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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Behind The Fantasy Terrorist Variations

[The play The Project After discussed below can be heard as an audio recording here. http://www.frequencytheatre.co.uk/play/the-project-after/ - Updated 2016]

I'm a person who can get a little carried away.  I'm aware of this.  In fact, the awareness of the fact has made me a little careful of late.  Whereas my younger self would run with something and promptly fall off the edge of a cliff, I have of late hung back.  This was not inherently a bad thing at times, but it isn't a habit to get stuck in.  In the past I have taken on projects simply because they were there.  A few basic plans were made, but there was a lot of running blind and going on instinct.  With the exception of a few notable disasters this has steered me into interesting and successful territory.  But this impulse has faded.
Well, it did until I fell ill.  There's nothing like sitting around feeling sorry for oneself to help get your convictions set out in a row.  But I'm careful not to let my personal convictions get in the way of the work.  Which is what leads us to my current project and my fear of getting carried away, of causing offence, of letting my convictions stand too proud.

I have mentioned, in passing in this blog, the new show The Fantasy Terrorist Variations.  It is a work in progress, probably always will be, dealing in short plays with the issues of terrorism, politics, civil liberties and religion.  And it is the religious part that causes me trouble - not in the sense that I have much doubt about the nature of religion, my personal convictions are quite clear; not in writing the plays, not in producing them - but in the presentation of them in publicity.  If you've seen any of my plays you will have noticed that gods and magic get a fair amount of time on stage.  This is because this is where gods and magic belong.  In fiction.  They are lovely plot devices, ways of testing the mettle of your characters and shouldn't be seriously applied to the real world.
This is not a particularly safe opinion to hold, historically.  For most of history, professing this view of the universe would have got me killed.  In some parts of the world, it will still get me killed.  And you will have noticed, if you haven't been living under a rock, that the world and religion are having issues at the moment.  Offence is being taken across the globe and any additional opinion, any debate, does not necessarily go down well.  I've been sitting on a press release for The Fantasy Terrorist Variations for a month now as one of the plays plays with ideas of belief and religious belief and fear and lots of stuff, and so, not particularly inclined to add fuel to the flames or, more importantly, to look as if I were trying to profit from them, I sat on it.  Adjusted it.  Watered it down.  In the Middle East people have died, there are enormous issues at stake, and a small late night fringe show should not attempt to elbow its way into the limelight by jumping on the back of what is happening.
BUT... but... is that the real reason why I haven't told anyone about a play, The Project After, 1/3 of the show FTV, that deals with the prophet Mohammed?  Am I doing this to avoid being a cynical callous bastard, trying to sell tickets off the back of many deaths and the news scrum that ensued, or... am I doing this (not doing this) because I'm afraid.  Because of THE FEAR.  I mean, I have to publicise this show eventually, don't I?  I have to tell people sometime.  So why... weeks after the riots in Libya etc. have I not sent out anything?  I think it's because I'm afraid.
We, dear readers of this blog, can discuss this issue, can't we.  We can talk about it here.  No one is watching.  I can always cut out all the dangerous sounding religious stuff from the press release and talk about this stuff here.  Some kind of publicity can go ahead.  The safe, unnoticed kind.
The Fantasy Terrorist Variations has its starting point in a play I wrote in 2005.  The play Fantasy Terrorist League was about internment, about how someone like me - explicitly me in the first version - would cope with being locked away without trial or any human rights.  This examination of injustice, bald, clear cut, was balanced out (so as not to be agit-prop) by centring the piece on a love story, by making all the actions personal, by making the centre character just a bit unreliable and the whole nature of what happened to him debatable.
It was this blurring of lines that has led to the Variation project.  Looking at ideas circling the 'war on terror' as it was once called, from different perspectives, questioning the value of the speaker, displaying their bias, known or unknown.  The important element of that play, and the others that make up The Fantasy Terrorist Variations, are that they are full of people who are human, unreliable, that any message included in the work is seen through the prism of the human, not social theory.  That means that I have to be brave enough to introduce characters who undermine their own argument, to make people act like people and so say things quite casually, which leads to them saying things which border on the sexist, racist and intolerant.  These people may not really mean to be so, they would be horrified to be thought of as any of the above - but how many of us haven't been caught out saying something casually, whilst a little worse for drink perhaps, what we really think, which challenges our own perceived beliefs about what we think we think.  These little Freudian slips drive these play and hopefully gives them power.  Of course, they also open up the danger of misinterpretation.
The second play of the trilogy (currently it's still a trilogy, but I can see at least three more variations on the horizon) is Keynote Speaker whose central character is fairly unreconstructed.  He's a bit of a geezer, even if he has gone up in the world, who can't quite see the ironies inherent in some of the things he says.  His variation on the original story is to take internment and attempt to make money out of it.  He actually plans to get interned so that he can claim compensation - he even converts to Islam to make himself look like a better terrorist suspect, because in his eyes all Muslims are terrorists.  Whilst he whizzes from one generalisation after another, the Muslims he encounters in this story, rather than being terrorists, are the only people who act decently.  He is quite disappointed in this fact as it slightly ruins his plan.
This is where we reach the difficult play of the trio in FTV, the one that could appear to cause offence.  This is the play about fear.  My fear of offence.  Even though it shouldn't cause offence.  It isn't offensive at allThe first play was about government power and it's abuse.  The second play turns this power on its head, making those who we are told to fear into the closest we get to heroes.  But variation three, The Project After, is about another side of this world of 'terror'.  It is about the fear.  It is about the fear that drives western liberals when facing (or not facing) up to the world of fundamentalist Islamic belief.  The 'War on Terror' and the government reactions to it are reflected in plays 1 and 2.  Play 3 is all about the fear that drives these reactions and how we relate to it.  Because we (massive generalisation here, but we'll move on) in the West do fear fundamentalist attitudes, we fear to debate these issues, because we see what happens to people who do.  Because there are a great number of people in the world who do not discuss, do not debate, people who will and do kill to protect their God.  A small fraction of people who hold this view have attempted and succeeded in killing people who hold the same views as I do.  I.e. That freedom of speech is more important than offence.  And somehow I have to write a play about this and not get trapped in the fear itself.
Now, even positing such a simple point I'm already engaging in generalisation - people will and do argue that Islam is a peaceful religion, that there are plenty of moderates around the world.  I am, of course, not worried about the moderates.  Moderates will just talk to you sternly, they don't stab your translator or shoot your publisher.
And, with that qualification about moderates you can see I'm already reacting to a pressure not to say something inflammatory.  I'm reacting to the fear, the fear that these words and the ones that follow, the ones that I will put into a play, will get me threatened and or killed.  Regardless whether this will happen or not (and I doubt it will) the fear is there. There is part of me that is trying to stop me from engaging an idea.
Sadly, ideas are often not welcome in this world.  If I lived in Pakistan I could be under sentence of death for writing The Project After or for mentioning out loud many of the views that I hold.  This isn't exaggeration.  There is a blasphemy law in Pakistan that makes the expression of the ideas I hold punishable by death.  And it isn't alone in the world in this regard.  It is somewhat ironic to find myself writing a play about fear of offending Muslims, whilst actually fearing the consequences.  And it's not as if I'm actually attacking the religion.  I'm just debating how far fear can go to stop us thinking.
I am, speaking personally, an arch atheist.  I believe, pretty strongly, that I and everyone else in the world is probably wrong about most things and that we shouldn't worry too much about it.  This is especially true of religion, about which everybody is even more wrong than everybody else about, precisely because they are so convinced that they are right about it.  I, everyone, should be able to live in a world where such thoughts expressed should come as no surprise.  It is self evident to me that the world of religion is a bubble that has been comprehensibly burst, that many terrible evils are still needlessly committed in its name, that it is my duty to the future and our present to not be beaten down by fear and not speak out.  In the case of this play the religion has to be Islam, because that is the religion we fear, that is the religion which was engaged with in the 'War on Terror'.  If I get round to writing another variation on the war on terror from the American viewpoint, well let's just say right wing Christians will be in as much of a spotlight.  Except I'm considerably less afraid that a right-wing Christian would kill me for doing so.  Though this is not unknown either.
All this aside, as a playwright I don't write polemics.  I write people.  They maybe caught within morality tales, but their actions should not necessarily be moral, the outcome needs not come out in any pat moral way.  Both Fantasy Terrorist League and Keynote Speaker are coloured by the very real possibility that both narrators are lying.  That we should not take their side absolutely.  In FTL this is because the subject of the piece is slightly unreliable, in Keynote because the man is a shyster.  In The Project After the characters are an artist and his dealer, two people with radically different opinions as to the purpose of art and so take different positions in the debate.
And so we return to the question of fear - fear of offence, of breaking a taboo.  And the most obvious taboo of our age is talking about Mohammed.  People die on a regular basis for this man, either because they said something against him or because they have suggested that his life story is not wholly consistent.  It doesn't actually matter to me if he did exist (someone like him probably did) or whether he had a hot line to God (I don't believe that he did) what does matter is that no one should die because they question him or, as the most obvious example points out, depict him.
Let me make it clear, The Project After does not depict Mohammed.  In this, I suppose, I'm a coward as it is a concession to fear.  (Why shouldn't I draw a picture of him, it won't actually harm anyone?)  The play does, however, deal with an attempt to depict him.  It's a play about art and about an invitation to draw a picture of Mohammed.  As a situation it feeds on fear - the fear of the cast, the fear of the author, the fear of the audience.  No one does draw a picture of Mohammed.  This isn't because I'm a coward, but because I'm not performing the play myself.  It's one thing to write something that will question belief systems and so set oneself up for opprobrium, it is another to incite my cast to do it for me and so put themselves in the line of fire.  It's hardly sporting.
The play is entirely driven by conceptual attacks on religious certainty, and is an attempt to make people think, rather than a physical provocation.  Even within this form it was enough for one of the cast to cry out (rather inappropriately): "Oh Jesus Christ!" when the nub of the dilemma is laid out.  Fear again, plus a sense of exhilaration at seeing something that questions, that is rightly probing.
I don't want to go into too much detail of the content of the play (as otherwise what incentive would you have to watch it?) but here is the untrailer for The Project After, play 3 of The Fantasy Terrorist Variations.  It covers the thrust of the argument of the play.



Needless to say (if you've read the above properly and I've done my job effectively) the characters that are caught up in this issue are not perfect.  Their debate is flawed because of their own interests, their class, their humanity.  The worry is that people watching will react to them and not the play, confusing the medium for the message.  But that's just a risk I will have to take.

But then again, it's a risk I have already taken, having dealt with the evil of blasphemy laws before.  In 2007 I wrote a one-off monologue called The Bear Named Mo- which was written is response to an incident in the Sudan, where a teacher, Gillian Gibbons, was arrested for naming a class teddy bear, Mohammed.  It didn't matter that it was a member of the class who named the teddy bear or that Mohammed was the inevitable choice a. because it was the boy's name and b. as it's a pretty prevalent name in those parts, she was arrested.  Her punishment could have been a prison sentence or forty lashes. Crowds of thousands of people gathered after Friday prayers demanding that she be put to death.  She was, eventually, released.  The school where she worked was then closed down.  Considering that the person who allegedly spoke against her to the authorities worked at the school and disapproved of how it operated (teaching by and for women for example) you could say the closing of the school was the primary aim of the whole affair.  The forces of ignorance really won out that day.
My response was comic - the same story, but where the teddy is a. actually alive and b. where the bear was in fact named Mo Socks III and a member of the teddy bears picnic club, whose members would go on to attempt to rescue him.  The same fate of arrest awaited my heroine, though in my version via a misunderstanding.  In the course of the public cries for her death and the destruction of the teddy (we never did find out what happened to the teddy bear in the real case) leads to a pyre being made of children's toys, all ripped from the hands of infants, as a cleansing act.  The pair are only saved by the children turning on their parents, en masse and asking why?  Why were they doing this?  It didn't make sense?  Wishful thinking, of course.
Of course, to many millions of people, this simple tale of a teddy bear is probably enough provocation to see them wish me dead or at least silenced.  But that isn't to say the play was provocative.  It, again, never named the bear as Mohammed, it wasn't disrespectful of Islam at all, placing the uproar more in the hands of a corrupt government (more true than I thought at the time).  But the point is that the discussion is the blasphemous part.  To even ask a question, in ignorance, can and has been enough to put people behind bars.
None of this isn't, incidentally, why the script wasn't published or why I didn't perform it again.  It's because the piece heavily features various fictional bears, which would require far too many literary clearances to make it worth my while.  I've nearly gone to the trouble more than once, but it was also based on a very specific case and much of it only worked as a specific satire of the time.  I haven't found any follow up about the case - perhaps Ms Gibbons, reasonably enough, hasn't wanted to revisit the incident.
But it was a good example of how my principles came second to a sense of self preservation.  A week before the piece was to be performed I got a call from Look East, the local B.B.C. news programme for the eastern counties.  I was naturally delighted, publicity like this does not come to theatre often.  And then they started asking if I was insulting the prophet Mohammad?  Would it cause offence?  (That word offence again.)  And I was grovelling in my attempts to make it clear that there was nothing, nothing at all, no, just no, it couldn't possibly be interpreted that way.  Which, naturally, nulled any news value and I heard nothing more.  Within days the teacher was released and my little satire was no longer news.  I performed to a nice local audience, no one complained.
I was suitably ashamed of myself.  It's not that I wanted to insult people, but the knee jerk 'don't offend anyone' response was pathetic.  My response was driven, not by the accurate description of the piece (which it was) but by fear.  And fear is not something we should have to deal with.
So nuts to the fear, nuts to my own imagined terrors and nuts to those who wish to impose their views on others through violent means.  The Fantasy Terrorist Variations will deal with the issues I wish to deal with, it may or may not cause offence, and I will not change a word because of the fear.
Now I will await your indifference.

Milk Bottle Productions Presents...
The Fantasy Terrorist Variations
Written by Robert Crighton, performed by Keith Hill and Simon Nader

A series of stories spun from the award-winning ‘Fantasy Terrorist League’.  A man is interned as a terrorist on the flimsiest of grounds, a chancer looks how to make money out of counter-terrorism and the story of the non-existent artwork that might get people killed. The Fantasy Terrorist Variations is a powerful account of fear, the policeman on our streets and the ones in our heads.
Running Tuesday to Saturday from 27th November 2012 to 5th January 2013 at 9pm
Tuesdays to Saturdays Only at 9pm – Doors Open at 8.50pm
Tickets: £12 / £10 concessions
Barons Court Theatre, “The Curtain’s Up”, 28A Comeragh Road W14 9HR             
Nearest Tube:  Barons Court (Piccadilly/District Lines)
No performances on Mondays, Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Years Day

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