In recent weeks, Guantánamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’ has been playing to capacity audiences at north London’s Tricycle Theatre. The play is a sober documentary on the prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, where hundreds of suspected Taliban and al Qaeda foot soldiers have been interned without trial since January 2002. At a moment when no issue on either side of the Atlantic is so urgently in need of rigorous public examination as the conduct of the war on terror, this is the third play in this London theatrical season to take up the challenge. Last month, political satirist Alistair Beaton’s ferociously funny and disturbing exploration of the Blair-Bush relationship, Follow My Leader, played to sold-out houses at the Hampstead Theatre, and in September David Hare’s new play about the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, opens at the National Theatre. Later this month, Guantánamo will transfer to the New Ambassadors Theatre in the commercial hub of London’s West End.
London has a cherished tradition of vibrant political theatre, and London audiences expect their small community theatres to engage with the major issues of our time. For the past decade the Tricycle Theatre has developed docudramas that it calls “Verbatim Theatre.” This award-winning series of “Tribunal Plays” has brought to the stage dramatizations based on the transcripts of war crimes trials (Nuremberg and Srebenica) and controversial U.K. government inquiries into Iraq policies and into police racism.
In the case of Guantánamo—absent any official inquiry, congressional hearing or trials — former Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain and South African novelist Gillian Slovo intercut the “spoken evidence” of recently freed British Muslims and their families, the relatives of British prisoners still held, and English and American lawyers with excerpts from desperate letters by the prisoners to their families and comments by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The production acquires added gravitas through readings from Lord Justice Steyn, a judge on Britain’s highest — and traditionally conservative — court, whose legal analysis drives home the play’s bleak message: Those interned in Guantánamo have been trapped by their captors in “a legal black hole.” In Steyn’s words: “The purpose of holding the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay was and is to put them beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts, and at the mercy of the victors. … The prisoners … will be tried by military tribunals … they have no access to the writ of habeas corpus. … The military will act as interrogators, prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, and when death sentences are imposed, as executioners. … The question is whether the quality of justice envisaged for the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay complies with minimum international standards for the conduct of fair trials. The answer … is a resounding No.”
We know some facts about Guantánamo: photos of shackled prisoners led away for interrogation; details of the 8-by-8-foot cages, where they are held under lights blazing 24 hours a day; the re-classification from POWs to detainees to remove their rights under international law. All of this has been known for two years. Now, since the scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the disclosure that the commander at Guantánamo was transferred to Abu Ghraib, the Guantán-amo regime has acquired still more sinister characteristics. In examining what Lord Steyn characterizes as “the utter lawlessness at Guantánamo Bay,” this play digs deeply to raise profound questions about the direction that those in power on both sides of the Atlantic are taking our societies.
Wonderfully served by the actors, Guantánamo lives through the quality of the interviews that involve us instantly in the personal stories of the prisoners and their families. “I will start with his childhood so you have the full picture,” is the first line of the play. The father is speaking of his son, still interned in Guantánamo. His account of his son’s life, built up from small, everyday things, is spellbinding. And heartbreaking. His reminiscences are interwoven with scenes from a press conference held by Rumsfeld, who is impatient to get out his message that “these are among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.” Meanwhile, in the Kafkaesque world of Guantánamo, his son is losing the struggle against despair.
Great theatre is cathartic. It can lead an audience to open their hearts and minds and imaginations. This is what Guantánamo has achieved.