The battle for hearts & minds
Steve Cramer goes behind the headlines to preview a selection of Fringe shows exploring terrorism, war and the media
This article is from 2007.
‘If I were to offer you a trip to Paris in the next couple of months or a trip to Syria, which would you be more nervous going on?’ asks playwright David Greig, before adding, ‘You’d probably say you were a little bit more nervous about a trip to Syria. In fact, in the last ten, fifteen years, no foreigner has been attacked in Syria – you’d be far less safe in Paris.’
The central character in Greig’s Damascus, which receives its world premiere at the Traverse, is a salesman who travels to the titular city to sell English language textbooks. Unconsciously, he feels he already knows the country and the presumptions he and his Syrian contact make about each other lead to a series of misunderstandings. ‘The play touches on the British man’s fear of the Middle East,’ says Greig.
Greig’s play amounts, he says, to a comedy of manners on the theme of east meets west, but with a profound purpose, part of which is to address the perceptions we carry into any situation. ‘One of the characters is a hotel porter, and his image of what Scottish girls are like is very much informed by things like MTV. At the same time Paul, the British character, has his perception of what Arabs are like informed by CNN. Another character points out that what we call balance is really just a desire to maintain the status quo with the West in control. The West has the power of the mass media.’
Back in New York, Shoshona Currier is also concerned with media perceptions and war. Her company, Shalimar, had success at the Fringe in 2005 with Stirring. This year La Femme Est Morte or Why I Should Not F**k My Son amounts to a version of Seneca’s Phaedre set within a modern celebrity family, with the incestuous relationship at the centre witnessed by a chorus of paparazzi and spin doctors.
Currier feels it is not fear but apathy that is generated by media perceptions of wars. ‘The way the press is working here, we’re not even allowed to see coffins draped in flags. But you can watch the war on Youtube – my seven-year- old brother can. There are some amazingly violent clips on Youtube and in your subversive way you can watch them. But there are also images of Britney Spears with no underwear. The Youtube hits on that are over a million now, but anything involving the word Iraq is just a couple of hundred thousand.’
The text, which uses an article about a soldier returning from Iraq in the Washington Post to preamble an intimidating physical style, makes an attack on what we might call the ‘War on Whatever’. Currier says, ‘This soldier returned from the gulf and was immediately taken to a chain restaurant. He said “I was looking at everyone stuffing their faces, and thought I was fighting for you?” It’s worse than Vietnam, where soldiers returned to protests – now they return to apathy and unawareness. We don’t get any information.’
In Paul Allman’s Bombers’ Row there’s also a strong commentary on how we choose to see ourselves, and how the media affects this. The play speculates on a real-life meeting between Ramzi Yousef, author of the first world trade centre attack, the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and a fourth prisoner, a notorious Cuban drug lord. Allman’s play examines the media frenzy that surrounded them. This didn’t simply affect our attitudes, but showed a certain media self-consciousness in the men themselves.
Allman says, ‘They became celebrities in their own minds, Timothy McVeigh referred to them as the A-team. He had 18 marriage proposals while he was on death row. We rarefied them in a way, making them into monsters. Does it really serve some purpose to make them special in some way? The media tries to paint them as lunatics, wild men, paranoid schizophrenics, maybe because they’re sending the message, “don’t listen to what they’re saying”.’
Commenting on this legendary meeting, actor David Calvitto says: ‘They don’t talk about their activities. Mostly they talked about the movies; which was their favourite Godfather movie, they passed dirty magazines back and forth, they talked about survivalist techniques – that’s what’s so bizarre about it. These guys they described as Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein might just as well have been walking into an average bar together.’
Richard Walker’s The Racket is a one man play about a Baghdad war reporter, which explores how the mediation of events affects our perceptions on a personal level. So too in Gecko’s The Arab and the Jew, the self-perception of each of the eponymous characters in this hectic physical theatre show is as much informed by the media as themselves.
But this collection just scratches the surface of what is a pervasive Fringe theme. Go and judge the results for yourselves.
Damascus, Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 5–26 Aug (not 13, 20), times vary, £16 (£11). Previews Aug 1, 4, £11 (£5); La Femme Est Morte Or Why I Should Not F**k My Son, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 4–27 Aug (not 14), 4pm, £9–£10 (£7.50–£8.50). Previews until 3 Aug, £5; Bombers’ Row, Assembly @ Hill Street Theatre, 623 3030, 5–27 Aug (not 15), 3.55pm, £8.50–£11. Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £5; The Racket, The Zoo, 662 6892, 5–27 Aug, 5.15pm, £6.50 (£5). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £4.50; The Arab and the Jew, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 20–25 Aug, 1pm, £9.50 (£7.50). Previews 17–19 Aug, £5.