I am now a couple of weeks into the process of developing my play Hurr, towards an R&D sharing at Theatre in the Mill. People who have followed my work and blog will know a bit about, but for those of you who don’t here is a brief synopsis:
Hurr is an adaptation of a part of the Taziyeh a kind of Middle Eastern Passion Play that theatre makers in the West have been inspired by in the past. I am taking a small part of it and setting it just into the future, telling the story of a group of soldiers and bureaucrats at the edge of a desert, a colonial outpost of a vast creaking empire.
In this project I am going to be lucky enough to be working with Artists like Ross Elliot (composer and sound designer) Uzma Kazi (designer) and Ayo Jones (movement director). Although rehearsals don’t start for another couple of weeks (there’s Orgreave: An English Civil War to finish before then), we have already begun working on the play, community engagement on the one hand, thematic and artistic discussions on the other.
One thing that struck me about this process was, in one of our first discussions, how uncomfortable it was for me to discuss one of the big themes of the play; the torture carried out at places like Bagram and Abu Ghraib.
When we first met as a team to discuss the play, we got on to discussing the torture scenes int he script. When I wrote these I went through a lot of the pictures and testimony that had been released and leaked through the Abu Ghraib scandal, and based my writing on that. I was very conscious of the fact that I felt a pressure to be able to justify what I wrote as as story, because of the depth of suffering and oppression attached to it (incidentally- it strikes me as interesting that most of the work created about the war on terror and neo colonialism in recent years uses psuedo-documentary style techniques like Verbatim work etc- a point I intend to write about in next weeks blog post.)
The question for me here was this, we all knew what kind of play are working on, we had all done our research, so why did a certain feeling descend over this part of the conversation?
I think the idea that it is simply upsettign to talk about really violent or repulsive acts won’t really do. There are other such scenes in the play. For me there is a psychoanalytic question here that reflects certain changes in the way we think about human rights under George Bush and Barack Obama.
As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, there has always been a question as to why the American and British forces made such an obvious deal out of the torture and extra judicial killings they have been involved in over the past decade. The point being that with the School for the Americas, or collusion with Ulster Loyalism, the British and American states have always had secret detention centres, torture and murder gangs as part of their imperial arsenal. So why did we have Guantanamo and so on appear to us in the cold light of day?
For me this is a question that can be best answered through theatre. This medium that concerns itself with the question of an audience is absolutely the medium that can tell us why sometimes we want to be seen to do something, and why sometimes we don’t. A clear link with the issue of Abu Ghraib is this? Why did soldiers like Lynddie England want to be photographed carrying out acts that, according to their own testimony, they knew to be illegal, immoral and grossly cruel?
The other thing that strikes you about the photos and testimony of Abu Ghraib is that many of the grotesque acts of sexual torture and humiliation, are of a type that animate a whole host of different kinds of porn. From old fashioned internet filth to Fifty Shades and on to Game of Thrones these photos feature the kinds of images that in some contexts we enjoy. With the full psychoanalytic force of the word jouissance/enjoyment we can perhaps say that this is what haunts us. It is not that sex, death and violence are only joined together in the mind of a neurotic sadist, but that she shows us that which we wan’t to know about, but look away from.