From the Lebanon of the 1980s to the Iraq of today, the taking of hostages by militant groups remains a political weapon that – in its symbol of human helplessness and vulnerability to forces far bigger the individuals captured – is also highly potent emotionally. Just think of how the country was gripped last September when Ken Bigley, a 62-year-old British engineer, was captured in Baghdad with the two Americans he shared a house with there.
But also think of how the stakes have dramatically heightened, too. While the earlier hostage taking was a long and cruel process that saw Brian Keenan and John McCarthy - respectively then an Irish teacher in Beirut and a British journalist held for four-and-a-half and five years each by Islamic Jihad before being released - Bigley’s fate was far more immediate. Just over three weeks after his kidnapping, he was beheaded.
That knowledge changes, but in no way lessens, the alternately gruelling and gripping portrait of the strategies of human survival and resilience that Frank McGuinness provides in his still startlingly immediate play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. Originally premiered in London at Hampstead Theatre in 1992, less than a year after McCarthy’s release, it peers into the darkness – quite literally so – of enforced captivity and the random chances of fate that brings three men to find themselves, each shackled and chained to a radiator throughout, imprisoned in a room somewhere in the Lebanon.
They are Adam, an American doctor (Jonny Lee Miller); Edward, an Irish journalist (Aidan Gillen); and Michael, an English university lecturer (David Threlfall). And as the play movingly allows us to get to know them, their private fears and quiet desperation, it also provides an aching portrait of immense humanity in the face of the extraordinary inhumanity they’re facing.
But McGuinness’ play is far from relentlessly grim: it is shot through not just with keen insight but genuine laughter. And who better than Brian Keenan, who finally saw the play at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1993, to notice how truthful that is, too. In a programme note (reprinted from his introduction to the Faber and Faber text of the play), he says: “The bright sparks of starlight in black sky which was the constant backdrop to the drama could not have been more exact. In these star-bright moments McGuinness hit on, with a playwright’s subtlety, guilt, love, loneliness and all the gamut of emotions that make us, break us and remake us.”
That is the profound achievement of this play: to find in this particular story something that connects powerfully to us all. The play is already a modern classic. Dominic Dromgoole’s production brings it back to challenging, illuminating life in a trio of performances of stark emotion and searing intensity.
- Mark Shenton