Halfway through tonight’s performance, as Luke Harris stood on the witness stand delivering the words of Private Aaron Cooper, a fly zig-zagged around his face. Batting it away he paused, before improvising one of the most telling gestures of the evening – a faint parry, unnecessary as the fly had gone, half-conscious, as if momentarily engaged with some phantasmic foe.
That British foreign policy in the Middle East has long been a matter for public art is evidenced by the trajectory of the Tricycle’s renowned “tribunal plays”, which began in 1994 with Richard Norton-Taylor’s dramatisation of the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry and continues tonight in the same region with his latest, a theatrically-redacted account of the Baha Mousa Inquiry. The public inquiry itself took place over 115 days, including oral evidence from over two hundred and forty witnesses and written evidence from a hundred more, a total of nine thousand documents running to sixty thousand pages, and was set up as a result of growing international pressure, to deal with the abuse of prisoners by British soldiers in Iraq. In the centre of the investigation stood the brutal death of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in a Basra military base in 2003 while in the custody of British soldiers. A post-mortem recorded ninety three separate injuries to Mousa’s body, a broken nose and ribs, all consistent with systematic beating. Over the course of a hundred minutes Tactical Questioning sets about drawing theatre up to the heights of the fourth estate, extending civic space to the stage and audience, delivering a nimble and prismatic critique of not just the military under inquiry, but the inquiry process itself.
On stage two luminous windows hang like twin Platonic suns over Polly Sullivan’s office-like space. The cheap ply desks, and sparsely-placed television screens, are guarded by tranches of box binders which snake orderly up behind the dias. True to the appearance of the tribunal room, everything is bureaucratic order and bland precision. Versimilitudinous touches – a momentary breakdown in audio, a manufactured delay on the video link – push theatricality to the background. Just as it is in the ad verbatim text, Nicholas Kent’s production strips out sensation. The tone is that of a courtroom; the lines of questioning are plodding and methodical, points are repeated, the firmity of the account is paramount. The tribunal room becomes part grave whodunnit, part anthropological spectacle.
But no Grisham this, no heroic lawyer to corner the bad guy with a dashing display of rationality – and indeed we get almost the opposite. As counsel to the inquiry Gerard Elias QC, Thomas Wheatley conducts his prosecution with a kind of penetrating luke-warmness, a reasonable and polite affair. All the while his character demurs from the quarry, like bear-baiting with Queensbury rules, an archaic sense of propriety shrouds the viscera. In amongst the airless atmosphere a small detail, the device of a non-speaking woman stenographer (Kate Marlais), whose admiring looks at Elias grow in frequency as the piece progresses. This gives an economical sense of time passing while hinting at the sub-dramas of court life, but more cleverly this look of human regard becomes a spotlight on Elias. Is this man to be admired? What makes heroism, or even competence in such a setting? Bringing the outside in, it asks – how might everyday structures of power manifest in a courtroom such as this?
Both Wheatley and Alan Parnaby as retired judge and Inquiry chair Sir William Gage, capture perfectly that slightly ironised formality of tone that characterises these occasions, a jovial jadedness, a matter between professional men. The latter indulges the dry hues of bufferdom (when the internet is down he mumbles “apparently there’s a problem in Holborn”). Additional comic relief, albeit of the type that affords no relief whatsoever, comes from Simon Rouse as the then-armed forces minister Adam Ingram, whose jargonised prevarications draw incredulous moans from the audience.
Further down the social scale, we hear from the only man sentenced for the killing of Baha Mousa, receiving a year in civil prison for “inhumane treatment”, Donald Payne. From his army education in interrogation techniques he learned “to question them as well and as fast as we can.” “What else did you learn?” Elias enquires. “Nothing.” Dean Ashton plays Payne with a perfunctory curtness, as a man whose conscience is elsewhere, certainly not on display here for the edification of the tribunal, carrying the air of a scapegoat led by donkeys. “Why did you go along with it [the alleged war crimes]?” the prosecutor asks Aaron Cooper. “Obviously we’re in the British Army” came the soldier’s response. As we rise through the ranks so the witnesses become more articulate. Capt Rodgers invokes his “own moral understanding” in his defence. Explanations become loaded with abstractions, guilt becomes lost in the elusive gaps between Brigade law, British Arms Forces law and International law. Pragmatism, that great operational black-hole, is summoned on numerous occasions, in particularly egregious instance when defending the decision to place a 14 year old prisoner next to a deafening generator. As the reprinted map of the base in the excellent programme attests, this was blocks away from the temporary detention facility in which the men were being held.
Norton-Taylor’s narrative selection picks at the MOD defence that these were a few bad apples, men with “chaotic backgrounds”, working class, undersocialised. Indeed, the further we travel up the social scale the more superficially plausible the explanations become. A certain legal-cultural nouse become allied with an organisational distance from the acts perpetrated. Not only is it possible for the top brass to say they had no idea, it is possible for them to say so very persuasively. They become like elegant surfers, positioning their board against the oncoming tide of shit, and skipping off the surface. Ultimately we are left with the impression that the overview of operations so absent by lack or design when it comes to the perpetration of war crimes, becomes perfectly functionsal when it comes to the evasion of their consequences.
On one level Norton-Taylor’s script examines the limits of responsibility in the framework set out by the inquiry, orienting itself toward a strong verdict of institutional guilt. It joins the small chorus of humanitarian voices calling for an enforcement of human rights within the British military. And yet we would be doing a disservice to think of the play as a reduced truth when placed next to the more rigorous and extended legal event – as an abridged copy for popular consumption. Just as a courtoom navigates itself around symbols and appropriate languages, flows of authority and credibility, in short a specific legal discourse which enables utterances to be meaningful; so the theatrical adaptation brings to bear its own language, its own consistent underlying structures which enable legitimate meaning to arise, and the narrative to progress coherently. At a remove from the rules of empirical truth, the play is able to out-manouevre and reframe law, to hold it up to its own gaps and elisions, to present a formal challenge in quite a strict sense. On another level, as a piece of art, it is polysemic rather than polemic, laying bare jurisprudence to anyone that cares to examine it. In this way Tactical Questioning is an extension of civic space in the most profound manner.
Luke Harris’s improvised subliminal skirmish with the fly spoke of a man free with his hands, but more saliently it spoke of something kneejerk, of experience and culture, not adequately explained by individual guilt. Tactical Questioning crystallises the power of art to begin to explain such events.
The Baha Mousa Inquiry will publish its report on 8th September 2011.