Talking To Terrorists

Published April 17, 2008

Last night saw the opening of Talking To Terrorists at the Royal Court, the latest piece of verbatim theatre to be developed by Max Stafford-Clark’s Out Of Joint company. Robin Soans’s play has been woven from real interviews with people who have had direct contact with terrorism; including victims, negotiators, politicians and the terrorists themselves. Tom Bowtell went along to the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs to hear what they had to say.

Talking To Terrorists begins with a lady hoovering the stage. She looks a little curmudgeonly, and isn’t overly impressed with the grubby audience she finds gawping at her. After a couple of minutes, a kindly-looking woman enters and asks the cleaner if she might be able to hoover upstairs first, while she has a chat. It comes as something of a surprise when, nibbling on a Hobnob, the woman then starts talking about her role in the Northern Irish Peace Talks: “I think talking to terrorists is the only way to beat them.” The ready wit and unpretentious pragmatism make it clear that Mo Mowlam is the inspiration for the character, although she is never named.

From this starting point, more and more individuals step forward to tell their stories; a Ugandan child soldier tells her harrowing tale alongside Palestinian, IRA and Republican activists, demurely renegade ambassadors, exhausted aid workers, and a dashing British Army Colonel. As the individual stories of the characters unravel, the complexities of the situations are revealed, forcing us to reassess how we view terrorism and terrorists, and to confront some uncomfortable truths about our own complicity.

While the characters speak with the interwoven words of several interviewees, a number of them are identifiable as well known individuals: a Norman-Tebbit-esque figure stands in his dressing gown looking at nuthatches in his garden and discussing his feelings for the IRA men who planted the Brighton Conference bomb in 1984 which paralysed his wife. He is sharing the stage with one of the bombers, who, 20 years after the incident, tries to explain how he feels about his actions, “you have to see things in their historical context”, he says. There is also a telling passage where a magnificently-bearded figure speaks eloquently about his experiences of being taken hostage in Beirut, and the conversations he had with his captors. Terry Waite himself was part of the first night audience.

What may not be apparent from this snapshot of Soans’s play is the fact that as well as blending horrorific imagery, poignancy and insight, Talking To Terrorists is also enriched by flashes of humour and, perhaps unusually for a piece of verbatim theatre, several moments of taut dramatic tension, when the characters slip out of monologue and acknowledge each other’s presence.

With the G8 Summit opening tomorrow, it may not be entirely coincidental that Talking To Terrorists opened this week. There are a number of moments in the play where the West’s role in exacerbating, or even benefiting from, global terrorism, is chillingly highlighted.

Talking To Terrorists, by Robin Soans, will run at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until July 30.