “beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts, and at the mercy of the victors.”
Even if the men profiled here were exceptional, their experience amply illustrates the reckless, arbitrary nature of the U.S.’ attempts to strike back at the Taliban in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. All of the detainees impersonated here, who are seen lying quietly on beds or prowling their small cages for the duration of the performance, are civilians accidentally caught in the U.S. government’s undiscriminating military dragnet.
A banker, a British citizen, laments the virtual disappearance of his son, who had traveled to Afghanistan with his wife and children to open a school and was abducted under confusing circumstances in Pakistan.
The story of another prisoner boasts macabre comic touches worthy of a Graham Greene novel: He was actually incarcerated in West Africa, where he had traveled to start a peanut oil processing plant with his brother. Arrested for suspicious activity, he eventually is locked up in a prison built for the purpose with the materials they’d brought to Africa for their own business. From Africa he is flown to Kandahar before being shipped off to Cuba, thus making more plausible (!) his designation as an enemy combatant.
The acting is exceptionally fine. “The Exonerated,” which employed a revolving cast of celebrities to add cachet at the box office, was essentially a reading. “Guantanamo” has been given a fuller theatrical life by directors Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares, who deploy their performers across a wide stage, with Johanna Town’s articulate lighting helping to define it as either the prison itself or the more abstract spaces where other testimony is given.
Although the play consists primarily of monologues unsupported by dramatic context, the actors playing the prisoners and their families fully inhabit their roles, often to moving effect. In a production that relies so powerfully on the persuasiveness of its documentary evidence, rather than theatrical artifice, the sincerity and integrity of the perfs is of primary importance.
The sole exception is a hilariously ripe turn by Robert Langdon Lloyd as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The play includes snippets of press conferences at which Rumsfeld angrily rebuffs journalists’ questions about the prisoners’ treatment, sometimes in ways that beggar belief, as when he opines that “to be in an 8-by-10 cell in beautiful sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not a — inhumane treatment,” sounding like a crackpot travel agent. It would be tempting to classify Lloyd’s seething, sputtering antagonism as caricature of genius if it did not so perfectly accord with one’s own recollections of Rumsfeld’s freakishly combative aspect.
These ghoulishly comic sorties by the Secretary of Defense provide the evening with a few moments of levity, although laughter catches in the throat quickly when the direct consequences of his policies are juxtaposed with his preening belligerence. One could single out any number of devastating moments, but perhaps the most haunting is the puzzled observation of a father finally reunited with an incarcerated son. “He don’t cry,” Mr. Hamed says. “He say, dad, don’t worry, I’m OK. He’s got less feeling, less feeling than before.”
It’s hard not to despair at the reflection that the Bush administration’s policies are not just characterized by a lack of compassion. They are causing it, too.