Edinburgh Fringe 2010
With limited audience space, this could be a difficult play to catch, but one worth getting into. Set roughly fifteen years into the future, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play makes a retrospective examination of recent events and their long-term effects. It may seem slightly optimistic to think a former detainee of Guantanmo Bay could live an apparently normal life until he goes looking for his interrogator, but that’s the premise of Lidless and leads to some powerful drama. Unconventional seating leads to a tense experience, though probably not one that compares with that of a detainee.
Fifteen years after leaving her US Army job as an interrogator in the now infamous Camp X-Ray, Alice has settled into a job as a florist with her husband and daughter. Thanks to the pills she took in Cuba – to avoid flashbacks and nightmares at the time – she doesn’t even remember all that much about her time as an interrogator. Unfortunately for her and for her settled life, former detainee Bashir does remember and, now dying, he wants her to redeem herself…by donating half of her liver.
The fact that her liver would grow back (and his half would also repair itself to form a whole) is one of several comparisons Cowhig sublty makes between humans and animals at Guatanamo. The most striking is that with iguanas – also capable of self-healing – which have a greater value in Cuba than the human detainees do; a massive fine for harming the endangered animals, as opposed to the massive break-through (in the War on Terror) to be gained by harming detainees. No wonder Bashir answers ‘an iguana’ when asked which animal he would be if given the option.
Bashir’s time in Guantanamo has left him with hepatitis – we’re so close to the literal, bloody truth of this at one point that audience members visibly recoil along with other actors – and, fifteen years later, only a month to live. Worse, the dying man knows that his soul has been damned by his interrogator. We’re given a horribly cynical portrayal of the US Army in the only scene actually set within Camp X-Ray, following a memo from Dick Cheney (Vice-President at the time) allowing for ‘invasion of personal space by a female’. It’s a culturally insensitive technique intended to turn Islamic belief from a defence (as the Army believes it is in waterboarding) to a weakness. What it actually translates to is confronting Muslim men with western feminine sexulaity, and even raping them. Bashir, dying, knows his soul damned.
Played in a tight, white box, ‘Lidless’ is tight, fast and personal. As audience members are handed their own fold-up seats on entering, and leave their bags in a different room, they get something of the feeling of going into a prison themselves, or at least of losing their belongings for an hour. The space is tight, white and clinical. That fold-up seat isn’t comfortable, and the audience is squashed in together for this stripped-back production that has no frills or excess; it’s lean and punchy, with no messing about. Every metaphor, however disconnected it seems, has some relevance to the Guantanamo issue and it all ties together into a beautiful whole.
This is also a pleasantly balanced view of Guantanamo. While Bashir is clearly a victim, there’s no real attempt to paint the US Army or administration as out-and-out villains, and all five characters are well-rounded and sympathetic. The only concern on that front is fourteen-year old Rhiannon’s crush on Bashir, which comes from nowhere.
This is a play that calls into question the motives and methods of those claiming to protect our way of life, but does so without ever trying to preach one way or the other, and presents a very human face of the human rights issue within the War on Terror.