“If someone’s blaring Barney the Dinosaur at you for 24 hours straight, is that torture?” asks Nick Gill, writer of new play fiji land. “And if you’re inflicting that on someone else, and experiencing the horror of it from your side, are you torturing yourself? What effect does it have on you, and on the society that asks you to do it?”
Parents of toddlers subjected to hours of Barney and Peppa Pig might heartily agree that it is a form of torture, but there’s a more serious point here, one which fiji land makes in a particularly interesting way: that our modern form of warfare has eroded the boundaries between peace and conflict, with violence seeping into civilisation and oblique terms like “extraordinary rendition” covering a multitude of sins, sins for which we are collectively responsible and the ramifications of which are inescapable.
Nick began writing fiji land in 2007, “when more information about Guantanamo Bay was starting to come out in the mainstream press. I was struck by the surreal, almost absurd details of how detainees were treated, and the oddly detached way world powers were discussing torture – what was acceptable and what wasn’t. We were used to the heroic portrayal of Jack Bauer’s form of torture in 24, but what about waterboarding? How do you decide where to draw the line?”
That peculiar juxtaposition between horrifying act and earnest justification makes this an area ripe for drama, but unlike the recent Zero Dark Thirty, Gill takes a non-naturalistic approach. “I hope the audience has the same experience I had when I first read it – that you just don’t know what’s coming,” says director Alice Malin. “The first stage direction refers to rows and rows of flowering plants under neon lights, and it takes you a while to understand that metaphor.
“Once you do, counterintuitively, it makes the subject far more accessible than direct reference, as stage violence can never live up to the brutal reality. A surreal lens allows you to be more creative in how you approach the material, and I actually think it gives the audience a far more visceral experience of what’s going on behind closed doors.”
fiji land doesn’t specify a location, but Alice and her team did copious research into real military prisons and detainment centres. “We were interested in what they had in common, and one thing we spotted was the design: when an invading force enters a new country, they co-opt buildings like town halls to create places of incarceration. As soldiers aren’t renowned for their sense of interior decoration, these places tend to have a makeshift, messy, degraded look, which rather reflects what’s going on inside them.”
Nick aimed to explore “the sort of world where these acts could take place. What’s terrifying about Guantanamo is that the normal laws of our society don’t apply, so anything can happen. However, just because it’s outside our legal system doesn’t mean we escape it, because torture affects both the psyche of the torturers and our society as a whole. And I don’t see it going away any time soon – people will always turn to unspeakable acts when they need to get information out of others.”
“I was really struck by the sense of betrayal – that you’re in danger of losing part of yourself by doing or being party to something so immoral,” adds Alice. But fiji land doesn’t require the audience to come prepared, she stresses: “It’s a provocation, more about raising issues than offering solutions, and you can either view it allegorically or as a surreal examination of what happens when human beings are brutal to others, with no accountability.
“I think the worrying idea of a government taking extraordinary measures ‘in our best interests’ can be read in lots of different ways, and it feels very topical. I like writing that has something interesting to say about the world we live in.” Nick agrees: “There does seem to be a lot of great drama right now with a political or social conscience.”
However, both note that their first duty is to create a strong piece of theatre, “and this play really spoke to my producer and I when we were looking for new work,” says Alice. “It left an indelible impression, and I hope it does the same for everyone who comes to see it.”