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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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]
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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