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Review of Questions of Terrorism and Repression

Questions of Terrorism and Repression I used to share an office with colleagues who liked to listen to BBC Radio 2. At lunchtime, Jeremy Vine would (and still does) host a phone-in chat show. Most opinions were well-considered. But whatever the topic under discussion, at least someone at some stage would be thoroughly dismissive and demand that a certain person, whether public figure or private individual, should either be thrown into jail indefinitely without parole or otherwise have the (non-existent) death penalty handed down to them (though the former could be considered a form of the latter in all but name). Such uncompromising people came to mind in this absorbing play about the fight against totalitarian regimes.

This is not theatre for the narrow-minded. Having said that, I struggle to think of what sort of theatre worth seeing would be for the narrow-minded – but Questions of Terrorism & Repression is one of those shows which, as the title suggests, tries to wrestle with what sort of responses are appropriate to the atrocities the world faces. The three monologues in this show were written in 1975, 1977 and 1980 respectively, but have lost none of their impact and relevance a generation later.

Each of the characters get their turn and speak in the first person narrative. Although the play is not overly political, focusing on the personal aspects of the stories and the storytellers, it cannot help but provide some commentary, however subliminal, on the more controlling aspects of various governments. In the first monologue, Ulrike Meinhof (Sophie Morgan-Price), an actual German left-wing militant (she has a rather detailed Wikipedia page), begins by using quite beautiful language, with reference to, for instance, a “sepulchre of silence” which engulfs both the prison in which she was being incarcerated and, at least in her view, society at large. A highly accusatory speech against ‘the government’ deploys increasingly plain and terse language, and well before social media was even a thing, Meinhof talks about how “one small misunderstanding” can lead to grave consequences. How times have changed, and yet how times have remained largely unchanged.

Irmgard Möller (Nathalie Barclay) told her tale so freely and eloquently, without the slightest hint of hesitation, that I momentarily wondered, given how harrowing her story was, whether some of it was embellished. The descriptions of events become very intense and graphic, and while it was the sort of story I would have expected to encounter during a play of this nature, it just came across as being delivered in too calm a manner to be totally convincing.

Immediately striking in the vulnerability of her voice is A Mother (Annabelle Lanyon), whose mixed emotions are portrayed superbly. A much needed moment of comic relief comes in the form of some parenting ‘advice’ the mother comes across. I rather liked the one about letting babies play with their own excrement and even letting them throw it at each other, because it would prepare them for all “the s– -t other people will throw at them when they are older”. She is unafraid later on to call her own son a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘murderer’, and it is commendable she does not see her flesh and blood through rose-tinted spectacles. Still, while her own intentions are never sinister or dishonourable, she is repeatedly slapped down. The ‘Computer Says No’ sketches in Little Britain were a humorous parody of this sort of absurd inflexibility with rules and regulations. Here, it’s simply frustrating.

Slightly ironically, this final piece of monologue begins by asking the audience to use their imagination, and yet the descriptions of what happened were so vivid that one’s imagination was barely needed. Overall, I felt some of the sound effects were superfluous, inasmuch as they added little, if anything, to the narrative. Although very much a stand-and-deliver play with minimal movement and no set, apart from a chair for each character, this play proved that expensive pops and whizzes aren’t strictly necessary to put on a strong and captivating production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The first two monologues (I’m Ulrike-Screaming and It Happened Tomorrow, translated by Gillian Hanna) give voice to Ulrike Meinhof and Irmgard Möller, both members of the Baader Meinhof Group (the German left-wing terrorist organization also known as Red Army Fraction).
In 1976 Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in suspicious circumstances in the maximum security prison of Stammheim, and the year after Irmgard Möller survived four stab wounds in the breasts received during a so described “suicide attempt” (the exact same day two other members of the Red Army Fraction were found dead in their cells: Andreas Baader had “shot himself” in the back of the head -when he could have no access to guns- and Gudrun Ensslin had “hanged herself” on a nail).
Were they really suicides or deliberate actions of the state to get rid of its enemies?

The third monologue (A Mother, translated by Ed Emery) deals with the use of “repentant” terrorists by the Italian State, a law which favors those members of terrorist bands who have relevant information to pass on to the authorities in exchange for reduced sentences, sometimes even the release from prison. Telling the story of a mother and her son (who was a member of the Red brigades in the late 70s), Dario Fo and Franca Rame define this law as “obscene”.

Manuel Bau presents:
By Dario Fo and Franca Rame
Translated by Gillian Hanna and Ed Emery

As Part of the Camden Fringe
Lion and Unicorn Theatre, 42-44 Gaisford St, Kentish Town, London NW5 2ED
21st August and 27th August 2017 at 7:45pm


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