Honour Bound, conceived, directed and co-designed by Nigel Jamieson. Choreographed by Garry Stewart, composition and sound design by Paul Charlier, co-designer Nicholas Dare, lighting by Damien Cooper, video art by Scott Otto Anderson. Created in consultation with Terry and Bev Hicks. Performed and co-devised by DJ Garner, Alexandra Harrison, David Mueller, Marnie Palomares, Brendan Shelper and Paul White. Malthouse Theatre until October 1.
The correct question regarding the horrors committed in the camps... is not the question that asks hypocritically how it could have been possible to commit such atrocious horrors against other human beings; it would be more honest, and above all more useful, to investigate carefully how - that is, thanks to what juridical procedures and political devices - human beings could have been so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives to the point that committing any act toward them would no longer appear as a crime.
Honour Bound, Nigel Jamieson's beautiful and harrowing physical theatre work about the Australian Guantanamo detainee David Hicks, begins with a recording of a reading of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is almost an exercise in nostalgia to hear this statement of ideals read with such solemnity and dignity:
"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world; Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people..."
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is where legislative language, in its passion for clarity and unambiguous precision, attains an intensity of meaning akin to poetry. In 2006, it is hard to remember the force of the horrified revulsion which in 1948 deemed that such barbarities as Auschwitz must never happen again. Now such ideas are considered the province of left wing extremists and troublemakers. How we have moved on.
With his collaborators, Nigel Jamieson investigates the ways in which these UN ideals have been dismantled and destroyed through the story of David Hicks, who was captured fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Like many others, Hicks has been imprisoned since by the US Government in Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as an "enemy combatant", a category invented to sidestep the Geneva Convention's laws on the treatment of prisoners of war, and has endured treatment which most civilised people would call torture.
In four years of captivity, he has been held without charge and without a chance of having any allegations against him tested in a court of law, and he has been allowed only one visit from his family, during which he was shackled to the floor. One of the shameful scandals of the Howard Government is how, unlike Britain - which brought its nationals held in Camp Delta home out of concern that they would be denied the due process of law - it has abandoned Hicks to his fate. So much for the rule of law.
But equally, and equally importantly, Honour Bound is a revelation of human pain: on the one hand, a father's grief at being unable to help his troubled son, and on the other, the physical pain inflicted on bodies by the State. Honour Bound demonstrates, in its darkest manifestations, the power of language to change and remake reality. It is exemplary political theatre-making of a rare intelligence and power: neither didactic nor exploitative, appealing neither to sentiment nor special pleading, it reveals its argument with a devastating visceral impact which left the first night audience stunned into silence.
Honour Bound takes its title from the slogan above Camp Delta's gate: "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom". The staggering irony of this - as profound as "Arbeit Macht Frei" above the gates of Auschwitz - seems to have escaped those who put it there, but it resonates with increasing force throughout this show, which exposes at once the relentless logic of the bureaucracy in which Hicks is imprisoned, and its terrifying irrationality.
In some ways, Jamieson and his collaborators have simply done what is obvious. An admirable moral clarity informs every aesthetic decision, which gives this show a weight of honesty which can be difficult to find in the medium of theatre. This is clear from the beginning, when the dancers enter in their underwear and put on the familiar orange jumpsuits of detainees: this gesture, which reveals to us the artifice of theatre, permits its subsequent truthfulness.
What follows is a collage of dance and movement, audio and visual documentary footage, music and digital projections, which Jamieson weaves seamlessly together into a sensually searing theatrical experience. Paul Charlier's sound design, Damien Cooper's lighting and Scott Otto Anderson's video art are all potent elements in this equation.
Nicholas Dare's set is a giant metal cage, a space of harsh edges against which is flung the fragile human body. Invoking both guards and prisoners, the dancers embody the brutalisation of imprisonment and torture with Garry Stewart's thrilling choreography. The sides of the cage become multi-dimensional, with dramatic aerial sequences that continually shift the ground of physical gravity. Tormented, shackled, distorted with pain and, above all, fully present in their physical vulnerability, there are times when the dancers are nigh unbearable to watch; and yet you cannot tear your eyes away.
Against these stylised representations, the documentary footage - most of which will be familiar - exerts a new power. It is as if the real and the imagined refract each other into a potent sense of darkness visible, which then turns its black illumination onto the audience (for we are complicit here, for better or worse, as witnesses, as citizens). The documentary material include interviews with David Hicks' father Terry and stepmother Beverly, images of Camp Delta, speeches by George W. Bush, letters from David Hicks, deliberations on the "enemy combatant" status of detainees and the infamous "torture memos" in which Donald Rumsfeld outlines permissible interrogation techniques.
This last is the occasion for one of the most spectacular images in the show: the memos are projected on the back of the cage like a long road of text, along which a dancer is running. The text flips and the dancer falls into an abyss of darkness; and then he begins to run and climb again, and again falls, and again, and again. As an image of the impact of the language of the State on real human bodies, I have never seen anything so cogent and powerful. Unless it is a sequence later in the show that reduced the audience to total, shocked silence: not a cough, not a rustle, not a breath.
It is important to emphasise that the potency of this theatre does not come from the revelation of appalling facts or from its ideological viewpoint, that it does not depend on flattering an audience's sense of moral superiority. Its ambitions are much more courageous and honest than that. It takes images that have become all too familiar in the past five years and reveals afresh their meanings and human implications by invoking their realities within our sensory imaginations.
The only opinions ventured in the show are those of Beverly and Terry Hicks, very ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and we are free to make of these what we will. Among the most devastating moments are where Terry Hicks is struggling with his inability to articulate the horror of what is happening to his son. The closest he comes is to say "it is not a good situation", which in its banal understatement is wrenchingly moving.
This is passionately committed art, but it eschews emotional manipulation, thus avoiding the traps of so-called "documentary theatre" or the theatre of journalism roundly condemned by the playwright Howard Barker. "There is great safety and security to be enjoyed in the exchange of conscience-ridden observations, affirmations of shared values, humanistic platitudes," says Barker. "But the stage remains essentially sterile, and the insistence on the representation of what passes for the real world only enhances the decadent sense of social responsibility while devastating the landscape of dramatic invention".
Such charges can't be leveled here: Jamieson and his collaborators compromise neither the theatre nor the realities they are representing - in this show there is neither pretence nor exploitative aestheticisation of human suffering. It is rigorous, intelligent work that takes big risks; it walks very consciously along an ethical and aesthetic tightrope. But, like its aerial dancers, it never falters.
I don't think it is an accident that some of the most powerfully affecting political theatre I have seen in the past couple of years has been physical theatre - Bagryana Popov's movement piece on asylum seekers, Subclass26A, and, more recently at the Malthouse, Kage Physical Theatre's Headlock. Fascinatingly, and I don't know why this is so, all three are about imprisonment. All these shows are very different from each other, but maybe what they have in common is their ability to communicate with devastating effectiveness the vulnerability and fragility of the human body.
Perhaps most tellingly, after this show (once they emerged from the stupefaction that is the initial response) everyone was talking: not only about the theatrical experience, but about the issues it raises. Honour Bound is theatre that demands its audience not only feels, but thinks: it throws the moral responsibility back onto us. It ought to be compulsory viewing for every Australian citizen. Don't miss it.
Picture: Alexandra Harrison and Brendan Shelper in Honour Bound. Photo: Jeff Busby