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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Empire
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs    Spring 2010

DC Moore's new drama uses a familiar plot premise to make a fresh and relevant point, though what is new about the play might have been better served by a different vehicle.

A British patrol in Afghanistan have been ambushed, and have caught who they think is the sniper. But rather than a native Taliban, he's a British Pakistani who claims to have been innocently visiting his family and just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His story has some credibility, but of course it is exactly what he would say if he were a British Muslim who had been radicalised and joined the Taliban, leaving the British soldier grieving for a dead buddy and the officer trying to retain some order unsure what to do.

So on one level we have a premise at least as old as World War Two movies (and I'm certain I've seen a similar play set in Vietnam) - what do we do with the prisoner, and if we do what we want, will that make us as bad as the bad guys?

Moore's significant new element comes near the end, when the prisoner is finally goaded into an anti-British outburst and we realise that this proves nothing, since what he says is what any totally innocent British Muslim might be driven to admit about his frustrations and resentments.

That point – that regardless of this man's innocence or guilt, there may well be thousands of others back home tenuously close to crossing the line – is a good one, though you could wish that it were made in a less hackneyed context and that it formed the centre of the play rather than a last-minute add-on.

Moore's dramaturgy is uneven throughout. It is legitimate for him never to reveal the truth about the captive, but he only reaches an ending by inventing a wholly new and spurious bit of suspense.

The prisoner himself is given a teenager's "You know, like" inability to complete a coherent sentence that grows very old very quickly - it can make you more eager than the young soldier to shoot him - while both the officer and an Afghan translator are underwritten plot devices and time fillers more than realised characters.

The most rounded and interesting character is the young soldier trying not to have to think or feel any more than is absolutely necessary, and Joe Armstrong makes him believable and sympathetic, while Nav Sidhu does succeed in sustaining the ambiguities in the prisoner.

Rufus Wright as the officer and Josef Altin as the translator do what they can with the very little they've been given, while director Mike Bradwell tries with moderate success to disguise the clichés and weaknesses in the plot.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Empire - Royal Court Theatre 2010

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