Chaucer. Cervantes. Samuel Pepys. For all their recent stereotyping as Sir Humphreys, the list of idiosyncratic, daring and important Civil Servants is a long one. It’s this tradition into which the LAMDA production of Robin Soans’ play, One Turbulent Ambassador at the Lyric Hammersmith, plugs in.
The play tells the story of Craig Murray, former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, whose spirited campaigning against torture and severe human rights abuses ran up against the Anglo-American need to sign up a regional ally in the ‘the war on terror’ and to wage war on Iraq. Murray’s refusal to kowtow to official policy saw his career with the Foreign Office end in official disgrace and public ridicule.
‘Look,’ explains Soans, ‘I don’t want to sound too agitprop about this. I know Robin Cook resigned and Claire Short resigned, and those gestures had a worth to them, but they didn’t put their complete necks on the line. Dr David Kelly [who Soans has played on stage in Jessica Swale’s production of The Palace of the End] and Craig Murray were the only two figures in the establishment who stood up and said “this is all lies.”’
The production, directed by Swale – a frequent collaborator of Soans’ – is far from agitprop, because Murray himself (as all establishment rebels surely are) is something of a conflicted character. His maverick approach to the assignment in Uzbekistan was mirrored to a degree by his lifestyle as Murray left his wife and young family for a 22 year-old Uzbekistani belly dancer. The perceived excesses of his personal life eventually rebounded on his professional bravery and have arguably further clouded his reputation as a whistle-blower since.
‘It’s Shakespearian’, continues Soans explaining the sweep of his play, ‘it’s a tale of modern politics but it has a very human level to it and you’re able to run a domestic story alongside a big political story. I wrote it as a five act play, deliberately to emphasise the Shakespearian parallels.
‘His fall is pretty absolute in a Miltonian, Paradise Lost way. Craig himself said “it’s not very interesting to watch someone stumble six inches.” It’s pretty grand being an ambassador, from what I gather, eating off gold plates with gold cutlery. A lot of the embassies are quite grand and there are staff and drivers and the lifestyle is pretty rich. To fall from that to complete vilification and destruction and to become ludicrous in many people’s eyes and be labelled a womaniser, a cheat and a drunkard…’
The mix of combustible private life and a deep involvement with the defining geo- political events of the century so far, has already made Murray an attractive figure from dramatists. Sir David Hare wrote a radio play, Murder in Samarkand, starring David Tennant. Baby Cow are reputed to have a film in development, with Steve Coogan, intriguingly, set to play the lead. Indeed, Murray has appeared as a character in two verbatim plays by Soans, Talking to Terrorists and Life after Scandal. Writing One Turbulent Ambassador offered him the opportunity to both revisit material he had long hankered the chance to revisit, but also gain fresh perspectives. Soans and the LAMDA students conducted interviews with characters surrounding the story, including Fiona, Murray’s ex-wife, ambassadors, MPs and Nadira (the former bellydancer, now Murray’s second wife, who also wrote and performed a play about her life) as they sought to broaden out the material contained in Murray’s published account of his time in Uzbekistan.
The research process, says Soans, is crucial for the students development. ‘Drama schools tend to concentrate on movement, diction, voice, radio techniques, and, well, actually,’ the playwright argues, ’there is a world out there which gives your art a relevance and you should know something about this world.’
The students from LAMDA, who clearly impressed Soans, also brought a new slant on Murray and over several months, as the twenty-seven students further scoped the subject their views began to make themselves felt: ‘The students and Jessica said I think you’re emphasising the heroic side of this man, rather than the shitty things he’s done to various people and the trail of misery he’s left in his wake. One does have to take the rose-tinteds off, although I know him, and am actually very fond of him.
‘We do live in age when people are quickly pigeonholed, you’re a left wing so and so, he’s Essex man, she’s Worcester woman, NIMBYS, Yuppies. This is how they’ll behave, this is what they watch on television, what they want to read and Craig Murray reminds us how shallow this is, he’s a combination of heroic morality and yet a personal mess. A play which just on that level defines the complexity of the human position is worthwhile for that alone.‘
One Turbulent Ambassador also differs from previous takes on Murray in that we are given glimpses into his Foreign Office career pre-Uzbekistan, as well as his life ‘after the wave broke’, as Soans puts it. A formative experience had been negotiating with the Revolutionary United Front at the Sierra Leone peace talks in 1998, a harrowing experience which impressed on him the absolute importance of human rights and the inadvisability of Western nations picking ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. ‘I expect you thought you were coming to the middle of nowhere (when you were posted to Uzbekistan)’, as one telling exchange goes in the play, to which the Murray character replies, ‘No, you thought you were sending me to the middle of nowhere.’
‘History is a strange and fickle creature,’ smiles Soans, ‘at the time of his demise Craig Murray was a figure of ridicule, and Tony Blair cast him out as a traitor. But he’s now a rector of a university and addresses student rallies and appears on television and talks really very intelligently, while anyone of discernment has no time for anything Tony Blair has to say at all. Virtually everything says he’s ludicrous. So much of what he said was duplicitous, and underhand, and not even approaching the truth. And that’s just seven or eight years and history has already done a volte face.’
One Turbulent Ambassador runs at the Lyric until 10th July 2012. The issues, and Murray’s story, have further to run.