In 2004, How Many Miles to Basra? was a radio play, acclaimed as stark and terrifying. Unfortunately, the stage version, premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, has lost much of its ability to shock and awe, partly because its radio-play origins are still apparent. While it remains a worthwhile examination of many relevant issues, it seldom strikes sparks as a drama.
The piece benefits from a neat framing device. Radio reporter Ursula Gunn returns from the Iraq war and, with Tariq, her producer, reviews her recordings made on a doomed British expedition. This enables Colin Teevan to spotlight his characters in revelatory monologues to mike (often the most moving passages of the play) and to switch to sound effects at moments when visuals become impossible – an exploding car, for instance. However, when Tariq attempts to persuade Ursula to surrender the discs and accept the MOD’s lying version of events, the debate on war and the media seldom rises above the clichéd.
The story is ingenious, if not really credible. A British patrol of four men, with Ursula “embedded”, kills three Bedouin at a check-point with no justification. One of the men, dying, asks the soldiers to deliver the money he’s carrying to ransom his wife and son from the sheikh who’s holding them. The patrol then undertakes a dangerous 150-kilometer expedition, the sergeant discharging his guilt for the killing of a girl in Northern Ireland many years before.
An unfortunate residue of the radio play is the characters’ tendency to report to each other what they can see, though, when what’s being reported is a speeding car or a mirage, it’s easy to understand why. The play’s moral questions (“Can truth be sacrificed to a greater end?”, “Should we do the right thing or obey orders?”, etc.) are not examined with great profundity, but are worth the airing.
Ian Brown’s production has the required honesty, and Jeremy Daker’s spacious setting looks suitably battered, though this hardly helps the opening scene in a smart office. The cast work hard to animate characters who are largely stereotypes, though, admittedly, stereotypes given an emotional hinterland.
Flora Montgomery brings out well the conflict within Ursula between devotion to truth and devotion to career. However, appropriately enough, given Teevan’s obvious sympathy for the Iraqi people, the most individual characterisation, both in writing and performance, is of the Iraqi guide Malek, philosopher/mercenary/victim (Kevork Malikyan in a subtly judged performance of wry wisdom).
- Ron Simpson