Explosive theatre

The reality of war between nuclear states is beyond our imaginations, yet the issue demands public debate. As tensions rise over Iran’s nuclear programme, can theatre help us think the unthinkable? Review

Chris Cox
13 March 2012

The rhetoric directed at Iran and its nuclear programme has been ratcheting up for years now, but recently it has become openly bellicose. In Washington this month, the Israeli prime minister announced that diplomacy had failed and warned that “none of us can afford to wait much longer” to act against Tehran. This is, of course, a profoundly alarming prospect. The fall-out from a strike against Iran is unknowable: plenty of analysts have warned that it could trigger all-out war in the Middle East.

But as the American journalist Peter Beinart pointed out recently, unless we are experts in nuclear technology, or maintain secret sources in Tehran and Tel Aviv, most of us have no idea which move Iran or Israel will make next. It’s more a case of working out whose opinion we trust. Like many world events, the situation plays out while we look on, half-informed, half in the dark. And when it comes to war between nuclear states, which promises death on a sublime scale, we are somehow doubly removed. It’s not just that we don’t know whether or not the worst will happen; we can barely even conceive of what such destruction would look like. The gap between political rhetoric and human reality becomes a gulf.

It’s that gulf that inspired Nicholas Kent, outgoing director of the Tricycle theatre in London, to end his 28-year tenure with a characteristically ambitious two-part history of the nuclear bomb last month. Consisting of 10 separate plays, staged over two nights, and loosely linked by a historical narrative, The Blast is a smart and occasionally brilliant exploration of the individual lives and collective societies affected by decades of nuclear brinkmanship (which ultimately comes across as a childish game, played by men). 


Image from the The Tricycle Theatre website



The plays came about after Ken was challenged by Lib Dem peer Shirley Williams, who served as Gordon Brown’s nuclear proliferation adviser. “She said you’ve got to do something about nuclear proliferation – we’re going to renew Trident and we’re not going to have the debate,” Kent told the Guardian recently. He decided that if public debate wasn’t being stimulated by other means, theatre would have to step in. “It’s not happening in parliament, it’s not happening in newspapers, on television, in cinemas. Somebody’s got to do it.”

But the plays go far beyond British shores. The first night, subtitled ‘Proliferation’, traces the history of the bomb through Britain, China, Russia, India and other nuclear states. While not promising more than a partial history, the plays nevertheless provide an illuminating overview of how we got where we are today.

The second night, ‘Present Dangers’, is set in the decade since 9/11. The race to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme is the focus of several of the stronger plays, and the backdrop to others. Refreshingly, two of them especially foreground Iranian perspectives — the viewpoints that never make it into the frame of western news coverage.

Colin Teevan’s There Was a Man, There Was No Man revolves around the death of an Iranian nuclear scientist. Who killed him is not clear. Although married to an Iranian woman, the scientist had an Israeli mistress, and was a member of the opposition party: the Iranian regime had their reasons for wanting him dead. But his Israeli mistress suspects her brother, a Mossad agent and ardent Zionist, of killing her lover as punishment for betraying Israel. In one scene, the wife sits in a hotel room in Tehran, still covered in her husband’s blood from the car bomb blast, being forced to listen to a tape of her husband having sex with his Israeli mistress. In the previous scene, the mistress was sitting on her bed in her home in Sweden, weeping at the news as heartlessly reported by her brother. The two scenes, subtly mirrored, suggest that the internecine relationship between Iran and Israel is one which both states have come to depend on. “You collude with your enemy to keep your own people in fear,” spits the Israeli woman at her brother.

And Ryan Craig’s Talk Talk Fight Fight, set in the tense backrooms of a UN summit, likens the question of whether Iran is developing its own bomb to the famous Schrödinger’s Cat experiment: both possibilities, war and peace, yes and no, exist in the same moment. The frantic pre-meetings and negotiation rehearsals are deftly done. But they are not as powerful as the actual confrontation between an Iranian negotiator and his arrogant American counterpart. Having listened to the latter expound his argument that Iran should come to heel, the Iranian explodes: “We are not unruly children to be contained and controlled!” Having pointed out that his country is hemmed in by American troops, living under the shadow of US-funded Israeli nuclear weapons, buckling under sanctions and smarting from decades of humiliation by Britain, it’s surprisingly easy to side with him — which is perhaps the provocation that Craig intends.

While most of the plays revolve around the Iranian crisis, by far the most powerful one takes place in the soft-lighted sobriety of 10 Downing Street: David Greig’s ‘The Letter of Last Resort’. Belinda Lang plays a new prime minister on her first day in office trying to write a letter to the commander of a Trident submarine, instructing him what to do if Britain is devastated by a nuclear strike and there is no one left to issue orders. There are two options: retaliate, don’t retaliate.

The astonishing thing is that this letter actually exists. The Daily Mail, the first British newspaper to find out, reported in 2009: ‘On board the Vanguard there is a safe attached to the floor of the control room. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career. He made it alone, in the first days of his premiership, and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided. It is the Prime Minister’s answer to a grim but essential question: in the event of a nuclear attack in which Britain is largely destroyed and he is killed before he has time to react, should Britain fire back?’ Here is another sort of Schrödinger’s Cat: under the ocean, locked in a box, is an unreadable letter, promising life and death at once.

In Greig’s play, at first it seems simple. Lang dashes off a letter saying that retaliation would be futile, merely adding millions to an already unthinkable death-toll. However, a diplomatic civil servant, played brilliantly by Simon Chandler, soon ensnares her with a monstrous logic. If the Prime Minister knows in her heart that Britain will not retaliate, her assistant explains, she will be unable to convince other nuclear states that Britain is capable of the supremely irrational act of retaliation – thereby rendering our nuclear deterrent worthless.

“Prime minister, there is only one rational thing you can do,” the assistant counsels, “and that’s be irrational.” Letting the logic dawn, the prime minister replies: “So you mean we pursue rationality to insane levels?” Nodding soberly, he agrees: “Yes, prime minister.” He then embarks on a florid soliloquy about the nature of nuclear weapons, which promise “abstract, philosophical death”. In their fathomless power, they are “transcendent”. And these rarefied qualities are not auxiliary to their potency, he concludes. “They are the foundation of their deterrence, prime minister.”

What makes Greig’s play so powerful – aside from its near-perfect execution and philosophical rigour – is that it uses comedy to unpack the absurd logic that underpins nuclear proliferation. As these plays make clear, the nuclear bomb is ‘philosophical’. Its promised carnage is abstract; perhaps even, as The Letter of Last Resort hints, poetic. So it’s no wonder that they can sometimes quietly drop off the political agenda. But by revealing the comic elements of these deadly serious issues, many of these plays put them in a context we can engage with. (This is not easily done, as is made clear by other plays in the sequence. The weak link in the series is Diana Son’s Axis of Evil, which, set in 2002, toothlessly lampoons North Korean apparatchiks and White House speechwriters, to very limited effect.)

It’s that engagement between audience and subject that Nicholas Kent wanted. “A lot of young people under 30 know or care little about the bomb,” he said, in the same Guardian interview, “and yet we’re about to embark on a Trident renewal programme which will take an enormous amount of money. I think it’s £80bn. It could be spent on the health service. Or theatre. Imagine if it was spent on theatre!”

Is the idea of the government scrapping Trident and spending £80bn on theatre any more unfathomable than the question of why we are spending that £80bn in the first place? Such irrational political calculations demand our scrutiny, and Kent has shown that theatre is up to task. Off stage, though, it remains our responsibility to act.

See also: Sunder Katwala on DV8's theatrical discussion of multiculturalism "Can We Talk About This?" & Jo Tyabji on last years performative investigation of war journalism "On the Record". 


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