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Tricycle: the power of radical empathy

As London’s Tricycle Theatre celebrates 30 years of political engagement, Peace News interviews pioneering theatre director Nicolas Kent.

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Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle theatre. PHOTO: Milan Rai

The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London, marking its 30th anniversary this year, is world-famous for its “tribunal plays”, which have focused attention on crucial issues by bringing to new life transcripts of public inquiries. In 1994, Half the Picture dramatised the Scott arms to Iraq inquiry, followed by Nuremburg (on the 50th anniversary of the 1946 war crimes tribunal); Srebrenica; then the reconstruction of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, The Colour of Justice in 1999. In 2003, the Tricycle staged its second Iraq tribunal play, Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton inquiry. Its first Northern Ireland tribunal play, Bloody Sunday – Scenes from the Saville inquiry came in 2005.

The next two tribunal plays were based not on existing inquiries, but on the transcripts of interviews carried out for the Tricycle. First came Called to Account: The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq - a hearing. Interviews were carried out in a formal legal fashion for the prosecution and for the defence by lawyers from Matrix chambers. In 2004, Guantánamo - Honor Bound to Defend Freedom was based on interviews carried out by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo.

A departure from the tribunal format came in the summer of 2009 with the seven-hour trilogy The Great Game: Afghanistan, which featured three sets of four plays covering two hundred years of Afghan history. The Tricycle’s ninth tribunal play is Tactical Questioning – Scenes from the Baha Mousa inquiry, opening on 2 June.

From its very beginning, education and community activities have been an integral part of the Tricycle. In 2010, there were more than 46,000 attendances by young people to see films and plays, or to take part in workshops. In 2006, the Tricycle won a Special Award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for “its pioneering political work”. In 2010, the Tricycle won the Liberty Human Rights Arts Award. All of these plays have been initiated by Nicolas Kent, artistic director and risk-taker.

PN: The Tricyle is 30 years old and you’ve been here for 27 years. During that time, the Tricycle has spent a lot of time on conflicts, on wars of various kinds. There’s an earlier period of the Tricycle where its political focus was on issues that concerned the communities surrounding it that it’s embedded in here in Kilburn: the African diaspora, the war in Ireland and so on. There was commissioning and performances of plays written by people from those communities and of concern to people of those communities.

NK: We focused on the two hot wars that were going on in the 1980s, the one in South Africa, the war against apartheid, and the one in Northern Ireland, for civil rights for both communities. We took a lot of work from South Africa, we brought over a lot of work from the Market Theatre [in Johannesburg] particularly, which was a focus for protest against apartheid. Mainly because we had a large black community here, mainly a Caribbean community at that time.

They were all affected by Margaret Thatcher’s stand which was not against the apartheid regime, which she seemed to tolerate and accommodate. That fairly racist attitude seemed to spread and to be an insult in many ways to an awful lot of people in this country who were black , or of any racial minority, who felt that the regime in South Africa was completely abhorrent and the ANC opposition should be supported.

PN: For one or two of those plays that you brought over here, there were anti-apartheid protests against you – is that correct?

NK: You’ve done your research very well. With one of those plays we were picketed by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which was rather ironic because every time we took something from South Africa we cleared it with the ANC before we took it, and we talked to the ANC office here in London who referred it back to South Africa.

We had cleared that particular play, but they had made it very clear to us that under no circumstances were we to say that they had. So we had to walk across picket lines, Anti-Apartheid picket lines, knowing perfectly well that the future government of South Africa (once South Africa had rid itself of apartheid) approved of what we were doing. It was quite a difficult situation for a short period of time.

PN: There came a point where apartheid had fallen, the war in Ireland had wound down, the cold war had finished, and the Tricycle had a transition....

NK: In a way we’d lost our political mission. Our political mission had come, as you rightly point out, to begin with, from the community. And then we went on. Once the Berlin wall came down, I began to think, what should we in theatre be doing to influence politics that would be of use and importance.

I used to play tennis regularly with Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian. He was following the arms-to-Iraq inquiry [1992-1996] and he went on about it every Sunday. I knew very little about it and he used to regale us with Mrs Thatcher’s evidence or Alan Clark’s evidence or sir Nicholas Lyell’s evidence and it became very clear that this was reported in the newspapers in a very disjointed way.

I went down to the inquiry and no one was there. There were about three or four reporters and about two members of the public. I decided that maybe it would be a very good idea to try and put this on stage. Maybe there was a story.

I rang Richard up and said: What about trying to write a play about this? He said he was writing a book about it and he didn’t know how to do plays. I said: There’s John McGrath who runs the 7:84 [theatre] company, which was at the time focused on the fact that 7% of the country owned 84% of the wealth. Maybe with John they could put something together. So Richard edited the transcripts and John put some fictional linking pieces which went with the play.

My box office said they expected two men and a dog to come and see this. So they were going to take a holiday. We all did it as an experiment. When we put the whole thing together for the first time, because I’d been rehearsing separately with actors in pairs, with the counsel to the inquiry, who was the questioner, and the person playing the Tory minister or the arms expert as the responder. When we put it all together, the cast saw it for the first time and they said: This is terrific. And we knew we had something.

We opened it to not much booking, and within a day of the press night, the whole of the run had sold out. It became the hottest ticket in town. That really taught me that single-issue politics was really important. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of plays about Iraq, inevitably.

PN: Could I just pull you back? As I understand it, that wasn’t your first transcript-based play.

NK: When I was at the Oxford Playhouse, I did put together a transcript play with another writer, Guy Hibbert, who wrote a recent television series about oil and Nigeria, a very successful series. We did the [1979] Romans in Britain [obscenity] trial, but we did it as it happened, which had never been done before, and which created a little bit of a precedent for the [1985] Ponting [official secrets] trial.

PN: You ran into some trouble with the Romans in Britain trial play....

NK: Well, the court was closed for one day. You really have done your research [smiling]. The judge ruled as to whether we were in contempt of court by presenting this in Oxford. It shows how long ago it was: he finally ruled that it was outside the ambit of the jury as they were unlikely to travel to Oxford in the evening, and that most people went to bed he thought well before Newsnight, which had broadcast it, which was at 10.30 at night. I think nowadays a judge would understand that fairly often people go to bed after 10.30 at night.

PN: The Tricycle has dealt a lot with contemporary issues, involving Britain’s involvement in foreign affairs, you’re about to put on your fourth play about Iraq....

NK: This play, Tactical Questioning, is not really about Iraq, it’s more about the conduct of British soldiers in conflict, and it relates back to Northern Ireland, funnily enough. At the time of the hunger strikes, and interrogations, and internment in Northern Ireland, they were using hooding and some of the stress techniques, what are referred to as “the five techniques” before questioning: depriving people of sleep, food and water, putting people in stress positions, and hooding.

This was not a derogation, it was an actually breaking of the European convention on human rights, and [British prime minister] Edward Heath stood up in the houses of parliament in 1973 and said: Never again would anyone be questioned hooded or put into stress positions, never again would the five techniques be used when questioning people.

He gave that undertaking, and yet in 2003, 30 years later, this was happening in Iraq, in Basra. It had happened seemingly when the Black Watch were there, and it was happening when the 1st [battalion] queen’s Lancashire regiment were stationed there. [Since 2006, this unit has been known as the 1st battalion duke of Lancaster’s regiment, after a regimental merger.] This led to the death of [Iraqi civilian] Baha Mousa and maybe quite a lot of other deaths in custody. So it’s a very, very important issue.

The play is being performed after an inquiry has finished its oral hearings and before it issues its report, we think in June. It was going to be in late March and now we think it’s going to be in June.

PN: Looking back at these plays, which have dealt with live issues, Iraq, Guantánamo, and so on, I’m wondering what you would point to as the effect? Obviously, for the audience, it’s culturally enriching, it’s intellectually challenging, but for the wider social effects of this kind of theatre, what would you point to?

NK: Well, I think it makes people much more aware of injustice. They are single issues, but it gets people exercised about those issues and discussing them. I can give you a few examples. One of which doesn’t relate to Iraq, but to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, where we did the transcripts of the inquiry. It was seen here and then it went nationally on tour and then went to the West End. It was then broadcast on national television. 23% of the viewing public on a Sunday evening watched that programme which was almost two hours of the transcripts of the inquiry.
A lot of the people who came here felt strongly about it, and a lot of people who came here didn’t know much about it, and going away felt strongly the police had investigated this very badly. During that inquiry, the term “institutional racism” was not coined but came into common usage. I know that the police, for instance, used the video recording of that play for training in Hendon, and the Leicestershire police have used it for racial awareness for police. It’s been a very good training tool and it has affected a lot of people about their attitudes to policing the ethnic communities.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who now, when they see a black or Asian person being stopped, will stand back but will want to know why the police have stopped that person, not to interfere but to be aware that maybe something wrong is happening here. I hope less so now because the police have become much more responsible than they were at the time of that inquiry.

PN: You have pointed in the past to two different kinds of social effects. One of them is to do with the personal impact of an immersive, sometimes extended experience in the theatre. For example, you pointed to someone who ended up as a prime ministerial advisor on genocide, who started on their path after seeing the Tricycle’s Nuremburg tribunal play. There’s another kind of effect, where, for example, in relation to Tony Blair, in relation to Iraq, putting on those plays had added 0.001% more pressure on him.

NK: That was in connection with Guantánamo, about the release of British prisoners. When we put on that play [Guantánamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”], the British nationals had been released [from the US detention centre on Guantánamo], but not the British residents.
I think the fact that Tony Blair sees there’s a play on at the West End which is later going to New York, about this issue, makes him focus maybe a little more on this issue. It’s interesting that the government, towards the time, after the time we did the play [2004] – I don’t think it was the effect of the play, the play might have had the tiniest fractional, percentage effect – they started to get more and more strident about the fact that British residents should not be held on Guantánamo.

Certainly the attorney general got more and more strident about that. Negotiations were held and eventually those residents were released. I think Guantánamo should be closed. It’s a terrible blot on human rights that it’s allowed to operate.

There are lots of issues like that. I think that with Tactical Questioning, this play about the Baha Mousa inquiry, as you immerse yourself in the evidence you tend to feel more and more strongly as you go on learning more about it: that these terrible techniques are a form of torture, definitely a form of torture.

People sort of say: Well, they’re deprived of sleep a bit and they might give information. That information is never going to be valid if it’s got under those sort of conditions and that sort of stress for people. Not only is it going to be unsafe to rely on and won’t be admitted in court, but it shows what a dreadful society we’re living in, that we tolerate that sort of treatment of other people.

The more you expose people and put the boot on the other foot, you make them realise that the people who’re being treated like this are perhaps mothers and fathers themselves, and have mothers and fathers and are like you and me, and they have children and one should have empathy with those people.

The core value of Peace News is that we shouldn’t have wars and the core value of a theatrical experience in a way is to try and provoke an audience to empathy, to empathise more and more with people, and as a result of that empathy maybe to try and make them understand that wars and conflicts and arguments and hurting people all are very, very unnecessary and there are other ways of resolving things in a civilised community.

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"Do mention the cinema," he said as I left. PHOTO: Milan Rai

PN: That probably answers my next question, which was going to be: for someone who was completely uninterested in theatre, but very concerned with these issues, the question they might ask is: Does this make injustice and war less likely?

NK: I think that anything that makes people think about another person unselfishly, what they might be going through, what their motives and objectives are, means that you subjectively begin to understand a little bit more that issues aren’t black and white. There are all sorts shades of grey and maybe some behaviour you think is terrible is understandable in some way and maybe, through that understanding of it by you, you can get people to change it if it isn’t civilised behaviour. But firing bullets at people and killing people doesn’t seem to me to be a solution. All it does is breed more people who have felt injustice and who resort to arms to deal with that injustice.

PN: That leads to the plays you commissioned around Afghanistan, and your changing view of the war as you investigated it more deeply.

NK: Well, I started by thinking the war was completely wrong. I think it is a very difficult war because there are shades of grey. I don’t think you can have such a thing as a “war on terror” because you can’t go to war on a noun. It just seems completely ridiculous. But obviously the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was pretty horrendous but the civil war [beforehand] was in many ways even more horrendous.

So you had a situation in the very late 1980s and the 1990s, during the civil war, where millions of people were being killed. Then you went down to, certainly, hundreds of thousands of people being killed. Then you went down to tens of thousands once the Taliban took control. Now you’re down to, with Operation Enduring Freedom, many less people being killed than were killed in the two preceding decades.

It doesn’t make it right, but the level of people being killed and injured in Afghanistan is lower now than it was 20 years ago, and that can only be a good thing.

What is a bad thing, it seems to me, is there has been a complete lack in many ways of the West explaining their mission in Afghanistan. I’ve talked to people doing polling in Afghanistan and when you talk to Afghans, very few people put together the events of 9/11 as the reason why Afghanistan was invaded by America. They can’t see the cause and the motive. They see them as completely separate events.

Not only that, they can’t see why the other nations, there are 41 nations in the ISAF coalition that are there, why they’re there. They don’t understand that an attack on America is an attack on other nations. The polling people were going in and explaining to people: Well, look, if your cousin is murdered, then you have a duty to defend your cousin and it’s very much the same sort of situation. I don’t think near enough effort has been put into reconstruction. I think there has been a huge amount of corruption.

PN: You’ve been to Kabul. What did you learn from that?

NK: Kabul surprised me. I saw much less poverty than I expected to see. I very much liked the Afghans I met. I met quite a lot of Afghans who had no vested interest in meeting me. Maybe they were saying what they thought I as a westerner would want to hear, but (this was three years ago) they were on the whole supportive of the west being there and very unsupportive of the Taliban. But that maybe a metropolitan sentiment rather than a rural sentiment. In the villages, probably, the attitudes are very different.

In fact, in the end, what a lot of people want is: water, power, food – when I say power I mean electric power – and to be able to carry on their life without the interruption of constant war. To some extent, that life seems to be coming back in Helmand, and there seem to have been very positive advances there recently. We shall see, I suppose, as we come up to this summer season whether the insurgency has been broken or whether this is just a respite, and it will go on.

I don’t know about the exit strategy; I don’t know whether it is going to work, but I think the worst possible thing that could happen in Afghanistan would be for it to be thrown back into the most terrible civil war that it had. You see when you go to Kabul, the results not of the Russian invasion but of the absolutely disastrous shelling of Kabul by [warlord Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and his forces [in 1992-3], which reduced most of it to rubble, in the civil war. The worst period in Afghan history in many ways, for fatalities, seems to have been the civil war.

PN: Talking about the Afghanistan plays leads to a somewhat cheeky question.

NK: I know what it’s going to be.

PN: You might know what part of it is going to be! The question is: A Conservative government helped to rebuild the Tricycle after it was burned down. You’ve received national lottery funding. Sandhurst cadets were sent here. The Great Game production was invited to the Pentagon. Some people would ask: is the Tricycle “radical” or is it part of the establishment?

NK: Well, I would hope it was radical. I could equally point to Half the Picture, which was hopefully a terrible indictment of the Thatcher government and its arms policy; Guantánamo, which was a pretty strong indictment of the Labour government; the Hutton inquiry, which was a strong indictment, putting Tony Blair on trial for the crimes of aggression in Iraq while the Labour government was still in power. I would say those were pretty radical points of view. Deepcut, which we hosted here, which we didn’t put on ourselves, or the Stockwell inquiry [a Landor Theatre transcript play on the police killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, performed at the Tricycle in 2009].

I think we’ve thrown up a lot of issues and I’m very proud that we won the Liberty human rights award last year for our work on the Great Game and on Deepcut and on the de Menezes inquiry and the work we’ve been doing in general. I would say that I don’t think we are in any way party political, we’re political with a small “p”.

Maybe we’re not radical enough, we could always be challenged to be more radical. Going to the Pentagon seemed to me to be an absolute no-brainer. There were a lot of people in the peace movement who said: Why the hell are you going to the Pentagon? It seems to me to be a very good idea to go to the biggest military force in the world and say to them: Do you understand Afghan history? Do you understand what’s happening here? Because a better understanding will make you a better peacekeeping force. And that is the mission in Afghanistan. The mission is not an invasion force, it’s now a peacekeeping force, ISAF, led by the Americans. That force, if it understands more about reconstruction, about the history, about the tribal history of Afghanistan, will work better with the population there and hopefully less atrocities will be committed.

I’m really going back to my first thesis in this whole interview: that the more you can put yourself in other people’s shoes, the more you will actually understand people, understand their motives, their desires, their wishes, their hates, their loves, whatever, and presumably then you can actually try and negotiate or in some way avoid conflict.

And in the end, if the Afghan plays had any message at all I think it was (1) understand Afghan history and (2) there would of necessity have to be, to resolve this, negotiations with the Taliban. My personal view is that there should be an international conference of the protagonists in this area. Because basically the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is a lot of the reason the Afghan war is happening. The India-Pakistan conflict is providing fuel all the time to what is happening in Afghanistan, because both countries want the upper hand there. I don’t know whether people know but there are more Pakistani troops on the border with India than there are on the border with Afghanistan, though, as we know, these are the tribal areas where it was thought that bin Laden was (but obviously wasn’t).

PN: Several of the plays you’ve had here have been on television, and have reached very large audiences that way. A play which is put on here in the theatre will be seen by 10,000 people: for those 10,000 people, you argue, the play is a superior experience to other forms.

NK: It’s more immersive, it’s much more immersive. It’s much more long-term. You can’t turn it off, you can’t duck out of it, so that it’s bound to have more of an impact on you, I think. You’re seeing it along with other people whose reactions may be different to yours but there’s a communal reaction to the whole experience. You experience it together. It has a sacredness about it which is very important, I think.

Whereas if you’re watching alone, a television, or you’re reading a newspaper, you can either turn the page or switch the television off or switch channels. You cannot do that in the theatre.

PN: A similarly collective experience would be going to the cinema to see a documentary.

NK: Which is more akin to the theatre. But it doesn’t have that specialness of knowing that this is a one-off experience, what you are experiencing with the actors is a unique occasion. In the film, it is the same every night. It doesn’t change. It’s on celluloid or in a digital format, but it is exactly the same film. So you have the component that the audience might change, so one half of the experience might change. In the theatre, both halves might change. The actors might deliver it differently or in some way they might empathise or you might have a communication with that actor.

In the same way as talking to you, my communication changes as I talk to you – whether you’ve researched it, how much you’ve researched it, your empathy with me or whether you’re going to try and antagonise me or whether you’re going to try and be friendly. I’m watching for signals and those sort of signals you’re picking up in the theatre all the time and that’s very exciting.

PN: And does that add to the political impact of this art form?

NK: I think it adds to the long-term impact, which might add to the political impact. I think the highest compliment I ever had was – a long time ago I did a South African called Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act by Athol Fugard. A woman came up to me a year later when we went back to that same theatre in Southampton (with another play) and she said to me: I just want you to know that I’m a nurse and when I saw your play I decided to work in Africa and I’ve been there for a year because of that play, because it moved me so much. We also had a play here about AIDS in South Africa by the satirist Pieter Dirk-Uys [Foreign Aids, in 2001]. There were two doctors who came to see it and they went up to him afterwards and said: We were going to go on holiday in the south of France tomorrow but now we’re going to change our tickets and we’re going to work in South Africa for the next two weeks helping AIDS victims.

I think theatre is completely transformative for some people. It may be a slow thing. You may see 20 plays and then suddenly decide you’re going to change your thing, change your life a little. It may never change you but some people it does change and it provides healing, too, for some people.

There were six marines who came to see the Afghan plays as part of the Pentagon thing. All six when they returned had been divorced by their wives because they couldn’t re-integrate effectively back into society. And we did a play, the last play in the Afghan cycle, which was about precisely that and those marines said they found the play very healing because they suddenly realised that it wasn’t just them, that this was a major issue that people were discussing, and seeing it on stage helped them.

There are extraordinary things that happen to people in the theatre. I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool and I’m very excited still about what theatre can do.

PN After 27 years of running a theatre!

Tactical Questioning: Scenes from the Baha Mousa Inquiry. Edited by Richard Norton-Taylor. Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR, 2 June to 2 July. £12 Mon 8pm, midweek matinees; £18 Tues-Fri 8pm, Sats 4pm; £22 Sat 8pm. Box office: 020 7328 1000 or book online: www.tricycle.co.uk On 16 September 2003, Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa died after being arrested by the British army in Basra. A post-mortem revealed he had suffered from asphyxiation, and had received at least 93 injuries to his body while in the army’s custody. Tactical Questioning brings together scenes from the public inquiry into Baha Mousa’s death, which examined the shocking events that took place over those two days of detention, and the British army’s treatment of detainees

Topics: Culture