Edinburgh Fringe 2009
This is a superb production of Nichola McAuliffe’s riveting play about how her husband, Mirror journalist Don Mackay, and herself managed to free a British subject, Mirza Tahir Hussain, from a Pakistani jail at which he’d been on death row for 18 years (exactly half his life). With the dry humour that fans of McAuliffe will know from her many London performances and an unsentimental passion totally appropriate for this extraordinary true story, this is the best new play I’ve seen in Edinburgh for years.
When he was 18, Leeds-born Mirza Tahir Hussain went to Pakistan. Within 24 hours he was in jail for the murder of a taxi driver. He claimed this was in self defense – the driver had wanted money and sex. He was on death row for seven years, in a hellish prison where he owns a bucket and nothing else. He was to be released on appeal but then, at the last second, was imprisoned again- this time under sharia law. Another eleven years passed. Then Mirror journalist Don Mackay (powerful Tom Cotcher) went to interview him and so began a mission to get him released. His wife, actress Nichola McAuliffe (here playing herself, amongst others, with great wit and lightness of touch) provided first moral support in the form of praying to Saint Jude (the Patron Saint of Lost Causes) and then by writing to Prince Charles for help in seeking clemency. Throughout, her belief was that miracles can happen. Here they did.
This astonishing story is told in a tightly-written, frequently witty, episodic one act play. It is a riveting thriller of both precision and concision in which four actors play multiple roles as the race against time and fate speeds towards what seems like an inevitable and tragic conclusion. Hannah Eidinow’s swift and minimalist production is aided hugely by Mark Jonathan’s lighting and an evocative sound score from Tom Lishman which allows the simple movement of people and a few sticks of furniture to hurtle us through the story. Kulvinder Ghir brilliantly navigates his multiple roles including Hussain’s brother and various officials, including one who is a somewhat surprising fan of Noel Coward. It’s the wit of the play that makes its more compelling moments so powerful when they come.
And come they do. In the play’s astonishing central scene, in which the pace slows to a gentle but challenging intensity, Tom Cotcher’s Don Mackay meets Hussain in his Pakistani jail. Shiv Grewal is mesmeric, speaking in slow, careful, wise sentences which speak so much of a man who has spent half his life in the shadow of the noose and who has given up hope but not God. His performance is beautiful, the character tragic yet strangely warm. In the final scene at the airport in which he meets Mackay once again and, for the first time, MacAuliffe (whose momentary, slightly hesitant hug of him brought me to tears) he seems sad. “I miss my bucket” he says. Asked how he’s coping with having a bed again, he says he still sleeps on the floor- his body unable to cope with comfort after 18 years. And when Mackay tells him that Saddam Hussein was executed on the day he himself was meant to be hanged, he pauses and says quietly “Death couldn’t leave empty handed”.
The brilliance of A British Subject is that it is about more than just its story. It is about humanity and faith (in every sense) and about the world out there which most of us, to our shame, know little of and seemingly care less. A tiny scene in which MacAuliffe rings a film producer acquaintance with links in Pakistan and quickly realizes that he doesn’t want to jeopardize funding on a future project by getting involved in saving this man’s life, says in its 2 minute duration so much about the blind eye turned on tragic stories like this by so many nations and people.
I cannot recommend this production highly enough. Perfectly written, brilliantly staged and immaculately acted by all four of these wonderful actors, it emphatically deserves a life after the completion of its Edinburgh run. A mini masterpiece.