The growing sense that the Iraq War was, and still is, a disaster will not be quelled by this grimly austere verbatim theatre piece edited by the Guardian’s security editor Richard Norton-Taylor from the evidence at the Baha Mousa Inquiry.
It’s not a play, but an effective concentration on the fact that British soldiers flouted the Geneva Convention and the dictates of our own government in the “hooding” and other interrogation techniques applied to nine Iraqis arrested at a Basra hotel in 2003 as suspected insurgents.
One of them, Baha Mousa, a 26 year-old hotel receptionist whose father was an Iraqi police colonel, died, two days after his arrest, in a temporary detention centre, having been “hooded” for 24 hours and having sustained 93 injuries from beating, punching and kicking.
Norton-Taylor’s distillation of the inquiry -- which delivers its findings in September – and Nicolas Kent’s bone dry staging on the familiar Tricycle “verbatim” set of anaemic office furniture and piles of files, implies a catalogue of incompetence and carelessness.
But it also embraces human innocence and error among the soldiers, lawyers and politicians that perhaps make the wider point of “this is how war is.” As one assaulted detainee cries in anguish, after giving evidence through an interpreter on video: “Where is the justice? You liberated us from Sadam Hussein, then did this to us!”
Soldiers had no idea that “hooding” and other interrogation practices had been banned by Edward Heath in 1972, as a result of abuses by the military in Northern Ireland; commanding officers professed ignorance it was going on; a lawyer sits on the side-lines in despair.
The more the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Adam Ingram MP (Simon Rouse), is tied in knots by Thomas Wheatley’s evenly intoned and magnificently bland Gerard Elias QC, counsel to the inquiry, the more you feel, well, he was just a bloke doing a job not very well. Getting all aerated about it is almost beside the point.
This is not the best of the Tricycle’s tribunal shows, especially as the production doesn’t engage us with Baha Mousa personally, or make of his tragedy an involving indictment, beyond the fact that it happened.
I’m bemused, too, by the belittling of the “extras” in the cast (lawyers and the pretty blonde stenographer, whose nimble non-stop fingers are the liveliest exhibit on the stage) as credits in smaller type face in the programme than those of the rest of the cast.
Degradation comes with cultural orientation, as the ebullient soldiers of Luke Harris, Mark Stobbart and, especially, Dean Ashton (as the court-martialled and subsequently convicted Donald Payne), make abundantly clear. But the evening is good at suggesting, too, that perhaps they knew no better, and that corruption starts at the top.