hurr 2

Rich Jevons reviews Hurr by Javaad Alipoor at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford …

To say I enjoyed the Research & Development sharing of Javaad Alipoor’s Hurr would be an outright lie – it is one of the most uncomfortable theatrical experiences I’ve had in some three decades of stage reporting. But as a piece of agitprop that totally immerses you in its subject of the incarceration and mistreatment of ‘insurgents’ on the ‘front line’ by ‘The Company’ it is simply outstanding.

Whilst it is frequently squirmishly unsettling, terrifying and disturbing the fact that all four characters switch roles from interrogator to victim, torturer to tortured means that there is no over-simplified polarisation of characters of goodie versus baddie, white hat against black hat.

Right from the outset the seriousness of the situation is offset by the script’s black humour and absurdism (there is an argument over there being red onion in a sandwich, for example.) Ostensibly there are polarities though, the insurgents and peaceniks up against the conspirational Company. Uzma Kazi’s suitably nightmarish set consists of broken leads and wires and a range of archaic-looking surveillance cameras that indicate a detention centre on the front line of a desert war. But Alipoor’s text cleverly never makes any attempt to allude to a particular conflict or even geographical context which gives the piece a more universal breadth, similar in this sense to Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984.

As well as the text’s absurdism, the Movement Director Ayo Jones’ input manages to literally soften the blow of the torture scenes through carefully choreographed set pieces. This does not make them less sadistic but does remind you that this is a piece of theatre that wants to ask some deep (and rarely asked) questions.

I wasn’t too clear about the link to Taziyeh, a form of passion play performed throughout the Muslim world by Shia Muslims (explained more fully in my interview with Javaad Alipoor for Northern Soul) but the sight of bound crossed hands from which hangs the tortured bodies of the ‘detainees’ (be careful not to say ‘prisoners’) does have an intensely religious ramification.

hurr production still 4
Photos courtesy of Imran Manzoor.

As already mentioned the four actors all shift roles which is at times a tad confusing but does serve its purpose of denying us stereotypical identities. Keeley Lane as sometime ‘doctor’ sometime ‘prisoner’ is particularly powerful. Very aware of her body language and every little facial tic she deftly and seamlessly alternates between sinister and vulnerable.

Kaz Sangha in the title role plays a complex character again incredibly multi-faceted from violent and aggressive determination to madness and frailty, not at all the magazine-cover war hero he could have been perceived as being. And Michael Forrest as Shemr and Interrogation Assistant strikes a strikingly militaristic pose without appearing gung-ho or reckless, more coldly calculating and secretive scheming.

Then Daniel Priestley as Rahman really captures the duality of his roles, acting out some of the most exasperating and thought-provoking scenes of inhumanity and depravity imaginable. And imaginable is the operative word here: our imagination is forced to recognize and to a certain extent identify with the action onstage. There are certainly no easy exits for what is a horrifying and harrowing ordeal of a performance.

Hurr production still 1

Particular mention should be made of Ross Elliott’s sound design which adds another dimension to the utterly immersive and totality of this theatre. And I’m not going to elaborate on the narrative aspects of the piece (that would be an unforgiveable spoiler) except to say that this is already a well-crafted and carefully planned work that has a great potential to bring some of the pressing issues of the day (and again we can be general here rather than specific) to the attention of a wide range of audiences in a variety of settings.

Hurr will send you to hell and back again but still allow you the intelligence and rationality to wonder why, which is more than some victims worldwide will ever have. And as for Hurr as a character, despite his obvious monstrosity, we can still empathise with him and hope for an end to the demons in his mind brought about through the traumas of the ‘war on terror’.

Agitprop and full of angst it may be, pedantic or preachy it ain’t, and I think that’s what makes it so remarkable. And it certainly did not go gentle into this particular balmy summer night.

As seen at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford, 19 July 2014.

hurr production till 3