27/05/2008 - 11/06/2008
Two Stories | One War | Many Truths
Two of the most controversial events to emerge from the Iraq war take centre stage in the internationally acclaimed play Guardians which has its New Zealand premiere at Bats Theatre in Wellington in May.
‘Dumb American Girl’ becomes the world’s scapegoat when photographs of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib are revealed; while ‘Savvy English Boy’ attempts to advance his journalism career by faking similar photographs and causes a tabloid sensation. He’s exposed as a fake; she goes to prison. Somewhere in between lie the beginnings of the truth.
GladEye Productions presents Guardians at Bats Theatre from Tuesday 27 May for a two week season. The Wellington season is directed by Damon Andrews (Wheeler’s Luck) and features Heather O’Carroll (The Country) and Sam Snedden (The Hollow Men).
Surprisingly funny and often grossly frank, the two disparate stories from the ‘War on Terror’ force us to question the undeniable power of artifice and the media in our scandal-loving world. "I wanted to treat these scandals in a dramatic context," says the play’s London-based playwright Peter Morris.
"Their obvious direct similarities reflect the larger issues they raise, primarily that of America: its role in the world, the low esteem in which the educated British public holds it and whether or not its actions are justifiable. I don’t intend to answer these questions, merely to pose them."
Guardians debuted at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it received rave reviews and was awarded a Fringe First Award. In October 2006 it moved to London and played at Theatre 503 where it was performed by the Mahwaff Theatre Company and it has since had a season in New York by The Culture Project.
"5 stars! Memorable, moving and disturbing… Peter Morris’s script is very fine indeed" – The Scotsman
Guardians plays at Bats Theatre, Wellington from 27 May to 11 June at 8.30pm (no show Sundays or Mondays. Book by phoning 04 802 4175 or email email@example.com
Pre-Show Forum 5 June
GladEye Productions will host a pre-show forum on June 5 at 6.30pm upstairs from Bats in the ‘Buff’s space’ for those who have seen the show already and for those yet to come. The forum panel will be chaired by author and journalist Nicky Hager and will include the Guardians cast as well as guest speakers Jeff Sluka (Associate Professor of Social Anthropology, Massey University) and Boris van Beusekom (Associate Director of the Human Rights Film Festival 2008). Entry by koha. All proceeds will go to Amnesty International.
English boy Sam Snedden
American girl Heather O' Carroll
design Rob Larsen
video editor Shane Bartle
publicity and marketing Sally Woodfield
graphic design Splendid
poster photography Dan Williams
It's their job
Review by Elspeth Sandys 16th Jun 2008
It’s a curious fact that nations going through a period of unrest and political confusion frequently produce writers of great power and insight: think Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In recent months, I have seen two fine plays by young British playwrights – Black Watch and The American Pilot – and I can now add a third to that list: Peter Morris’ Guardians.
Bats and Gladeye Productions are to be congratulated for staging this hard-hitting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying play, and for the excellence of both the direction (Damon Andrews) and the acting. [More]
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Worthwhile and thought provoking
Review by Helen Sims 06th Jun 2008
Guardians is a play comprised of the monologues of two characters identified only as “American Girl”, and “English Boy”, a London journalist aspiring to write for the Guardian. The story of American Girl is loosely based on that of Lynndie England, who was convicted of misconduct in the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At the point of the play she is awaiting trial in an American jail, costumed in bright prison overalls. The story of the British journalist is based on a 2004 scandal at The Daily Mirror, where a fabricated photograph depicting Iraqi abuse at British soldiers’ hands was published and then exposed as a fake. Taking this well know factual background, playwright Peter Morris crafts a work that explores sexual and cultural politics in the face of a scandal and the nature of victimisation.
Despite there only being two characters, who never interact, Morris manages to offer many facets to his themes through them. The two characters contrast in every way – their gender, their education, their tone (his, cynical; hers, confessional). The only thing they seem to have in common is that they both occupied positions of guardianship: hers as a soldier commissioned to protect “freedom” in newly “liberated” Iraq; his as a protector of the “truth” and vital link in the media; the “Fourth Estate” between the governed and the governors. They are also both troubled by the part they have had to play in respect of the recent well publicised events in which they were involved and are now questioning their beliefs. Although, as mentioned, they do this in very different ways.
American Girl (played by Heather O’Carroll) is surprisingly, given the widespread condemnation of those featured as the perpetrators in the Abu Ghraib photos, the far more sympathetic of the two characters. Once I got over the slightly distracting and grating West Virginian accent, her struggle to comprehend and account for what had occurred was touching, although I was concerned that a little too much blame was being laid on the influence of a domineering man (her superior) with whom she was sexually involved. Whilst she does seem to have been the scapegoat for much larger failings, I disliked the extent of the mitigation attributed to her innocence/ignorance. This also seemed to sit uncomfortably with her challenge to the audience to examine their own complicity late in the play.
English Boy on the other hand (Sam Snedden) thinks he knows it all based on his access to material not seen by the public. But the limits of his understanding are demonstrated by his glib, grandstanding statements and the scandal he attempts to manufacture. He’s obviously read his Foucault at Oxford: “An ordinary person’s experience of power is invariably centred on its sexual manifestations.” But his personal experiences are far more complex – the boyfriend that he claims to love and yet enjoys compromising and degrading is a clear example. The danger of using sex as a power tool becomes obvious in both stories – it’s hardly a new theme, but the Abu Ghraib photos have perhaps illustrated its latest manifestation.
A concerning link between sex and moral degradation is implicit in the play. The sexual nature of both the real and faked pictures is foregrounded, and this in turn is lined inextricably to positions of power. The boy is a sexual sadist, the girl a masochist (despite the photos) – so he is victimiser and she is victim, despite appearances. And that doesn’t even get into their class differences. There is something too facile — and predictable — in both portraits, of a tabloid journalist as a moral reprobate, and a regular member of the Army as the exploited pawn of authority and a symbol of American social injustice. Perhaps this could have been remedied to an extent if the play had demonstrated a few more commonalities between the two characters although that would sit uncomfortably with the monologue form. Not much insight is offered into what makes people with initially “good” aspirations go bad in positions of power that owe duties to others. What we do get is a more personal insight into events/ that are incredibly hard to comprehend when viewed as a set of explosive images. As the English Boy points out, the Abu Ghriab pictures were the perfect caption-less pictures – but this seems to troublingly suggest that they don’t require explanation and interrogation. The play tries to provide some of this. However, reducing explanation to the abuse of power and corrupting influence of sex also feels inadequate.
The play is nonetheless, provocative and well directed by Damon Andrews and performed with conviction by O’Carroll and Snedden. The monologue form sustained my interest, although it is fairly statically staged on a raised white box, brightly lit by Rob Larsen We seem to be getting offered many theatrical perspectives on the war with Iraq specifically, and Western moral ambivalence generally – this one is a welcome addition to the mix. Despite my objections to its messages – explicit or implicit, I thought it was a highly worthwhile and thought provoking watch.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
War on Terror commentary
Review by Lynn Freeman 04th Jun 2008
Completing a trilogy of razor sharp contemporary political plays in Wellington at the moment, is Peter Morris’ Guardians, a Fringe First winner at the Edinburgh Festival. Morris is American but with a foot also in the UK, and here one of his characters is all American, the other a quintessential modern Fleet Street journalist.
While a fiction, in fact the characters are simply called English Boy and American Girl, their stories are very clearly based on two well known and much discussed scandals arising from the War on Terror – those photos of a female soldier grinning as prisoners in Abu Ghraib were humiliated, and hoax photos purportedly showing British soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees, published by a London tabloid.
Their actions seem inexcusable. Here the perpetrators here give their accounts of their actions, without any grovelling apologies, but explaining their reasons in a very reasoned and self-aware manner.
Heather O’Carroll fell under the spell of this play when she saw it overseas so perhaps no surprise that her performance is perfectly pitched. She plays American Girl with a believable mix of vulnerability and matter of factness, and frustration that those at the top, those whose orders she took (in this case a double bind, as her superior was also her lover) were not held publically to account as she was.
Sam Sneddon’s British Boy is an altogether different character – smart, ruthlessly ambitious, dominating, perverted and cruel. Sneddon still manages to make him in some way charming, though his actions were only ever designed to give himself pleasure and help him up the career ladder, as one of the new pinstripe-suited journalists of today. Andrews’ direction is restricted by the cell-sized stage but his actors do him proud.
Morris is a wordsmith, no doubt about it, but he does become repetitive, especially his American Girl. He’s also rather too inclined to diatribe. We only need to be told once, honestly. What counts though is that he has something to say, which he does, and that what he says is important. Guardians is rich and thought provoking, beautifully acted and an interesting commentary on some of the unexpected outcomes of the War on Terror.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Marvellous tales of morality
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 03rd Jun 2008
Intercut monologues are the theatrical fashion overseas. The American playwright Peter Morris joins Neil La Bute, Conor McPherson, and others, including John Donnelly whose excellent Bone is now playing at Circa, with an extremely powerful and provocative play about Iraq, or, as the young American prison guard in Guardians known as ‘American Girl’ says, "Eye-rak".
While we follow her story we also follow the story of ‘English Boy’, a caustic, cynical, amoral and thoroughly loathsome public school/Oxford educated young journalist who has aspirations of working as a columnist for The Guardian newspaper.
Both stories are loosely based on two true events that occurred at much the same time in 2004. Lynndie England was involved in the abuse of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison, while a British tabloid journalist gave The Daily Mirror fake photos of prisoners supposedly abused by British soldiers.
In the play both are in abusive relationships. She with a superior officer, who seems to have picked her out as easy prey because of her loveless, backwoods West Virginia upbringing; the journalist with a masochistic rent boy (picked up in a hellish S&M establishment) whom he says he loves and who is in the Territorial Army.
The play depicts not only how the war in Iraq has revealed the immorality of the so-called guardians of democracy from the White House to the lowliest grunt in the US army, but also, as English Boy says, that geopolitics and sexual politics are all the same and personal morality is diseased by it all. "I longed for a career in pornography. But why drive my mother to an early grave I thought." So he settled for journalism. "There’s no difference, really, is there?"
Damon Andrews has kept the production spare, direct and totally gripping.
And in Heather O’Carroll and Sam Snedden he has two actors giving marvelous performances and both breathing life into their rather stereotypical characters. She nicely balances the character’s lack of sophistication with the realization that she is a scapegoat, politically and sexually, while he with a wicked charm and honesty of intent is like Richard III, glitteringly loathsome and with most of the best and often very funny lines.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Voyeurism without empathy
Review by John Smythe 29th May 2008
A play of many words, that often plays on words, Guardians compares and contrasts an English ex-Guardian journalist, now a columnist, with an American woman ex-prison guard, once of Abu Ghraib, now incarcerated herself in a state penitentiary. She featured in the infamous photos of prisoner abuse. He perpetrated the subsequent fraudulent sequel.
The first thing to say is that Heather O’Carroll and Sam Snedden do a fantastic job of bringing these characters to life and making their stories riveting. But I have to add they’ve been set a task that’s harder than it should be because playwright Peter Morris – an American based in London – has simply not dramatised the stories.
Both characters are obliged to stand – or sit; this production gives them one chair with which to vary their postures – and deliver alternating past tense monologues for no apparent purpose, with no apparent result, in that their lives don’t change as a result of the telling. It has all already happened and this telling will make no difference, to them at least. The dramatic structure, such as it is, is in the peeling away of layers to get to a core of truth about faking it.
O’Carroll and Snedden do lock on to the emotional states and psychological mindsets that drive their characters through their stories. And certainly they are different people now than they were before she became the witless poster girl for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and he faked further photos in the hope of advancing his career. But dramatic as those experiences were at the time, they are only reported on now. Present action, which is what distinguishes drama from other forms of storytelling, is virtually absent.
Perhaps this is a product of contemporary playwrights not daring to require more than two actors in their work, because that will severely reduce its chances of getting produced. Except there are countless precedents of one or two actors delivering multi-character stories (NZ arguably leads the world in this). Or maybe Guardians is just Morris’s way of pitching the idea to a potential film or TV producer. The story content is certainly there for that, and the underlying themes of artifice and deceit could even validate the ruse.
Anyway. She’s a pig-ignorant country girl from West Virginia. He’s a well educated, urbane and morally corrupt product of an English boarding school education. All they have in common is their involvement in sexual abuse scenarios.
He is dominant in a gay relationship with the uber-submissive Portuguese boot boy who poses for his fake photos. She is submissive to the soldier who took her virginity (yes, Virginia, she was able to outrun her brothers). Like the boot boy, she prefers to take orders rather than responsibility for her own actions.
Both are parts of bigger machines they see as powered from far above; neither seems aware that they are part of the power source for the media moguls and political presidents the play tries to point to as the real ‘baddies’. And here’s where I think Morris has subverted what may be his own greater purpose. His imagined analysis of what led up to the photos being taken is entirely explained within the context of the sado-masochistic relationships, which offer nothing to support the idea that orders came down from the top.
More interesting is the proposition that red-neck Southern States communities and posh English boarding schools have much in common, as breeding grounds for sexual abuse. But whichever way you look at it, the only role the audience is offered is that of objective voyeur. There is little opportunity for empathy with either character. Nor do we, as New Zealanders, approach the political themes as Americans or British audiences might, from a position of active involvement and complicity. At best it is yet another warning to us not to let those values rule us.
Director Damon Andrews – who knows how good two-handers can be, because also directed Wheeler’s Luck and performed in Niu Sila, both much better-crafted plays – works well with the actors to overcome the dramaturgical limitations.
Snedden’s light, chatty motor-mouth pitches the witty repartee at just the right level to make the impact of the slowly surfacing horrors of his lifestyle all the more potent. O’Carroll is totally convincing as the innocent abroad, newly inculcated into the sordid realities of sex with violence.
Her revelation of how a young woman can find such experiences acceptable, and his cool dissection of how such actions may be perpetrated, are finally what makes this production worth witnessing. And yes, this is so because they honour the strength of Morris’s intelligent and perceptive, if undramatic, writing.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Dean Hewison June 7th, 2008For me, this play was a masterclass of acting. I haven't been hit with such talent at close range for a long time. Also, I didn't notice any directing, which is a testament to the excellent direction. You've got three days left - GO.
John Smythe June 3rd, 2008Mary-Anne, I’m glad you feel as you do and I agree about the performances; I have no issue with them. But I don’t think the past tense is a prerequisite for their characters “taking us into their confidence, telling us their most abject secrets.” I should also add I am very partial to moral dilemma plays, which Peter Morris specialises in, and I just would have liked to feel more connected from a ‘what would I do’ perspective.’ But hey, that’s just me. [See the Forum 'MONOLOGUES: reliving the past in the present tense v reporting on it in the past tense' for more on all this.]
Mary Anne Bourke June 3rd, 2008Yes, John, the critic should “question what may be reducing a play’s ability to fulfil its own potential” - as well as try to discern how a play comes to be riveting when that is the case. But to come up with something like the right answers in this, you have to ask the right questions. The dismay I felt on reading your review of ‘Guardians’ was that you appeared to be letting one of your prescriptive theories about drama hijack your piece and give the wrong impression of the show. I get the impression, even stronger now with a whole Forum devoted to it, that your prejudice about monologues may have blinded you to the merits of this play. I disagree with your point that the play succeeds despite the form the playwright has given it. I feel the material is made startlingly fresh and arresting because of its unconventional narrative form; because it creates the illusion of intimacy with the audience, that these characters are taking us into their confidence, telling us their most abject secrets. (So I hope you include lots of juicy monologues in the past tense in this new play you’re writing :) But I’m really writing now because I also failed to give these performances their due while focussing on your bloody review! I reckon Heather O’Carroll’s portrayal of the Lynndie England character is an artistic triumph and needs to be seen to be believed. Sam Snedden’s Machievellian hack is no less brilliant and all the more mesmerising for its louche, ‘thrown-away ‘quality. Bravo, buys, and to Damon too - choice move in stripping it back to the boards. John, I like that you gave us Grant Tilly’s words: that ‘there are no rules, all that matters is whether it works or not.’ So try something new. How else can the art evolve?
John Smythe June 2nd, 2008Mary-Anne, it’s not about wanting a play to be something other than it is. It’s just that when I find myself less engaged than I feel I ought to be, I have to ask why? Is it not valid for a critic question what may be reducing a play’s ability to fulfil its own potential? But rather than pursue the discussion of my "bugbear" here, I’ve opened up a forum: MONOLOGUES: reliving the past in the present tense v reporting on it in the past tense.
Mary Anne Bourke May 30th, 2008John, I fear you run the risk of damning this production with faint praise, in your determination to champion a ‘Guardians’ that does not exist (your idea of what the playwright should have done), rather than what is presented. Do you not think Morris might have considered ‘dramatisation’ and eschewed it? Is not the form taken one that might, by its difference - its direct address story-telling - be more effective in making us think about our own complicity in the moral bankruptcy of our age – even as (or perhaps, just after) we hang on every salacious word in this astonishing, disconcerting piece? Re. your bugbear about the Lyndie England character having a discernible place to stand and the English journalist not seeming to have: yes, she is doing time as the scapegoat, but with her feet firmly on the ground now in those prison shoes, explaining herself to us; do you not think it appropriate that he might seem to be floating in the moral limbo of his own unexpurgated guilt, still trying in his glib, slippery way to justify himself to us, ie. in a prison not made with walls, anywhere and everywhere the same, like the feeling-less hell he describes; tho not Abu Ghraib, emphatically ‘not The Guardian’? I'm saying let's open our minds to what's there and see what it might be saying. Not about the bees in your bonnet but about the play. A collaboration? Ah-huh! PROVOCATIVE PLAYWRIGHT PETER MORRIS BRINGS IRAQ TO THE LONDON FRINGE Young actors desperate to make their mark in the industry would do well to follow the recent example of two exceptional young graduates from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Seeking an innovative new work for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Hywel John and MyAnna Buring, both founding directors of the MahWaff Theatre Company, approached one of the fastest rising writing stars of the UK/US theatre scene, Peter Morris. Their resulting collaboration led to the creation of Guardians; an indelible exploration of the now infamous snapshots from Abu Ghraib and other atrocities committed in Iraq in the name of freedom.
John Smythe May 30th, 2008Good points Damon. As I’ve said, the dramatic content is all there, it’s just unnecessarily distanced by tense. Past tense reduces dramatic tension. I do realise that it is entirely natural for us to tell each other stories in the past tense. We do it all the time, hopefully in a context of relevance in order to contribute something to the conversation. Good stories well told can dramatically change our perceptions, understandings, values and beliefs. And yes, Guardians has that capacity at its core. But I still maintain that in a live theatre context, present action is more dynamic that reporting past events. Even just recounting past events in the present tense allows actors to place their characters back in the experience they are recalling with greater immediacy. (That also, incidentally, is why I ask Theatreview critics to evoke the action of the play they’re reviewing in the present tense, because that makes it seem more like a living thing – which it is.) When I have more time I may go into more detail as to how this particular bee got into my bonnet. Meanwhile I should add that in your production of Guardians, the simple act of having the American woman dressed in orange prison overalls and pacing the rostrum as if it’s a cell, raises an engaging question: where is she and why? She has a place to stand in her story, all the time in the world to consider her position, and I guess what she’s sharing with us – because we just happen to be there? – is what’s going over and over in her mind. I don’t recall the English man being similarly given a time and place to be, nor his own reason to tell his story to us, which I regard as a lapse in playwriting craft – and so easily remedied, it’s a shame it’s not. I’m not in the right place to check at present but what were those Neil LaBute monologues called that Oliver Driver and Mia Blake did a few years back? In each case we, the audience, are implicitly cast in the role of listener and given a place to be in direct relationship to the character and what they are revealing to us. This adds a great deal of dramatic value to our theatregoing experience.
Damon Andrews May 30th, 2008John I am surprised by the rigidity you seem to be imposing on the dramatic form. While “present action” is indeed the norm, I don’t think it is an essential component of theatre. In further support of this, I believe that Peter Morris’s play Guardians could be viewed as a masterful example of how dramatic action contrast to “present action”. In my experience many engaging stories are reported. The very fact that this reporting happens in the moment makes these stories dramatic. But is this theatre? I know, from my own experience, that New Zealand two handers are often theatrical in the extreme. But is this the only way that drama should be presented? For example is a story read on radio dramatic? If it is a dramatic tale that conjures images in the listeners mind, then I believe it is. Isn’t more interesting to test the boundaries of the form than slavishly confine oneself to the way you did it last time? I think your desire to see dramatic moments played out in the present has prevented you from enjoying Guardians for the evocative, challenging, intelligent piece of theatre it is. So, here is my version of the drama inherent in Guardians: Both characters in Guardians go on traditional dramatic journeys. English Boy begins the play as an aspiring Guardian columnist (not an ex Guardian Journalist as stated in your review). His objective - a dramatic imperative - is to gain power. In order to accomplish this, he faces, and overcomes challenges – personal and professional and makes irreversible emotional changes. The stakes are high and the eventual outcome leaves him numbly re-evaluating his ambition and the price he has paid to achieve his goals. To me English Boy’s story is clearly dramatic. It is also tragically human, and to my mind worthy of empathy. American Girl’s story is also told after the fact. As with her counterpart, part of the drama lies within the story recounted by the character – a tragic tale of how her naivety, and sense of powerlessness led her to a series of life changing events. Again this story is carefully constructed in line with all of the requirements of good drama – a clear objective, obstacles, turning points, an emotional upheaval, and character development. In addition to this, there is a sense that her character is changed by the very action of telling her story. Then Morris goes on to have American Girl directly challenge the audience’s complicity in world events. This adds another layer to the drama – potential conflict between the character and the audience. In lesser hands this risky manoeuvre may have degenerated into polemics or didacticism, but in Morris’s hands it is confronting and unsettling. I agree that as New Zealanders we don’t approach the themes of this play as British or American audiences might. However this doesn’t mean that this work isn’t relevant. It also doesn’t mean that we aren’t involved or complicit – as claimed in your review. Aren’t we, as New Zealanders, tacitly supporting the American and British invasion simply by continuing to reap the benefits of their international warmongering? As Peter Morris says – “we all buy toothpaste, right?” We also buy oil, and we read newspapers. We continue to trade with Britain and the USA. We consider them friends. I simply don’t believe we can continue to seek refuge in the excuse that New Zealand is just a small insignificant country at the bottom of the pacific that isn’t affected by international issues.