A co production between the Drum and Royal Court, this is an intense fly-on-the-wall observation of a difficult 90 minutes in the life of a few people stuck in a room.
Hardly a Big Brother experience, the room is a bullet-riddled, rubble-strewn shell in Helmand Province in the climatic and political heat of Afghanistan.
The occupants are the laconic, foul-mouthed, edgy British corporal Gary (a superb performance by Joe Armstrong), the nervous, joint-smoking Afghan Army translator (a convincing Josef Altin) and their prisoner Zia (played beautifully wheedling and desperate by turns by Nav Sidhu), an injured Asian found unconscious beside a rocket launcher in the aftermath of a fatal attack by the Taliban. Visitors to the room are Gary’s Commanding Officer (a suitably posh Rufus Wright) and, briefly, an ANA soldier Imran Khan ready to exact revenge.
The Brits are there to guard their prisoner until he receives medical attention from the pressed Army medics and then, once suitably patched up, to paradoxically turn him over to the ANA and turn a blind eye knowing exactly what fate awaits any suspected Taliban insurgent. What a waste of bandages.
Zia wakes up and suddenly all bets are off – he claims to be a kidnapped Londoner telling his tale with increasing embellishments. He is closer in his roots to Gary than is Captain Mannock but what is true and what is not, who is friend and who is foe? And the burning question is what is right and what is not in this hell hole where there is no space for British prisoners, no space for compassion and no time for considered decisions.
It’s all laid bare: imperialism, class, stereotypes and nerves as taut as razor wire which perceptibly quiver under tight direction from Mike Bradwell.
Beautifully observed, claustrophobic and slightly frustrating in its realistically loose ends, The Empire is a glimpse of life behind the news.