Guantanamo 'Honor Bound to Defend Freedom'

Thu 20 May 2004 – Sat 12 Jun 2004

20 May-12 June 2004
The Tricycle Theatre presents
GUANTANAMO ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’
by Victoria Brittain & Gillian Slovo, taken from spoken evidence

Nicolas Kent & Sacha Wares
Miriam Buether
Lighting Designer
Johanna Town
Cast includes
David Annen, Paul Bhattacharjee, Daniel Cerqueira, Jan Chappell, William Hoyland, Tariq Jordan, Aaron Neil, Alan Parnaby, Patrick Robinson, Theo Fraser Steele and Badi Uzzaman
“It is the cool, calm objectivity of this documentary drama that makes it so powerful and shocking. Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo have compiled it from letters and interviews from Guantanamo Bay prisoners, their lawyers and relatives. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw (David Annen), puts in a lugubrious appearance, as does that great humanitarian Donald Rumsfeld (William Hoyland), like a horseman of the apocalypse in a tight suit. Unlike the Tricycle’s productions about the Scott or Stephen Lawrence inquiries, this is not technically a tribunal play, but it has the authority and dignity of a moral tribunal. On trial are two of the world’s greatest and proudest democracies. Men are in indefinite detention, facing trial by military tribunal, without access to lawyers, without a charge, without contact with the outside world. The US Department of Defense has apparently stated that the Geneva Convention is “quaint”. So now you know. What is happening here is, quite simply, the officially sanctioned criminalisation of justice. There are respectable historical precedents for this: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. The company we keep, eh? The British theatre – indeed, every Briton – should be proud of this play.”

***** Sunday Times
“There is no theatre in Britain that has told us more in recent years about the way we live now than the Tricycle in Kilburn. Its tribunal plays have ranged from the Scott Arms-to-Iraq and the Stephen Lawrence inquiries, to the Srebrenica UN war crimes hearings and Lord Hutton’s investigations last summer into the death of Dr David Kelly. All have used the verbatim, though necessarily edited, evidence of witnesses.

This shocking and often deeply moving production is in the same tradition, though with one crucial difference. There has, as yet, been no formal inquiry into just what is going on at the US naval base Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where more than 650 people are still being held, indefinitely without benefit of the Geneva Convention, as part of America’s war against terror.

Instead of seating in a courtroom, listening to evidence and editing the transcripts, the show’s authors, Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, have had to seek out their own witnesses. They range from some of the British Asians who have recently been released from the camp, to relatives of those that remain. We also hear from solicitors, a US military lawyer, a law lord, an Englishman whose sister was a victim of 9/11 and the public statements of such politicians as Donald Rumsfeld and our own Jack Straw.

The cumulative effect of Nicolas Kent’s characteristically lucid, sober production is to create a feeling of concern that gradually rises to indignation. This is not because the production in any way sensationalises the issue. Some of the worst details of the ill-treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo that have been reported in the press are not included here, nor is any connection made between the regime at Camp Delta and the recent horrifying pictures from Abu Ghraib.

But when an American military lawyer and a British Lord of Appeal in Ordinary both point to the manifest injustice of what is going on, and the impossibility of the detainees getting a fair trial under the planned arrangements, it is clear that this is no tendentious piece of agit-prop but a clear-eyed assessments of a grave abuse of human rights.

But though it offers a thorough debate about the issues surrounding Guantanamo, it is at the human level that the play works most powerfully.

The anguish of the parents and siblings of detainees, and letters home of those incarcerated in the tiny cages represented on Miriam Buether’s stage design, repeatedly cut at the heart like a knife.

Paul Bhattacharjee is particularly impressive as Moazamm Begg from Birmingham, still imprisoned at Guantanamo, whose heavily censored correspondence with his father shows initial resilience gradually giving way to depression and despair. And when his dignified father, beautifully played by Badi Uzzaman, insists: “I am not asking for mercy from anybody. I am asking for justice,” the effect is more moving still.

The production also shows the way those who claim to be “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” (the sign outside the camp provides this play with its subtitles) use language to disguise truth. When concern was registered about the number of attempted suicides at Guantanamo, the form of words was changed to “manipulative self-injury behaviour.”

There is no doubt that the West faces a real threat from fanatical Muslim terrorists, and this production doesn’t duck the fact. But is the heavy-handed American approach actually serving any useful purpose? Will it not simply create martyrs who will inspire more acts of barbarism?

A note in the programme says that, despite numerous attempts, no members of the British Government were prepared to be interviewed for this eye-opener of a production. Let’s hope that a few, at least, will go and see it.”

The Daily Telegraph

“The Tricycle Theatre is the most valuable home of political theatre in Britain today. Above all, its documentary plays are a breakthrough genre.

Guantanamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”, the latest Tricycle production, brilliantly fills our head, almost to bursting, with information of many kinds.

Assembled by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, directed by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares, it brings us into close contact with the thoughts and experiences of Guantanamo Bay detainees and those in contact with them.

In the background, it lightly evokes the physical atmosphere of life there, with its stupefying nullity punctuated by men doing physical exercise on their bunk beds or by Muslim calls to prayers, while, in the foreground, family members, politicians or lawyers talk about them.

We learn of torture, of gross political distortions of language, of human tenderness, of the basic illegality of the Guantanamo Bay detentions without trial.

The words we hear are taken from spoken or written evidence. The characters we watch include Moazzam Begg, who is still detained in Guantanamo Bay, his father, who was present on press night and the brother of another detainee, a British man who was released from Guantanamo Bay. They are all Muslims, though of various degrees of unorthodoxy. Other characters include the brother of a woman who died in the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, Donald Rumsfeld, Jack Straw, Lord Justice Johan Steyn and the solicitor Gareth Pierce.

We learn how the suicide attempts at Guantanamo Bay appeared to stop because the American military had reclassified them as “manipulative self-injurious behaviour” of which there were more then 40 instances in six months.

We hear letters about the many camel spiders that leave festering bites on Guantanamo detainees, Mr Begg’s account of how he finds himself talking to his beloved absent son, Jamal Al-Harith memories of solitary confinement, the multiple American violations of the Geneva Convention even in basic matters of camp organisation and how “interrogation” was re-worded as “reservation” or “exhibition”.

There are still 650 people imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, and increasing evidence of torture. At the after-show discussion on press night, a journalist quoted David Davies, the Conservative MP, as saying the west cannot win while Guantanamo exists.

I would like to hear an after-show discussion composed of people who think that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are wise, and who think that detention centre in Guantanamo Bay is not an evil example of barbarism sustained by the world’s foremost democracy: what do they have to say in the face of such evidence?

Above all, I want anyone who is seriously interested in the values that sustain civilisation to see this production.”****Financial Times
“They raised the chilling ghost of Franz Kafka’s The Trial last night at the Tricycle. This, though, was no fictitious affair, dealing with a faraway country of which we know little and care less.

Guantanamo implicitly poses a question which comes close to home. Why has the self-righteous Mr Blair condoned President Bush’s violation of human rights and natural justice at Guantanamo, that prison hell-hole for al Qaeda suspects? The authors, Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, artfully shape their documentary-drama, the latest blast in a line of Tricycle productions, using personal testimonies from recorded interviews and real-life prison letters. In the process, a host of Kafkaesque horrors come shuffling into view. Guantanamo may be out of date: it was written before the recent revelations pf torture, brain-washing and murder at the now notorious prison. But the speaking of the prisoners’ own words, in the form of letters home or testimonies after release, gives this fine production by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares a raw vitality.

The idea is to give an impression of injustice in action, of how prisoners remain stranded in a limbo beyond the reach of law or legal process, charged with no specific offence. The scene on stage is dominated by the wire mesh cages in which the wretched men are housed. The call to pre-dawn prayer is sung. A prisoner sarcastically writes home saying everything is lovely. Views, perspectives, arguments come at us in a subtly clashing array. William Hoyland spookily dons the mantle and manner of Donald Rumsfeld to assure the world that Guantanamo’s cells are just fine. The prisoners, he explains, will “roughly” – note the adverb – be treated as prisoners of war: Tom Clark’s Englishman (impressive Theo Fraser Steele) explains his sister was incinerated in one of those twin towers. Yet for all his loathings he cannot accept Taliban suspects should be denied legal process.

Most of the time the prisoners lie on beds, sit bowed downed by fear and crippling chains or speak their disturbed, disturbing letters home. Paul Bhattacharjee’s shattering performance as young Moazzam Begg helps convey the power and purpose of the production. In the first act, prisoners and their relations far too lengthily sketch the detail of pre-Guantanamo life. Moazzam’s father, Mr. Begg (Badi Uzzaman) recalls his devout Islamic son, explains how the man’s religious fervour may have led to his arrest and the accusation of being involved with the Taliban.

Later Moazzam’s letters home begin to reek of desperation. There he sits and reads, with scorpions and 10-legged spiders whose bite causes flesh to decay if left untreated, as dangerous company. We think him lucky to excape the torture visited upon Patrick Robinson’s more sturdy, stoic Jamal al-Harith, confined in a literally freezing cell for the crime of refusing to wear an identifying wrist-band. He, though, came home. The letters from Moazzam to his father, vainly pleading his ignorance of what crime he is supposed to have committed, cease to arrive. Lord Steyn, a cool scathing Law Lord (Wlliam Hoyland again), reads the riot act in a lecture accusing America of putting prisoners “beyond the rule of law”. This is politically motivated theatre of a serious. Noble sort. I left the theatre in a blaze of anger, shame and sadness.”

Evening Standard

Weaving together personal stories, legal opinion and political debate, GUANTANAMO ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’ looks at the questions surrounding the detentions in Guantanamo Bay, and asks how much damage is being done to Western democratic values during the ‘war-on-terror’.