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Rendition Monologues
Published on Saturday, 22 August 2009

Part of both the Fringe and the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, St John's Church this week plays host to Rendition Monologues. This serious and committed play tackles one of the murkiest and most controversial issues of our time: the acknowledged practice of transferring prisoners, outside of legal process, for interrogation overseas.

To my surprise, I found Rendition Monologues is performed as a semi-staged reading - a perfectly valid artistic decision, but one I fear may confuse the wider audience here at the Fringe. It does mean, though, that the play can be taken anywhere: with just a few boxes for props and folders to read from, it's as easy to set up here in the magnificent St John's as it would be in a church hall anywhere. That was, I'm told, an essential component of a work that's designed to travel - drawing as much attention as it can to this important, though controversial, issue.

And within the constraints of the travelling format, Rendition Monologues works very well. The script is based, we're told, on the verbatim statements of four subjects of rendition - a point that's effectively highlighted in a striking opening sequence where, one by one, the four male actors present themselves to "testify". The performance moves well between quiet contemplation and sudden, startling shouting, with the other actors temporarily stepping out of their roles to play interrogators, officials and guards.

On one level, the play certainly succeeds. I was both surprised and concerned by the Kafkaesque world it portrayed, where it seemed a single denouncement from a hugely unreliable source was enough to trigger a process of imprisonment and (it's claimed) torture. The script does well, too, to point out the similarities between the disparate accounts - a fact which many may believe lends credence to the men's separate stories. And if the testimonies can be believed, the men's ultimate release without charge was as unexpected and perplexing as their original abduction.

In this country, the best-known case of rendition is Binyam Mohamed - a British resident arrested in Pakistan but interrogated in Morocco, ending his journey in American custody at Guantanamo Bay. The notorious moment when, Binyam states, his genitalia were mutilated with a razor blade was particularly well acted; actor Ery Nzaramba perfectly portrays Binyam's futile attempt to remain dispassionate while describing his version of events, all the while creepily accompanied haunting live music. The music, indeed, was a slow-burning highlight, kicking in at the point that each man was taken by the authorities and lending additional focus and structure to the play.

So it got my attention, but was I convinced? Well - not quite. Rendition Monologues is an advocacy play, as it has every right to be, and the statements it makes are carefully and explicitly sourced. Still, I felt it suffered from being so heavily dependent on the men's contested testimony; it could have gained a little further credence by admitting another point of view. It's telling, I think, that when a Government minister at last gets to speak - in a transcript from the Today programme near the end - the presenter constantly interrupts him. The contrast with the unquestioned acceptance of the rendition subjects' testimonies sat uneasily with me.

I realise, though, that I'm missing the point: this isn't a play to convert the uncertain, it's a rallying cry for the already-aware who want to hear a little more. In that role, Rendition Monologues is a compelling and valuable addition to the debate - and for all of us, it's a reminder of how much we should cherish both artistic and personal freedom.

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