It sounds like the start of a bad joke: an Englishman, an Irishman and an American. This multi-national trio, however, are not walking into a bar, but are instead chained to the wall of a gloomy basement in Lebanon, indefinitely imprisoned by their captors and faced with the all too likely prospect of their own execution. Actor Robin Soans summarises the situation succinctly when he describes the feelings of his character, Michael: “It seems to him that he has awoken in hell”.
This is the premise of Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, a play written twenty years ago about the hostage crisis in Lebanon that was then just coming to a close, and which is now being revived by Red Handed Theatre Company and the Southwark Playhouse to coincide with the anniversary. As I chat to the cast in their dressing room at the atmospheric, dungeon-like space under the arches of London Bridge station, Soans admits with a laugh that “you couldn’t find a better space in London to put it on”.
While the action of the play may be rooted in the hostage crisis that gripped Lebanon between 1982 and 1992, during which 96 individuals from a range of different, mostly Western nations were kidnapped and held in captivity, McGuinness’ image of three men trapped in an impossible situation is more notable for its universal resonance. This might, as the actors discuss, be any extreme situation in which the human spirit is pushed to its outer limits. It is the ways in which these three characters deal with their imprisonment and the truths about humanity that emerge through this that provide the true pull of the piece.
“Anyone watching the play could identify with the struggles that these characters go through,” explains Joseph Timms, who plays American captive Adam, the hostage who has been imprisoned the longest of the three. Soans, whose character Michael is an English academic who enters the mix after the other two, agrees: “It’s a universal play and there are situations like this all over the world all the time, even in domestic situations, where people feel locked in or hemmed in”. It does not matter all that much whether these characters are in a makeshift cell in Lebanon or a prison on the other side of the world; what really matters is how they cope.
It is perhaps surprising to learn, as third cast member Billy Carter, who is playing Irishman Edward, tells me, that “the script is heavily layered with lots of humour”. Humour, along with improvisation, role-playing, music and debate, becomes a vital survival mechanism for the three men trapped alone with nothing but their thoughts and one another. Soans emphatically describes laughter as “the greatest tool for survival”, adding that if you don’t make jokes about a hopeless situation “you just collapse, you deflate”. As Timms chips in, “the worst thing to do is to give in and to cry”.
Although the tedium of imprisonment is punctuated with the jokes and play-acting of McGuinness’ script, any production of this play is physically limited by the very situation in which it is staged, with the actors only able to move as far as their chains will allow. This must have been a challenge to keep the performance feeling dynamic? “It doesn’t feel like a static play at all,” Soans protests. “Physically, yes, it’s quite confined, but in every other sense it’s very fluid.” Timms, meanwhile, compares the confined energy of the three men that the actors explore on stage with that of a chained, unpredictable animal.