If ever there were a time for “Talking to Terrorists,” that moment is now, in the wake of the July 7 London suicide bombings. Why, then, does the Royal Court/Out of Joint co-production, however laudable in theory, seem tendentious and oddly out of touch? Perhaps because, not for the first time, art has been superseded by life: The terrorists’ actual words, as mouthed by actors, simply can’t compete with deeds undertaken by — in this most recent instance — four people whom we will never meet.
Play is the result of a year’s research and writing; it arrives with actor-playwright Robin Soans, an Out of Joint alum, billed as author. (Same scribe’s “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook” has returned for an encore London stand, this time at north London’s Tricycle Theater.)
As with “The Permanent Way,” the more immediately localized — and infinitely more moving — David Hare/Out of Joint play about Britain’s railway crises, “Talking to Terrorists” takes a documentary-like approach to the words and thoughts of those normally left out of the theatrical process. To that extent, Max Stafford-Clark’s production is both necessary and important. And, rather more surprisingly, fairly dull.
Can it be that there are nowadays too many strands of terrorism for one play to give fully convincing voice to an infinitely varied global malaise? Perhaps. And it won’t be lost on many that the words of the disenfranchised heard speaking of murder here in most cases can’t compare with the replies of those victims lucky enough to live to respond. Or maybe it’s that, with the Muslim community in Luton (and elsewhere) now intently in the news, a stage production opening less than 72 hours prior to the London attacks is bound to seem a performance by comparison.
Many actual names have been withheld or changed at the interviewees’ behest, with people mostly identified by their function or title (an ex-secretary of state, an ex-member of the Ulster Volunteer Force). A church envoy is clearly Terry Waite, who spent 1,763 days in Lebanon in captivity (but was present for the press night), while onetime U.K. ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, could be heard for real on British radio the day after the opening, which somewhat muted thesp Jonathan Cullen’s gallant efforts at impersonation in the play.
Both acts begin with essentially light-hearted sequences (a bumbling husband here, a choreographically challenged diplomat there) designed to ease us into a patchwork quilt of remarks and recollections that don’t shy away from savagery. Accounts of guerrilla army initiation grounds and piles of bodies in the Congo leave their mark, as does, more directly, the sight of a middle-aged woman (Margaret Tebbit, wife of former Tory minister Norman Tebbit) paralyzed in the 1984 Brighton bomb: June Watson is very fine in that part and others.
References to “Clare and Robin, Tony and Gordon” will be obvious enough to U.K. auds. Less neutrally, so will the all-but-inevitable shaping of the material toward a hectoring, guilt-inducing finish that comes across more as suspect audience-baiting than as a truly contrapuntal chronicling of beliefs. (Earlier, there’s a superb sequence in which a bomber’s words are heard alongside those of one of his victims, the point being that there is no discourse: The conversation, in that context, takes place only in the theater.)
Indeed, one has to wonder how a penultimate appeal to “my British friends … what do you know of hopelessness and despair?” resonates at a time when many (not just Britons) are feeling precisely those things. As for closing with a Bethlehem schoolgirl’s musings on the Twin Towers (“Now I feel happy that they died; it’s their turn to suffer”), “Talking to Terrorists” in one fell swoop plays right into the more extreme British left’s facile emotive hands while suggesting to the rest of us that there’s a lot more talking we still need to do.