Our first night in London this visit: we’ve slept off our red-eye flight jet lag, and it’s time to get out! Why not go to our favorite alternative theatre, the Arcola, in wonderful, multicultural Dalston? Dinner first at the Mangal Turkish restaurant, lamb spare ribs (yum) and then a short walk to the theatre.
The play is Shrapnel, subtitled 34 Fragments of a Massacre, by Anders Lustgarten. It’s a sombre piece based on an incident that took place on the border between Turkey and Iraq in December 2011, called the Roboski massacre. Video from an American drone captures images of a band of men in the mountains making their way with mules across the border. The Turks know who they are: impoverished peasants who make a precarious living smuggling diesel fuel. Pentagon officials insist that they are terrorists, and send in the drones.
Anders Lustgarten operates in the great British tradition of activist-playwright, using the resources of the stage to expose political and social issues to scrutiny. His bio mentions that “he has taught on Death Row, been arrested by the Turkish secret police and holds a PhD in Chinese politics from the University of California. He is the winner of the inaugural Harold Pinter award”. The Arcola’s artistic director, Mehmet Ergen, who directed this play, is also committed to an engaged, activist theatre, with a particular interest in Turkish affairs.
In London, alongside theatre as mass entertainment, is a healthy parallel strand for people who love an opportunity to learn, think, and join in a dialogue about what is going on around them. One might call it (if the term were not already misappropriated) “adult entertainment”.
Shrapnel has a no-nonsense, just-the-facts approach. The cast of six share multiple roles, switching from villagers to Pentagon commanders to smugglers to Turkish officers to two low-level interrogators. A powerful element is the use of footage from the actual drone video projected behind the action.
There are two elements that distract from what is, overall, a powerful and effective piece of theatre. The vignettes jump back and forth in time, sometimes bewilderingly, though there does not seem any particular reason not to be chronological. The other is the use of accents, and this is a tricky problem. The villagers have strong Turkish accents (there are a couple of Turkish actors), the Americans speak Ammurican, but there are scenes in which the accent is British. These, it turns out, are the Turkish officers, and it took a while before I cottoned on. Was the British army deployed there too? To Londoners, presumably, a standard BBC accent is neutral, but not to us Canadians. It is, as I said, a vexed question in ensemble work, and relates also to ethnicity. When is casting colour blind, and when are we supposed to notice?
Apart from the head-scratchers above, this was a fine start to our London theatre holiday.
(Note: usually the photographs I post are my own, but I forgot my camera, so I’m posting a couple from the Arcola web site: www.arcolatheatre.com.)