Imagine you’re walking along minding your own business when men in black wearing Timberland boots suddenly accost you. They bundle you into the back of a van where they cut your clothes from your body using scissors, and force you to put on a diaper and a blue tracksuit.
Twenty-hours later, after a flight in which you’ve been blindfolded and bound and not been allowed to go to the toilet — hence the diaper — you’re god-knows-where, being tortured and interrogated about a man you worked with twenty years previously.
It sounds like an action sequences from the draft script of the next Jason Bourne movie. In fact, it’s one part of the United States’ so-called War on Terror called ‘extraordinary rendition’.
Since September 2001, at least 85,000 people suspected of being involved in terrorist activities or who are believed to know someone who has knowledge about terrorist activities have been rounded up and detained in this way. They are imprisoned in secret locations dotted around the globe and subject to torture — in many cases for years at a time.
So extraordinary is the extraordinary rendition program that it has become the subject of a new performance piece called by the UK-based company Actors for Human Rights. The piece has been a success in the UK and is currently touring Sydney and Melbourne.
Scripted by London-based writer Christine Bacon and featuring performances by well-known Australian actors Kate Atkinson, Tom Long, Alice Garner, Neil Pigot and Syd Brisbane, the idea for Rendition Monologues began when Bacon started researching a performance piece featuring testimony of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
‘I was having a drink with an acquaintance who told me she worked at Reprieve, an organisation that offers pro bono representation for people on death row and in Guantanamo Bay. I very quickly realised that Guantanamo Bay was simply the tip of the iceberg.
‘At the moment there are about 250 people in Guantanamo Bay, but the US government has conceded that they have 25,000 secret prisoners in other locations. I knew something about the secret prisons, but I had no idea that the scope was so massive.
Bacon waded through court and interview transcripts developing the script for Rendition Monologues. ‘When I started researching it, I couldn’t stop’ says Bacon. ‘I was to up to four in the morning most mornings.’
Rendition Monologues goes beyond the media reports, the international relations theory, and the debates between lawyers to the voices of those who have been kidnapped as part of the rendition program.
The script is based on the testimony of four men — Binyam Mohamed, Abdullah Almalki, Marwan Jabour, and Khaled El-Masri — all of whom have been kidnapped and imprisoned by the US. The stories of the men are based on their verbatim testimony.
Kate Atkinson, who teamed up with former SeaChange peers Tom Long and Alice Garner for the Melbourne performances says ‘We don’t do funny accents and we don’t pretend to be these people — but we interpret their story. It’s injected with information, but it’s predominantly story.
‘My experience of this piece, certainly the response to it in the UK, is that people understood it in a way that reading a couple of pages in a broadsheet might not do it for them. It brings it to life and keeps their attention.’
With so much material with which to work — much of it harrowing in nature — choosing testimony that would engage an audience was a key challenge for Bacon.
‘It was a big editing job’, says Bacon. ‘You can bombard audiences with descriptions of torture, but they will switch off after about ten minutes. You have to pick the key moments’.
Picking out the bizarre and the absurd was one way to temper the confronting nature of the material. Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian man who came to Britain seeking asylum and was a UK resident for about eight years, tells one such story. MI6 officials visited him while he was being held in Morocco and offered him a cup of tea, insisting that he take sugar.
When he asked why he should take sugar, the MI6 officials explained: ‘Because, where you’re going, you’ll need a lot of sugar. We think you’re going to get tortured by the Arabs’.
‘It’s so incredibly British to disguise the fact that you’re sending someone off to be tortured with a cup of tea’, says Bacon ‘To bring a cup of tea into the equation is just bizarre’.
Music also plays an important part in changing the emotional tone of the performance. Rendition Monologues features an original score by UK-based Australian composer Michael Edwards, whose work appears on the upcoming movie Ligeia based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe, as well as Whale Rider and Layer Cake.
Using well-known, white middle class actors to give voice to the former detainees also enables audiences to identify with the stories. ‘It becomes a human issue, rather than an issue about ethnic minorities, or an issue about this particular religion or an issue about strange-looking people with towels on their heads or whatever’, says Bacon. ‘It becomes an issue about human beings. And no human being should be subjected to anything like that.’
Although based in the UK, Actors for Human Right is modelled on the Australian network Actors for Refugees, which was started by Kate Atkinson and Alice Garner in 2001 while they were working on SeaChange. Bacon, who’s an actor in her own right and has studied political science at the University of Melbourne, joined later and, recalls Kate Atkinson, ‘kicked it into shape’.
After moving to the UK to do a Masters degree, Bacon set up Actors for Human Rights using her experience with Actors for Refugees as a template. Since its establishment, the company has produced shows about undocumented migrants living in London, the UK’s asylum system, and the occupation of Palestine.
In spite of the challenging material and subject matter of Rendition Monologues and her other work, Bacon remains optimistic about the future.
‘I don’t think I’d be doing this job if I had no optimism about the future. I have a lot of faith in people’s ability to change their minds and to open their eyes. If I can facilitate that — all the better. I’ve seen it happen and I know it’s possible and I know it can change people’s lives’.
Scripted by Christine Bacon, with an original score by Michael Edwards
Was performed December 10, 8:00pm, fortyfive Downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne