Review: Haneef: The Interrogation ~ theatre notes

Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: Haneef: The Interrogation

Haneef: The Interrogation, by Graham Pitts, directed by Gorkem Acaroglu. Lighting design by Dori Bicchieri, set consultant Anna Cordingley. With Simon King and Adam McConvell. Courthouse Theatre, Lama, until May 3. Bookings: (03) 9347 6142.

On July 2 last year, Dr Mohamed Haneef was arrested at Brisbane Airport as he was about to fly to India. Two days earlier his second cousin, Kafeel Ahmed, had driven a jeep packed with explosives into Glasgow Airport. Haneef was the first person to be held under Australia’s new anti-terrorism legislation. He taken into custody and held for 12 days without charge on suspicion of giving “reckless assistance” to a terrorist organisation.

The link, notoriously, was that Haneef had, many months earlier, given a Sim card to Ahmed, which was allegedly used in the attempted bombing of Glasgow Airport – a claim that was later contradicted by British police. The ensuing events kept Australia transfixed. Haneef’s arrest and subsequent farcical release did more to publicly discredit the anti-terror laws than any protest campaign.

It was an extraordinary story, which produced one of the most compelling news photographs of the year: Haneef, barefoot and in prison garb, doubled over in despair in the Brisbane watch house. In the foreground, a giant padlock seemed to symbolise a new, frightening vision of Australia as a police state.

Playwright Graham Pitts has dramatised this case in Haneef: The Interrogation. He’s based his play on the transcripts of the police interrogations, which were controversially leaked to the press at the time. Haneef highlights the black comedy of the interviews (which sometimes recall in their absurdity the Pythonesque court transcripts of the Ern Malley obscenity case against Max Harris). Although it also misses some comedy gold – the scornful comments of the British police about the AFP, for instance. And it never attains the bleak power of Eddie Safarik’s news photograph.

There’s the seed of a powerful documentary drama in this play. Unfortunately, Pitts can’t resist the temptation to proselytise. The best parts of this play are the naked transcripts, which demonstrate the Malleus Maleficarum logic of guilt determined in advance. Left alone, or treated with more imaginative dramaturgy, this might have made a darkly disturbing piece of theatre.

The two actors, Adam McConvell, who plays Haneef, and Simon King, who plays the interrogating officer, step out of their roles to explain the subtext for us. King represents the unknowing public which doesn’t understand the implications of legislation that undermines habeas corpus; McConvell the alert activist angered by its injustice. It’s a device that paradoxically dampens the disturbing power of its subject matter and leaves you feeling faintly patronised.

Its most effective moment is the beginning of the play, when we stare at a darkened stage while overhearing the two actors having a stand-up argument next door before they burst on stage. But after that, it’s rather as if we’re being given a lecture.

Gorkem Acaroglu’s direction is efficient but at times unfocused: the physical movement of the actors often seems to be there merely to distract the eye. Similarly, the set – a false wall backstage, decorated with abstract pictures of the Queen and other emblems of empire,and fronted by a number of orange plastic chairs – never quite coalesces into meaning.

Backstage is a screen, on which is projected live black and white footage of the actors. Again, this feels like an idea which isn’t quite developed, and which loses its potency through repetition. There’s nothing wrong with the actors’ performances – McConvell in particular attains some real moments of power as the bewildered doctor finding himself enmeshed in an interrogation in which the most innocent of actions has a sinister meaning.

It’s a short show, around an hour, but I found my attention lagging. There’s no doubting the urgency of the impulse behind this theatre-making, but it fails the audience in its art. In a real sense, it’s as predetermined in its outcomes as Haneef’s interrogations: complexity is, after all, about more than a dialectic between two different polemics.

Crucial to Brecht’s idea of political theatre – in his Lehrst├╝cke or learning plays, for instance - was that acting out an issue created a visceral response in an audience that underpinned the intellectual reaction. (“If you get them by the balls,” as he famously said, “their hearts will follow”).

There is little sense of this theatrical viscerality in this show, which means the only possible response is to agree that yes, that anti-terrorism legislation sure is bad. In the end, it’s the kind of theatre that leaves you feeling that you’d be better off watching a good documentary.

Picture: From left: Adam McConvell and Simon King in rehearsal for Haneef: The Interrogation

A version of this review appears in today's Australian.

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