Public Interest is the debut production of theatre company Clever as Clever. Directed by Kamaal Hussain and written by Drew Ballantyne, it takes as its subject the inquiry into the death of 26-year-old Iraqi hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa, whilst in the custody of the British Army in 2003, a subject currently also being examined by the Tricycle Theatre in their Tribunal Play, Tactical Questioning.
Captain Lucas (Tim Dewberry) and Lieutenant Colonel Warner (Sidney Kean) meet at a hotel on the eve of the Inquiry, at which they are to testify. Warner, an intelligence officer whose job it is to train soldiers in interrogation techniques, fully expects his career to end as a result. But Lucas – his confident young protégé who has his sights set on a career in politics – has other ideas. When the bar manager, Ellie (Rachel Marwood), overhears their discussion, she confronts them, and the play becomes a debate over the line between interrogation and torture, about human rights in wartime.
It’s a very ‘talky’ play. There’s a lot of explaining, a lot of persuading – but very little actually happens. Ballantyne’s debut is intelligent but sometimes the writing draws attention to itself, interrupting the flow of the piece. It also feels a little stagy at times though conversely there’s an occasional lack of spatial awareness: moments when characters stand practically nose-to-nose whilst staring and shouting at each other. There’s also a limit to the number of times a character can be stopped in their tracks while storming from the room before it starts to become a tiresome device.
The character of Ellie, for instance, is a little contrived, a little too neat. Her emotional involvement and her knowledge of the case are unconvincing. She’s just a bit too eager to get involved and is too willing to be drawn back into the conversation every time she tries to leave – which is often (hence the storming). Marwood does her best with a role that is essentially a dramatic device, but is hampered by her character’s inconsistencies. One minute, she is outraged and disgusted by Captain Lucas; the next, she turns up at his hotel room door with a tub of ice cream, seductively sucking a spoon, and throws herself at him. The play provides no justification for such an about-turn.
Ballantyne has used her as a means of allowing these two men to expound their arguments, but instead her presence becomes a barrier to the audience fully engaging with these arguments. It’s a fascinating and necessary subject and its important that theatre engages with these issues. Public Interest, while generally well written and competently acted, undermines itself by being structurally unconvincing and, though very different in form and intention, is overshadowed by the Tricycle’s exploration of the same subject.