Theater Review: Nightmare Without Hope Or Logic – Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo – New York Times – by Ben Brantley – PDF

2004 Nightmare Without Hope or Logic

On an anxious night, in a paranoid time in your life, you have probably had a dream that goes something like this. You are arrested by uniformed officers for a crime that is never specified but that you know you did not commit. There is no logic, no rationality at all that you can perceive, in the questions you are asked in the interrogations that follow. Which means there is no way to answer your persecutors in your defense. Which means there is no way out.
Such a scenario was immortalized by Franz Kafka in ”The Trial” in the early 20th century, and it has since been the basis for countless cold-sweat action movies and films noirs. It is also the real-life situation described by Jamal al-Harith, Bisher al-Rawi, Moazzam Begg and Ruhel Ahmed. Their stories are told with a bafflement that shades into gut-level despair in ”Guantánamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,’ ” the deeply moving documentary play that opened last night in a Culture Project production at the 45 Bleecker Street Theater.
First produced in London by the Tricycle Theater, which specializes in topical theater assembled from transcripts and interviews, this calmly condemning drama considers the plight of some of the British detainees at the prison established for suspected terrorists at the United States naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. There is no question that ”Guantánamo” is a partisan work, unlikely to lure delegates from the Republic National Convention. But it exerts an icy visceral charge that is never achieved by flashier agitprop satire like Tim Robbins’s Bush-bashing ”Embedded.”
”Guantánamo,” created ”from spoken evidence” by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, arrives in New York just as the war crimes trials for the detainees in Guantánamo Bay are beginning, nearly three years after many of them were first sent there. Hence daily news accounts are available to reflect the obscuring cloud that still hovers over the lives of men whose exact status, under established international and military law, has never been made clear.
A sense of a shadowy world of shifting boundaries and rules appropriately pervades the first half of the play, which is largely devoted to accounts of how three of the men initially came to be arrested. One of them, Mr. al-Harith (Andrew Stewart-Jones) — a young man from Manchester who embarked on a religious pilgrimage to Pakistan and wound up, by his description, being disastrously in the wrong place at the wrong time — tells his own story directly.
Other histories are related by family members of the detainees. Wahab al-Rawi (Ramsey Faragallah) describes his and his brother’s arrest in Gambia, where they went to set up a business. Wahab was released, while his brother, Bisher (Waleed Zuatier), was eventually sent to Guantánamo. As played with a winning combination of sardonic warmth and cold rage by Mr. Faragallah, Wahab finds a grim, grotesque humor in the illogic of his captors and interrogators. The tone of Mr. Begg (Harsh Nayyar) — the father of Moazzam (Aasif Mandvi), a young man taken prisoner in Afghanistan, where he was setting up a water distribution system — is simply sad, aggrieved and uncomprehending.
Letters home from Guantánamo are read in counterpoint to statements from politicians like Jack Straw (Joris Stuyck), the British foreign secretary, and Donald Rumsfeld (Robert Langdon Lloyd), the American Secretary of Defense, who is heard answering reporters with an obscuring, logic-twisting bravado worthy of the short-tempered Duchess in ”Alice in Wonderland.” Lawyers for the detainees (played by Kathleen Chalfant, Steven Crossley and Mr. Zuaiter) try to provide a sense of legal context for what is happening to their clients.
The monologues by these attorneys, and by Mr. Langdon Lloyd as Lord Justice Steyn, sometimes have a formal, exhortative eloquence clearly meant to rouse anger and indignation. It is here that ”Guantánamo” feels more like a sermon for the converted than a drama. What pulls hardest at the emotions are the detailed epistolary accounts of life in prison and the letters’ change in tone from willed optimism to abjectness to, in one harrowing case, something approaching madness.
Most of the creative team that staged ”Guantánamo” in London, where it transferred from the Tricycle to the New Ambassadors Theater in the West End, is on board here as well. These include the directors, Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares, and the set and costume designer, Miriam Buether. The cast is new. If the performers have not yet found the rhythmic assurance of their counterparts in London, where I saw the show last month, they are clearly well on their way to achieving it.
The magnetic Mr. Stewart-Jones finds a genuine, hope-inspiring heroism in his character, offset by Mr. Zuaiter’s Bisher, who convincingly charts a descent into hopelessness. Ms. Buether’s simple set is framed by cagelike prison units where men in the now familiar regulation orange jumpsuits can be seen as you enter the theater. Throughout the performance they stir in their tiny cells, occasionally exercising or praying.
Mostly, however, they have the leaden immobility of people for whom waiting has become an existential condition. When the performance ends, you may so share their claustrophobia that you wind up gratefully gulping down air as soon as you hit the sidewalk.
‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’
By Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, from spoken evidence. Directed by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares; sets and costumes by Miriam Buether; lighting by Johanna Town; sound by Bill Grady; production stage manager, Bonnie Brady. Presented by the Culture Project. Part of the Imagine Festival of Arts, Issues and Ideas. At the 45 Bleecker Street Theater, at Lafayette Street, East Village.
WITH: Robert Langdon Lloyd (Lord Steyn and Donald Rumsfeld), Harsh Nayyar (Mr. Begg), Ramsey Faragallah (Wahab al-Rawi), Andrew Stewart-Jones (Jamal al-Harith), Kathleen Chalfant (Gareth Peirce), Steven Crossley (Mark Jennings and Greg Powell), Waleed Zuaiter (Bisher al-Rawi and Major Dan Mori), Aasif Mandvi (Moazzam Begg and Mr. Ahmed), Jeffrey Brick (Tom Clarke), Maulik Pancholy (Ruhel Ahmed) and Joris Stuyck (Clive Stafford Smith and Jack Straw, M.P.).