Lidless avoids the depictions of testosterone-fuelled aggression that one might expect from a study of the effects of detention and interrogation in Guantanamo Bay. Instead, France Ya-Chu Cowhig’s challenging play, winner of a 2010 Fringe First Award in Edinburgh and the 2009 Yale Drama Series Award, explores the consequences of American policy for a seemingly happy family many years down the line.
The play focusses on a female interrogator at “Gitmo” whose enthusiastic pill-popping of her PTSD medication will later block out all memories of her time and behaviour in the army. In Alice’s opening monologues Penny Layden is suitably detached, while still conveying the deranged pleasure she gains from her employment. The sense of erotic indulgence that all parties get from the act of domination is a discomforting theme throughout Lidless, which tackles the use of ‘Invasion of Space by a Female’ – the use of female sexuality as an interrogation technique and a means to “damn their souls”. With the complicity of her friend Riva (Nathalie Armin), whose own largely unspoken back story and motivations for working at Guantanamo provide great depth to the play, Alice willingly uses her body to devastating effect. Fifteen years later, one of Alice’s victims unexpectedly appears on her doorstep and demands recompense for the injury inflicted on him, prompting everyone to confront the truth of Alice’s past.
Alice’s actions and Riva’s silence raise interesting questions about the nature of personal responsibility in a state of war. When challenged that with only a week left in the army Alice need not heed the memo and give the detainees a lap dance, her quick response “But I’m allowed to” highlights the role of individual agency.
Yet when the action shifts to the future, Lidless diverges from politics and descends into vaguely ridiculous family drama. It is clear that this affectionate family of vegetarian florists are not quite as they seem. Christian Bradley is perfectly likeable and well-meaning as Alice’s husband Lucas until he threateningly turns on his daughter for asking too many questions. Greer Dale-Foulkes is compelling as their teenage daughter Rhiannon, whose tragic search for truth is the play’s real driving force. Headstrong without being hysteric, Rhiannon is thoroughly believable as a curious, conflicted young woman and Dale-Foulkes skilfully avoids straying into teenage sullenness.
Disappointingly, there is scant sense during the confrontation between the detainee Bashir (Antony Bunsee) and Alice that, for a man who has waited fifteen years to confront his torturer, this may be a significant moment. Bunsee is not helped by erratic shifts between naturalistic dialogue and stylised tableau in trying to collate a coherent character from Bashir’s poetic musings, intelligent quips and delirious hallucinations; however, gradually, an intriguing spark of inter-dependency develops between these two individuals, resulting in an uncomfortable dynamic.
The staging is a confrontation in itself – a stark white box is marked out by bright neon lights that cause you to wince uncomfortably as they pierce through the gloom, while the sterile white floor and stylised white costumes create a sanitised, laboratory feel. As the actors writhe about in agony the audience are forced to watch, since to avert your gaze from what is happening in front of you means confronting it in the faces of the audience sat opposite. Yet we feel like voyeurs rather than fellow sufferers, and being excluded from the acting space while remaining in such close proximity severely limits the play’s overall emotional impact.
There is a lot to admire about Lidless, which in a relatively short space of time introduces a host of psychological, moral and political questions along with a complete cast of complex characters. The staging works well for a play that is loaded with symbolism; however, the clear divide between audience and acting space results in a sense of detachment, and the rushed and unresolved soap opera ending presents us from fervently questioning state policy or human behaviour. In turning a critical viewpoint on a sensitive political topic into a vaguely melodramatic family drama, Lidless simply fails to achieve quite the impact its subject matter deserves.