Pitts’ technique is fairly straightforward in form, if not necessarily in execution. The play starts with a pithy exchange between Haneef and his Interrogator, which then abruptly ends after a mere minute or two, and the actors break character and take a bow. They then proceed to talk, to each other, and at us, about the events they were depicting. This pattern then continues, with the actors going back to the chronological beginning of Haneef’s interrogation and enacting scenes of his questioning, periodically interrupted by outbursts of indignation (usually from the one playing Haneef) and debates over the injustice of the real case being portrayed.
Thus, using a straightforward metatheatrical device, the play works on two levels: we have the actors making comment on true events which they are dramatising, interspersed with the ongoing performance of said dramatisation itself. Except… one must keep in mind that these interjections by the Actors are, of course, scripted, and are just as much a performance as the interrogation segments. These are actors playing “the Actors”, and what we see is, ultimately, a play within a play.
An essential part of this dramatic framework is opposition working on both levels. Within the play, Haneef and his Interrogator have an obvious opposition of purpose, while at the same time the Actors on their separate metatheatrical plane are experiencing a difference of perspective as well. The Actor playing Haneef (because this, ultimately, is also a character) is constantly interjecting, bringing the action to a halt to voice his exasperation over Haneef’s situation and the injustice of the new anti-terrorism legislation for which the doctor was the first guinea pig. While this is partially addressed to the audience, he is primarily trying to engage and convince the Actor playing the Interrogator, who is defensive, uncomfortable and indignant, but for different reasons. While not asserting any personal belief that Haneef (the real one) was actually guilty, this Actor is taking the side of the Interrogator (again, the real one), repeatedly pointing out that the laws were followed correctly and that suspicion of Haneef was not unreasonable. That, and the fact that he simply wants to get on with the play (within the play) without all the interruptions.
And so it goes, intercutting between the representation of the actual interrogation of Haneef and the increasingly personal debate between the Actors as to whether the laws in question are reasonable, and whether the Muslim doctor was treated unjustly. The Actor playing the Interrogator gradually relaxes his defense of the (real) Interrogator and increasingly concedes his own doubts about the laws and their use, albeit falling short of total capitulation.
However, here is where it gets a little murky as to quite where the character of the Actor ends and that of the Interrogator begins. The Actor playing the Interrogator seems at times to be speaking very much as if he was the Interrogator, as though he is defending himself, not the character he is playing. This is where Pitts’ metatheatrics are in danger of coming unstuck, as the line between Actor/character and Character/character get blurred. It leads one to reconsider the whole premise: why are these two “Actors” with opposed views on the subject matter playing these characters, who are real people? Why would someone defending the (real) Interrogator want to participate in a production that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Haneef? Of course, it doesn’t pay to take all this quite so literally.
While Pitts’ examination of this disturbing infringement of our rights is commendable and very timely, his artifice of presenting the “real actors’” conflicting opinions is nevertheless problematic. Although this is surely a device for notionally showing both sides of the story, the authorial voice is all too clear, and any suggestion of balance seems disingenuous.
That said, however, this is nevertheless a very promising piece, and a rewarding one to watch. Both actors (the actual ones, this time) are excellent. Adam McConvell does a wonderful job of switching effortlessly between a very convincing portrayal of the heavily-accented Haneef and the entirely different impassioned Actor portraying him, down to some very subtle physical nuances. Simon King shows less overt distinctions between his Actor and the Interrogator "he" plays, but does so with a winning pathos that eventually brings you around to caring for the character(s), even if you don’t agree with them.
Although there are a few niggling issues regarding its central theatrical device, Haneef: The Interrogation is a very strong piece of theatre “ripped from the headlines”, and on a topic of grave importance. Would that there were more such plays being written.
La Mama presents
HANEEF: THE INTERROGATION
by Graham Pitts
Venue: Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton
Dates: April 16 – May 3, 2008
Times: Weds & Suns @ 6.30pm, Thurs - Sats @ 8.00pm
Duration: 60 mins approx.
Tickets: $20 (full) / $10 (concession)