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Archive for February, 2012

Hay Fever

Hay Fever, Noel Coward, Noel Coward Theatre

The central joke of Hay Fever is that throughout the whole of the play the characters are to varying degrees, acting. For the real life actors that play those characters, the danger is that acting squared becomes overacting which is annoying rather amusing. There was certainly a smattering of overemphasis in the first act where hyperbole is not called for. However in the riotous second and third acts, this is exactly what the script dmenads, and this stellar cast hit every note of excruciating, madding hilarity. I actually cried with laughter on at least two occasions, and got an uncontrollable case of the giggles on another.

Lindsay Duncan plays Judith Bliss, a recently retired star of the London stage, whose bohemian family continue to live together in country pile where they ape the aristocratic lives of those who presumably once owned their house. Judith may have ceased treading the boards, but she is far from finished with acting. Her, and her husband and two children are engaged in acting out a real life melodrama that echoes the theatre that made her name. Duncan overdoes it in the first act, which is primarily about the inter-family dynamic. In her breeches and wellies, the result is that the performance takes on something of a drag-queen-like quality, which misses the comedic mark somewhat.

However, this all changes after the interval. The Bliss family are not content to play alone, each member of the household having invited a different guest (read victim) to stay for the weekend. The guests are totally ignored, until they are pounced upon, and used as pawns in what amounts to nothing more than after-dinner sport for Judith and her co-stars. Here Duncan gets it exactly right, weaving her twisted web and squeezing every bit of comedy out of Coward’s delightful text.

Freddie Fox brilliantly inhabits the role of Simon Bliss, the foppish son, who constantly bickers with his boyish sister Sorel, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. An exquisitely costumed Olivia Coleman is perfect as Myra, who arrives with her own game in mind, before realising she is hopelessly outmatched by the Bliss family. Every individual performance is strong, but the best moments are the ensemble sections, with some of the most rewarding acting coming in the awkward silences that pepper the action.

Bunny Christie’s extensive and attractive set reflects the bohemian nature of the family, with half finished paintings leaning against the wall, and in a possible hint at the sexual liberality of the family, a set of Kudu horns is mounted above the stairs. Slightly confusingly the building itself appears to be some sort of warehouse, which would place the family in a more modern context than the costume and action would seem to suggest. This slight distraction notwithstanding, this production is utterly charming, totally engrossing and downright hilarious. As the guests sneak out the next morning, one is left with a tender feeling as the Bliss family settle down back into their normal routine. They may need others for occasional blood sport, but when all is said and done they clearly rely on and only truly need only each other.

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Detained Without Casue, Irum Sheik (2011), Palgrave MacMillan, 244 pages

Detained Without Cause is a collection of the narrative histories of six New York based Muslim immigrants that were incarcerated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. None of these men had any connection to terrorism, and yet as their stories reveal, they were presumed guilty by the arresting officers, the FBI, the court system, the media and their communities. The consequences of this were that they were held without trial for periods up to three years, often in conditions of solitary confinement, in maximum security facilities where their human rights were systematically violated before being deported on trumped up immigration charges. Based on extensive personal interviews conducted by the author Irum Shiek, the book aims to dismantle the fabricated link between these detainees and terrorism in order to show that government was using detentions to placate a fearful public. In doing so she not only outlines the wide ranging consequences for the victims of the abuse of state power, but also demonstrates how futile such abuses are in advancing national security. This then is what might be termed “activist history” as Shiek gives voice to those who had none. The powerful and tragic accounts that emerge should serve as valuable counterfoils to calls for greater state powers in fighting the war on terror.

The six narratives are diverse in their details and contexts, but they are remarkable also in their similarity. Each man tells of their time in the USA prior to detention as one of opportunity and freedom, and how they fully subscribed to the system of rights they had not been able to enjoy in their home countries. That system of rights was totally suspended for them after 9/11. Having been detained, Mohammed Azmath was not permitted to see a lawyer until he had already been in prison for 92 days. He was left in solitary confinement for over a year when the average human being becomes suicidal after only 30 days in such conditions. All men report that a spectacle was made of their arrest; presumably to assuage, or play up to, fears in the local communities. There was consistent abuse of procedure: searches without warrants, a failure to advise of rights, fabrication of evidence. In one particularly disturbing case US officials explicitly contravened the law in disclosing details of Mohammed E’s asylum application to Egyptian authorities upon his return, in full knowledge that the application contained false information about a non-existent link between him and a terror network called Al-Jihad. This lead to Mohammed being subjected to extreme physical torture at the hands of the Egyptian secret police.

The picture that emerges is one of an out of control state. 1,182 “Special Interest Cases” were rounded up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The vast majority of them were Muslims from the New York area. Given that the 9/11 hijackers had planned the attack from the West Coast, and were from Saudi Arabia, the fact that the majority of men arrested were Pakistanis based in New York points to the inevitable conclusion that these arrests were made pursuant to racial profiling rather than genuine threat. The narratives show that every level of state from police, FBI, judges, guards and even the media, were complicit in assuming guilt based on nothing more than the origin of these men. None of the cases in question resulted in prosecution under terrorism charges.

The book is not without its faults. The introductory chapter in which Shiek attempts to place the detentions within a broader historical pattern of US scapegoating of immigrants is rather light in detail. Further examination of the history of Muslim immigration to the US would have both strengthened her case, and also provided the reader with a more nuanced background to the issue at hand. Additionally some may take issue with the way the narratives are presented: rather than edited transcriptions, the interviews and diverse other sources are amalgamated into a single first person narrative.  Thus there is no attempt at impartiality, this decision having been taken directly in order to allow the reader to “empathize with the detainees”. Stylistically this makes the book an extremely compelling read, but this is so at the expense of a sense that this is orthodox historical research. On the other hand this method is used explicitly to place the work within the discipline of oral history. Perhaps the most important justification for the approach is that when presenting the stories of these defenseless detainees, any reference to “national security”, no matter how patently ill-conceived, would prejudice the power of the narratives simply through the vast power imbalance that exists between the detainees and the state.

This is an important book that shows the human cost of the detention policies that occurred post-9/11. The important implications it makes for policy are relevant far beyond the borders of the US. In a post-catastrophe environment, it is perhaps natural that those left behind seek people to blame. In order to prevent that tendency from translating into widespread abuse of the individual, a strong and inviolable system of rights is needed to prevent the different levels of state from colluding to restrict liberties. In the UK context we should be asking what exactly David Cameron means when he tells the European Court of Human Rights that it should only be prosecuting the most important cases? Would the men in this book have constituted such cases? Whilst this book may not persuade everyone that state power needs to be reined in, or subjected to the canon of individual rights, it will at least confront national security hawks with the full consequences of the policies pursued.

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