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Theatre Review: Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre (Arcola Theatre, London)

shrapnel
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David Kirkbride as Bully Soldier. Photograph: Courtesy of Nick Rutter.

In A Nuthsell

Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre is as brutal, unapologetic, and as incendiary as the evil it derides. Gut-wrenching political theatre.

Overview

In December 2011, a drone launched an attack on what was supposed to be Kurdish terrorists. Instead, it killed 34 civilian smugglers. Writer and activist Anders Lustgarten follows the lives of two of those victims, the generals in the army who launched the attack, and the response of the media and the arms industry to create a compelling piece that asks about responsibility and complicity.

Writing

Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre is possibly one of the most difficult pieces of theatre to sit through because it’s so uncomfortable and challenging. But it’s not because the writing itself is difficult to access: far from it. What makes this such a gruelling piece of theatre is the blunt truth that Lustgarten presents in Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre, and the honest humanisation of those who have to face the reality of our “war on terror”. 

There’s a central narrative that runs though Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre looking at two victims of the killings, Hüsnü and his nephew Savaş. They’re not the most perfect of human beings, but their family dynamics in the light of the conflict they’re caught within really teases out complex ethics and questions about how we perceive poverty and oppression. It’s an incredible human insight that makes the audience understand what empathy really is and should be: not the patronising compassion we’re so pre-disposed to. Most importantly, it lets us look into the anger of the community and how individuals react to it. Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre conjures a vividly grayscale picture of passions and forced choices that strip away any simplicity that the wider analysis might neglect, bringing you right into the emotional heart of these people, the struggle, and our evil.

Other characters intersplice this narrative highlighting the world and pressures beyond Hüsnü and Savaş’ plight. There’s: pair of electronics engineers in the arms factory, the journalist and her editor, the accolade-clad press ‘provocateur’ who makes a career out of twisted hate speech, the Turkish army captain and the new recruit, Hüsnü’s brother and wife, and the arms company CEO. They cut-up Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre’s core story with insights and questions, unforgiving and gravely framing the central narrative with awkward points of illumination. Whilst the timeline in relation to Hüsnü and Savaş jumps around a lot, what Lustgarten does with these is slowly build a crescendo towards the more harder and difficult question that we absolutely must face head-on. Between scenes, Lustgarten also ensures that a description of all 34 victims are spoken by the cast. It’s a cold and horrible reminder of the lives of those lost in this heinous war crime. 34 on paper might not seem like a large number, but in the humble eulogies Lustgarten gives of their lives, they feel like a mass.

The most important and most powerful aspect of Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre is Lustgarten’s refusal to couch around the subject in order for the show to be pleasant and palatable. Some of his characters are so vile, especially the arms company CEO and the award-winning journalist, that it’s really difficult to sit through their segments without wanting to jeer in protest. Elsewhere, scenes of torture are as realistic and horrendous as they are in real life, and those of human desecration are gory and horrifying. Lustgarten really tests the stamina and limits of the concept of the audience as a voyeur, as well as their sensibilities, making Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre immensely difficult to sit through, even at a brief 75 minutes. This is because his writing finds the coward in all of us: ignorance is utter bliss. Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre shames us for our complicity.

Lustgarten’s masterpiece completely shreds everything you ever knew about the “war on terror” to pieces, lays them all bear in-front of you and tramples and challenges every tiny bit. Shrapnel: 34 Framgents of a Massacre is one of the most chastising and soul-shaking pieces of theatre to have ever been written, and thus is one of the most timely and important modern political plays of our time that anyone with a lick of an opinion on the subject must see. it is impossible to witness Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre and not feel your entire point of view has been fundamentally changed.

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Tuncay Akpina as Ferhat. Photograph: Courtesy of Nick Rutter.

Direction & Production

Artistic Director Mehment Ergen leads the production, as part of the theatre’s double bill of new modern political writings, with Clarion – a scathing comedy about Fleet Street ethics – following on. Ergen and his team’s production for Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre brings an astonishing gravitas to Lustgarten’s work.

The stage set-up is a very awkward and short traverse, dominated by a huge suspended screen for video projections. Hanging perpendicular to the audience, it’s very difficult to see what’s being put up there, be it a PowerPoint presentation by the arms company CEO or infra-red surveillance drone footage. That might seem like a criticism, but it evokes a sense of a looming and purposefully obscured power that leers at everything below.

Ergen’s direction really keeps a good pace for the entire show. Being an incredibly bleak and taxing subject, it’s possible for the audience to tire and disconnect from Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre too quickly. Yet Ergen makes sure that there’s plenty of energy to push the sickening drama at full throttle without exhausting the audience, whilst allowing time and space for more devastatingly tender moments to sink in and trouble without moving so slowly that they drag. It’s a direction that really knows both its text and its audience, resulting in a play that’s snappy, sharp, but still catastrophically powerful. The only thing that could possibly be questioned in Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre’s direction is the decision to have some of the actors, the Turkish soldiers particularly, speak with deliberately British accents. Whilst it does seem a little out of place, given the authentic accents of Hüsnü, Savaş, and the rest of their kin, you often forget that these are Turkish soldiers, only to suddenly be reminded at points. Through this, it poses the question of just how involved is the UK in these acts, despite this event in particular happening very much at arms length. Especially in the light of the torture scandals involving British soldiers, you suddenly realise that this isn’t just something that has happened to other people in a different war: it’s our liability too.

Richard Williamson’s lighting design is a total coup de grace for Shrapnel: 34 Pieces of a Massacre. It’s creates an incredible sense of atmosphere that’s almost nightmarish. The visual aesthetic created by copious amounts of up- and back-lighting gives it an almost modern film noir feel, with gritty and hard-nosed severity that is perfect for this play. Even in less dramatic scenes, the harsh lighting is still sinisterly oppressive. You can’t escape from Williamson’s foreboding sense of feeling as you can Lustgarten’s viscous text. The absolute jewel in Williamson’s lighting design, however, is the “X” on the floor at the start of the play, which only reappears once more in the entire show to jaw-dropping and gut-wrenching effect.

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Aslam Percival Husain (left) and Karina Fernandez (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Nick Rutter.

Cast

This is an absolute triumphant cast that equal and support each other throughout. There is an incredible emotional stamina here, which at one point almost failed one of the cast members the night I was present, as they stumbled a little on one of many eulogies delivered, out of sheer emotion. But despite this, they all give tremendously heartfelt, or spittingly evil, performances depending on what character they switch between.

Karina Fernandez was soul-destroying as Hüsnü’s wife, playing her with unshakeable pride and tenacity. On the flip-side, she is also utterly despisable as the award-winning writer, spouting her hate-ridden opinions with a scary dedication and self-belief better, than some of our own politicians, makring herself as an actor of incredibly duality.

Josef Atlin as Savaş also brings an aggressive power as the disaffected youth. There’s a real anger and injustice that resonates volumes through Atlin’s performance that both rouses and unsettles you in equal measure. Particularly, the strained but ultimately affectionate chemistry between him as and Aslam Percival Husain as Hüsnü brings out a really heartbreaking dysfunction in their family dynamic that aggravates his fevered resolve.

Verdict

More hopeless and bleak than anything you’ll have ever seen, Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre is something so savagely important and brutally true that you’ll leave a changed person, and all the more better for it.

Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre plays at the Arcola Theatre, London, E8 3DL, until 2 April 2015. Tickets are £19 (concessions available). To book, visit www.arcolatheatre.com.

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