Honour Bound ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Honour Bound

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.

What is a Camp?, Giorgio Agamben

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


Chris Boyd said...

After reading your eloquent and passionate response to Jamieson's work, Alison, I'm a little reluctant to voice a dissenting opinion. But, hell, opposition is true friendship... and I think there's something to be gained from having it out here.

I disagree with you on several substantial points. I thought this was a poster-and-slogan documentary -- not theatre, not art -- which didn't transcend it's ache to detail an injustice.

I found Garry Stewart's choreography unrelievedly literal, especially when compared to Douglas Wright's Black Milk (which tackled very similar material in a far more reckless and brave way), William Forsythe's Three Atmospheric Studies (which distilled something universal and immensely potent out of a very specific injustice) and even, locally, Tanja Liedtke's Twelfth Floor (which might have been set in a boarding school, an asylum or detention centre... or just a block of highrise flats).

Honour Bound mixed up GTMO with Abu Ghraib, it gave the prisoners shoelaces (for fux sake) and, least forgivably of all, it politely glossed over the Australian Government's complicity in the illegal and immoral incarceration of David Hicks.

I was reminded of reports I read of standing ovations that Athol Fugard's play My Children My Africa received, show after show, in its first South African season. One writer, Nicholas Visser, commented that the audiences were giving themselves standing ovations, responding to Fugard's affirmation of their own social and political positions and values, which had come under increasing pressure in the 1980s.

In a way, educated liberal audiences in Australia -- the people this show is preaching to, the ones who need no conversion -- are not all that dissimilar. They're a vocal and fairly homogeneous -- and currently disempowered -- bloc. No standing ovations here, because we have not yet overcome... as it were. But we do now have the Fleet Post Office zip code of the beast: 09593-0025. Oh, and 2600 locally.

Alison Croggon said...

We'll have to agree to disagree, Chris. The framing of the argument as one of legal principle - eg, the opening on the Declaration of Human Rights and then the continuing collage, audio and visual, through the show of the memos, the definitions of enemy combatant and so on - for me contextualised it in such a way that the introduction of the Abu Ghraib footage opened it up legitimately to the broader questions of the infliction of violence by the State on the human body. The kind of stuff that Elaine Scarry talks about in her investigation of torture, The Body in Pain - that interrogation, the need for information, is only a pretext: what matters is the assertion of power by the State, in such a way that what happens is the erasure of a person's physical and psychic identity in the service of the power of authority. I think this show elaborates those mechanisms with great lucidity. For me, this opened Honour Bound past merely parochial concerns: if in fact it had been merely about David Hicks, and not resonated outwards with this intelligence, I would probably not have liked it so much. And it certainly indicts the Howard Government.

I agree that the Abu Ghraib images could have been cheap and gratuitous - it was an achievement that they weren't, that what happened instead was that they were made freshly shocking. That particular sequence reminded me of the horrors and perversities of a Bosch painting; and it had also those iconic resonances.

And, as I said in the review, I was impressed that this work did more than merely permit the audience to congratulate themselves. I think you are reducing considerably here the complexity of the show, and in particular the complexity of one's relationship to it. It certainly didn't fit Brecht's definition of "bourgeois art", which you seem to be quoting here, because of what it demanded from an audience: thought. And not in that cliche Rayson/Williamson way. I'm a bit tired, so not as articulate as I would like to be: but this argument about preaching to the converted can be levelled at anything, and very often is, and I wonder tiredly how anyone knows. It certainly doesn't seem a good enough reason not to do something.

(You may well be right about the choreography - I confess my knowledge of dance is hardly profound. Though fwiw I asked Gideon Obarzanek afterwards what he thought of the choreography, and he gave it the thumbs up - he thought it s "very good dance piece".)

Alison Croggon said...

Posted for David Williams - brilliant to see such thoughtful and interesting responses! - A

I'm responding to having seen Honour Bound in Sydney very early in its run, so much confess that much may have developed since then. Also I must confess to also be making theatre about the consequences of the war on terror upon Australian democracy, having been one of the key devising artists for version 1.0's The Wages of Spin, which has recently played in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Hobart, and opens in Perth on Wednesday. So I confess to a vested interest in the subject area, as well as a markedly different aesthetic to HB's.

I approached HB expecting to dislike it intensely, as per my past experience of Jameison's work - I find his engagement with spectacle difficult, and often recognise the ideas of other artists re-deployed with greater financial capital (eg. Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom is the title of Tricycle Theatre's production in the UK in 2003, of which Jamison has never publicly referenced as existing in all the mass of publicity that he has claimed, or allowed others (eg. ABC TV news) to claim that he is the only on emaking political theatre in Australia). Much to my surprise, I did quite like this work.

What I liked about it was the sheer power of the UN Declaration of Human Rights that you identitified in your review, that none of the other reviews I've read have drawn attention to. This provided a powerful link between the concept of the work, and the aesthetic of its staging, and set up the potential for a long overdue equation of the simple fact of the decline of Anglophone democracy's engagement with what we claim are our core principles. The Terry and Bev Hicks interviews are fantastic, and Terry especially clearly makes David into an ordinary, if screwed up, Aussie kid. This is also a very important political intervention. If only the work had stayed on this track, it would have been truly extraordinary instead of good.

Actively working against the normalisation of Hicks in the documentary footage, and the power of the UN declaration (clearly establishing David's normality against his demonisation and making clear that what has happened to him could happen to any of us in this current climate) is the recurrent theme in the soundtrack of Arabic music (why make out David as an 'ordinary Australian' and then suggest that the people in the camp are Others? stay on message, as the politicians say). The use of the Abu Ghraid footage further clouds the issue - the abuse may be shared across camps, but the legal status of prisoners held in occupied Iraq is not an issue in the same way as Guantanamo's extra legal status is - which is why the Agamben quote you lead with is especially appropriate. This footage muddies the issue, and is in my opinion sloppy thinking.

Also shocking to me is the clear framing of Bush and Rumsefeld as the only bad guys in the political sphere. We don't follow up any of Howard or Ruddock's sustained demonisation of Hicks, and their continual undermining of his right to a fair trial. It's trust the USA all the way with our government, and while the makers of the show can certainly assume that most of their audience will add this to the onstage action, the presence of this work so firmly in the mainstream makes this ommision telling. This for me is a major failing of the work, to really call our representatives to account. Bush is staged, once again, as a dangerous buffoon, but Howard and Ruddock are let off the hook.

As for the choreography, I agree that it is highly literal, but also highly skillful. I must confess that it left me pretty cold, as Stewart's work often does. It had a wow factor for most the audience, however. I do wonder about the virtuosic silencing crictical faculties though...

For me, Terry almost saved the work. And I wished he had been able to.

David Williams, version 1.0

David Williams
Artistic Director, version 1.0

Alison Croggon said...

NB - anyone who wishes to comment themselves and has trouble with blogger can email me a comment like David did. Email is alisoncroggon at aapt dot net dot au - (sorry for the spelling out, it's an attempt to avoid spammers and their email address harvesting robots).

Alison Croggon said...

Been thinking further on these comments. Perhaps one question I do want to ask is why is there such a demand for a clear condemnation of Howard, when the show was not about condemning, so much as initiating an argument of the head and the heart? Isn't this, paradoxically enough, a kind of nostalgia for the kind of theatre that moralises and tells you how to think? Can't we work out that the Howard Government is letting down the rule of law for ourselves?

For another view, Melbourne Stage has a similar experience to Honour Bound as I did (and highlights some aspects I neglect to mention).

Alison Croggon said...

More from David - and I want to emphasis that this discussion is very welcome...

Hi Alison,
I don't know if I'd frame my response to Honour Bound as vehemently opposed to yours; unlike Chris I quite liked the show, I just thought it had limitations, as all work does.

I don't have a nostalgia for theatre that moralises and tells audience how to think, in fact that's one of my disappointments about HB is that it (in my opinion) attempted to do just that,veering away from the courage of its convictions established so powerfully in the beginning. If it had stuck to the human rights line, with the immensely powerful reading of the documented legimate interrogation techniques, along with against Terry Hick's equally powerful attempts to tell his son's story not as an extremist, but as a normal Aussie kid, then I think it would have avoided moralising. As it was, I thought the dance element did the moralising for us, but allowed its audience to digest it as virtuositic spectacle - the spectacular visual language of detention reproduced as spectacle. This, I thought, clearly told us how to think and how to feel, and I disliked it for those reasons.

On the Howard front, I think a weakness of much recent Australian political theatre is personalising attacks on individual politicians such as Howard and Ruddock, and so my desire to hear their words in the mix is not to indict them as individuals, but like Agamben to contemplate the unravelling of the rule of law that reduces once-were-citizens like Hicks to a state of 'bare life' (homo sacer). Its not them I'm after, but their language, their framing, their active assaults on citizenship. After all, the show goes actively for Bush, showing a video of him, and buying into another trope of theatre about the war on terror - Bush is a dangerous incompent. This trap the show fell into, where the language was enough. Surely this isn't nostalgia for moralising, but rather a desire for a better civic dialogue in the theatre.

Oh and I wish Terry got better last words too...

For what's its worth, I enjoy the conversation around the work.



Alison Croggon said...

David - forgive my all-too-journalistic shorthand (the Boyd boy is probably proud to be vehement...) I wish I had more reflective time to respond - but what you say about spectacle here is a very good point that I wanted to pick up earlier - and makes me wonder about Debord and all that stuff about the society of the spectacle, and how perhaps Jamieson is using the language of spectacle - tv images, the spectacle of stage - in a parallel way. Just a speculation...

Will think further...

Alison Croggon said...

Or, of course, Jamieson is confirming the society of spectacle in, as you suggest, troubling ways...

And PS - yes, here's my take on the Two Brothers debacle - ill-health, which is not all bad, meant I missed The Habib Show.

Alison Croggon said...

Oops, forgot the second part of David's comment...A

Just briefly (gotta run to a tech rehearsal...)

It's hard also not to read the absence of Howard and Ruddock's voices in the piece in terms of Michael Kantor's statement that the Malthouse is an "apolitical company".

But I agree that audience's can certainly work out for themselves how the Australian government has broken our citizenship contract. I was just disappointed by the use of the Bush clip in that context - it seemed a too easy target in a show that seemed to be setting the bar higher. I think there's a truly amazing work in there, just needs a sharp scapel to carve away some bits to let it out.

On other political theatre, don't let me get started on Two Brothers and The Habib Show, both dreadful...


Alison Croggon said...

The postman again, this time with comments from David Lloyd

I was intrigued to read the comments on Honour Bound. Not having seen the piece, it's hard to judge, but I'm interested in the literalism that seems to drive the reservations about the show. Why would one need, in a dramatic and presumably allegorical staging, to drive a wedge between Gitmo and Abu Ghraib? In fact the Agamben quote you rightly invoke describes the general aims of the Bush regime quite accurately: by invoking terrorism it becomes possible to put the prisoners beyond the pale of law, rights, etc. Then you can do as you will. That's the fight going on in the US Court and Senate right now. How one dramatizes the larger meaning of that seems to me to involve raising the empirical to the level of "persona", mask, figure. Which is presumably why it is possible to redeploy the Abu Ghraib images with force and not as cliches, despite the risk. Is that Debordian spectacle or Debordian "situation", i.e, an intervention that uses spectacle against itself? I can't be sure obviously, but surely Debord's whole point is that, like every social formation, the technologies of the Society of the Spectacle allow for interventions in their own terms but in excess of them. At one level, that's the logic of terrorism itself, at another it is simply theatre retrieving its own metaphors from the "theatre of war"-- le spectacle, as the French say.

Alison Croggon said...

I posted the Honour Bound review url (doh!) instead of Two Brothers - this link is correct.

Tessa said...

Hi, nice to discover this blog (belatedly) through ArtsHub! Just a brief comment to say that I agree with your views and find the discussion very interesting. I'm talking about the piece in my current PhD research. I also reviewed the piece for Sydney Stage Online:


Hope to cross paths again,

Tessa Needham

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tessa - thanks, and good to see you here - you also reminded me that I was meaning to add that link!