Fallujah: the Musical (almost)

An Assault in Iraq, a Stage Hit in London
Paul J. Need

Published: May 29, 2007
LONDON, May 28 — Soon after Falluja became a symbol of the horrific violence and aggressive American tactics in Iraq, the theater director Jonathan Holmes listened to a group of British generals and journalists conduct a post-mortem on what had happened during the assault on that town. Mr. Holmes, antiwar in his beliefs but a newcomer to war talk, was struck by the drama of the dialogue, the surprisingly articulate nature of the soldiers, even their charisma, as they thrashed out the what-ifs.

“This guy came and he looked like Sam Neill and he seemed to be sincerely devoted to doing things better,” Mr. Holmes said of one of the British generals at that seminar, held at Oxford. “I took down what they said, and it was immediately theatrical.”

Thus the play “Fallujah,” now at the Old Truman Theater in London’s East End, was born. The play (which uses the preferred British spelling in its title) is the latest entrant in the growing canon of documentary theater that concentrates on Iraq.

Mr. Holmes has tried to convey the 2004 assault on Falluja, when the Americans used a ferocious strategy to re-establish control of the town after the massacre of four American contract workers, whose mutilated bodies were dragged through the streets and strung from a bridge.

At the time of the attack, described by officials as an attempt to pacify the place and empty it of enemy insurgents, many civilians fled, and journalists were kept out. In the aftermath the United States military said that most of those killed had been military-age males, and that the high number of dead attested to the accuracy of the marines.

Using what he calls “eyewitness testimonies” for the script and the overpowering sound effects of rocket fire and low-lying helicopters, Mr. Holmes has fashioned a play that focuses on the traumas of those trapped in the town.

The script is based, he said, on the accounts of people — soldiers, doctors, aid workers and fleeing civilians — who were in or around the scene. They include Jo Wilding, a British antiwar activist who went to Iraq to perform as a clown, and a freelance Canadian journalist, Dahr Jamail, whose accounts were used by Mr. Holmes to create the character Sasha, a television reporter.

Sasha rails against the Americans and complains that some of her reports are not being shown because they are “too passionate.”

The characters also include an Iraqi aid worker, a Christian Iraqi cleric, American soldiers who spout hatred for the Iraqis and British soldiers who show contempt for the Americans.

The anti-American theme is relentless. A British soldier, a member of the coalition forces, calls the assault totally unacceptable and theorizes that “war is an American way to teach geography.” Mr. Holmes says the dialogue of the soldiers comes from several British military men who served in Iraq and helped him understand what had happened.

The play is being staged in a loftlike unused brewery that has been converted into a theater. The props — a Red Cross ambulance, hospital beds, rows of hazardous-materials suits and stylized corpses representing the contractors — are scattered across the floor and along the white walls.

The actors walk on and off a set that resembles an art installation, designed by the Paris-based artists Lucy and Jorge Orta. As they move around the space — an American sniper explaining that he must “completely demoralize the enemy,” agonized aid workers complaining that they can’t reach the needy — the audience follows with them.

For those who don’t want to stand, folding chairs are provided. And if the crowd around the actors gets too dense, television screens hung from the walls convey the action for those who cannot see well.

With antiwar sentiment running deeper in Britain than in the United States, the play has found a ready audience in its monthlong run, which ends on Saturday. Surprisingly, the conservative Daily Telegraph gushed with enthusiasm; The Guardian, a liberal daily, dismissed the effort as too preachy.
On a recent night the audience appeared to be decidedly sympathetic to the high-pitch antiwar message. Young men and women with backpacks and older peaceniks and locals from Brick Lane, where the theater is located in a heavily Bangladeshi neighborhood, mixed easily with the actors.

Mr. Holmes, 31, a senior lecturer in the department of drama at Royal Holloway, University of London, attracted heavyweight help from the theater world. The Shakespearean actress Fiona Shaw gave advice on the script.

Imogen Stubbs, known in Britain for her classical stage performances, plays Jo, the British activist, and tells a compelling story of American soldiers preventing her ambulance from reaching a woman giving birth. At another point she is kidnapped and shakes uncontrollably with fear as Iraqi captors taunt her, saying they will fight for 100 years.

The denunciations of the United States are severe, particularly in the scenes that deal with the use of napalm in Falluja, an allegation made by left-wing critics of the war but never substantiated.

But Mr. Holmes makes no pretense of objectivity. He writes in the introduction to a book about the play and its origins that the theater offers the chance to “publicize the disgrace and to condemn it noisily.” He strove for authority more than authenticity, he said.

Unlike another documentary play, “Guantánamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,’ ” “Fallujah” breaks with the usual approach in such productions of having the actors sitting on the stage reading scripts.

“On a purely theatrical level, I wanted to do something different from four actors delivering monologues,” Mr. Holmes said. “That approach is like a radio play, quite sad. It gives a sense of avoiding theatricality because of the serious material. I wanted a way to have people think about it more abstractly.”

A starting point for the presentation was the work of the Ortas, whose installation art revolves around themes of society and the military. “I had always seen her work as a set waiting for a play,” Mr. Holmes said of Lucy Orta. “When I approached her, she leapt at it.”

To bring the drama closer to home, Mr. Holmes closes the play with Condoleezza Rice, played by a young Zimbabwean actress, Chipo Chung, who uses a Southern accent far more pronounced than that of the real secretary of state.

Ms. Chung, dressed in a trim “Condi” suit, stands at a pulpit of a Midwestern church and talks of how America’s belief in faith will help overcome those people “who are trying to shake our will.” It’s an unsettling ending after 90 minutes of blanket violence and injustice."

Thoughts, anyone? I've italicised what I thought were interesting points. While the audience sound like cnuts, I've noticed that lefty civilians (like the playwright) have always been impressed by soldiers that they've met- problem is, they rarely meet any.

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