A stage empty but for ten chairs. Actors walk out, taking their seats. No costumes, no props, just scripts and water. The audience is here for a play reading of Colin Teevan's play "How Many Miles to Basra?", one of the Abbey Theatre's series of talks and readings in their Bearing Witness season, a celebration of 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The play, about "Four soldiers take a chance to redeem themselves after an accidental killing, while their journalist companion learns that the nature of truth is always distorted by the media" deals with the Iraq war and the uneven relationship between the media, politicians and the armed forces. At times comedic, at others poignant and disturbing, we are treated in two acts to a provoking look at the reality of today.
Can ten actors do a play with such important undertones and aspirations justice through just a reading? Yes, yes they can. Director Conall Morrison and his cast took the audience from the offices of BBC radio to Iraq and back again through convincing passion, accents, emotions and a storyline that resonates with all of us. It's hardly surprising, given the prevalent question - did the British government lie about Iraq? Was the weapons dossier sexed up? What was it like in Iraq for the soldiers there?
Through the eyes of Freddie, Stewart, Geordie and Dangermouse, four soldiers based in Iraq, completely bored by their station, the answer is "boring". We're introduced to them through reporter Ursula Gunn, there to find a story, a woman racked with guilt over her brother's death in a RUC shooting years before. When action happens, it happens in a big way, disturbing the routine of all involved and creating a situation none of them could envisage and a reality the audience cannot ignore.
"That's not how it happened" "What are we doing here?" "Why does this Iraqi have so much money? Why shouldn't an Iraqi have 400 dollars?" "I don't feel anything for him, I hate him". "That's what we're doing here, trying to liberate them from living like this. It's what we're here to do, leave the country a better place" "The war is over, according to my editor" "Tell your editor I would gladly swap houses with him. "I wish the world would stop trying to help Iraqis" "To remove this monster Saddam who you made to keep us in our place, you have bombed us, destroyed us. You have reduced this country to rags, then you call us ragheads".
The script is harsh and unforgiving, brutal in its assault on the lies perpetrated, constantly seeking the truth of the situation and inviting us to do the same.
I sat with playwright Colin Teevan after the performance to find out more about him and this play. Colin, from Dublin, is a playwright and translator, whose work has been produced by theatres including the National Theatre, London, the Young Vic, the National Theatre of Scotland, The Abbey Theatre and off Broadway. He has lectured widely in Britain, Europe and the US on theatre and writing for the stage and is currently Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of London.
(Please excuse the sound and lighting - still practising on the N95!)
Reading and acting in How Many Miles to Basra? were Roisín Coyle, Fiona Bell, John Cronin, Anthony Brophy, Ronan Leahy, Barry John O' Connor, Raad Rawi, Christopher Simpson, Janice Byrne and Ali White.
The Bearing Witness series continues this week with talks and readings address how Irish people bear witness to international events through art, debate, and politics.
Wednesday 17 and Friday 19 December sees two more readings. Returns by Joshua Casteel tells of Torture, guilt and post traumatic stress are explored through the memories of James and his companions, who have returned from Iraq only to find they cannot escape their past. Zero Hour by Tea Alagic is a biographical piece of how the playwright is just another student – until the cracks in her society are exposed by civil war. Zero Hour parallels her journey into adulthood with the transition of Bosnia from war to peace.
All readings take place at the Peacock Theatre at 2pm. Tickets €4/€2 concession each, and booking is on 01 87 87 222. The Abbey Website is here, and you can become a fan on Facebook here.