Review by Tulis McCall
13 Dec 2009
This is one of those shows that you should see because it will make you uncomfortable, which is also the reason you might not go see it.
In 1988 Mirza Tahir Hussain (Kulvinder Ghir), a British subject, age 18, arrived in Pakistan. Within 24 hours, a taxi driver was dead and Hussain was accused of his murder. 18 years later the only person willing to take this story public was Don Mackay (Tom Cotcher) of The Daily Mirror. It was by chance he got the assignment, but he recognized it at once as something that was important as well as a story that could change his career. It did that and changed his life as well.
With two weeks to spare until Tahir Hussain’s execution, Mackay arrived in Pakistan do discover that the British High Commission was washing their hands of the affair and that Musharaf, wanting to be seen as something other than a chum of Tony Blair and Dubya, needed to make a gesture. Hanging Tahir was seen as that gesture.
After waiting over five hours with hundreds of other people, including Tahir’s brother Amjad (Shiv Grewal) at the Rawalpindi Central Jail, Mackay’s first meeting with Tahir was disturbing. Here was a man whose crime was self defense against an attacker, the taxi driver, who had had a gun and wanted sex as well as Hussain’s money and passport. When the gun went off Tahirwent to the police for help. There he was accused of crimes that had happened before he came to Pakistan as well as being responsible for the taxi driver’s subsequent death. After 18 years Mackay found that Tahir was only connected to life through his Qu’ran. Stripped of the noise of life, he had pulled away from the world and all he had left was faith.
Back home Mackay’s wife, Nichola, (Nichola McAuliffe) was keeping her own home fires burning through her Catholic faith. She began a novena to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Together she and Mackay became a formidable team. This was a good thing because they also found themselves alone in their quest to free Tahir. The Daily Mirror buried the initial story; Tony Blair refused to intercede; and pretty much everyone else lacked interest. Nichola viewed this with a tempered eye – why should other people behave any differently just because Nichola and her husband had been pulled into Tahir’s life? The two did not give up. They soldiered on until the second of two letters sent to the Prince of Wales produced results. Tahir was released and returned home days before his scheduled execution.
Upon his return Tahir tells people that he was one of thousands wrongly imprisoned. They will be hanged, beheaded, shot or crucified and we will never know their names. In his still voice he reminds us there is much to pray for and work to do.
Bad news for those who would like to leave a theatre feeling chipper and uplifted. This play leaves you with a charge. Like Guantanamo, produced at the Tricycle Theatre in England and at the Culture Project here, this is another British play that is looking at the world beyond the borders. And, like its predecessor, A British Subject suffers from its form. Reality is a tough item to wrestle to the ground into a play. Lives don’t have arcs or dramatic beats. Mostly we just slog along. In trying to get all the facts down McAuliffe has lost some of the drama.
What she has succeeded at, however, is creating moments that are riveting. The representative from the High Commission, the officer “wanting a word” with Mackay at the prison, Tahir’s brother, even Prince Charles – we are handed off to the many characters played by these skilled actors and gifted with facts that never quite overwhelm, but threaten to. This choice is made even more effective when propped up against Tahir, who stays in his cell and pulls further and further away from things of this world.
In the end we are left knowing on a visceral level that it is a mad, mad world. Safety is a geographical accident bestowed on the few, and the ice on which it rests is thinner than any of us would care to imagine. This is not an easy play, but it wasn’t intended to be.