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A CurtainUp London London Review

I keep dreaming about the sparrows we kept in the bamboo cages we bought from the Chinese trader. How sorry you felt for them. How we sang to them every morning. There were so many birds in Cuba. Some so small they flew into my cage, sometimes perching on my knee. It's a funny world isn't it, Zakiyah? First it was us singing to the caged birds; then I was in the cage, and the . . .. the birds were singing to me. — Bashir
Greer Dale-Foulkes as Rhiannon
(Photo: Bill Knight)
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play Lidless won, amongst others, the 2009 Yale Drama Series Award for Playwriting 2009 and a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010. It's centred on a re-union after fifteen years between a detainee in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and his female interrogator. Turning the traditional idea of a male oppressor and a female victim around, we hear how American women soldiers, by using their sex to entice and humiliate, tried to break down Muslim prisoners accused of aiding Al Quaida. These tactics were endorsed by the American army in the ‘war against terror’.

The early scene is set in Cuba in 2004 where a US Army medic of Iraqi origin, Riva (Nathalie Armin) is telling Alice (Penny Layden) that she must not leave any more bruises or lacerations on the Muslim prisoner, Pakistani-Canadian Bashir (Anthony Bunsee). Fifteen years later Bashir, dying from liver disease comes to Texas to find his tormentor to demand half her liver in recompense.

Alice now aged 40 has left the army, is working as a florist and has little memory as to what she did in ‘Gitmo’ because of the drugs taken to erase her memory. She was determined not to have the nightmares her father had on his return from Vietnam. Alice is living with her husband, reformed drug user, Lucas (Christian Bradley) and her teenage daughter Rhiannon (Greer Dale-Foulkes). Alice and Lucas tend not to talk about their troubled past lives. Rhiannon is interested, almost obsessive, to find out about her mother's army service and strikes up a friendship with Bashir.

Quite apart from the originality of its theme, Lidless is written in lyrical, rhythmic prose with detailed imagery and metaphor returning to the theme of birds free to fly or caged. There are parallels between the pet goldfish that Rhiannon watches die and the orange fish the Guantanamo detainees were compared to with their orange jump suits and black goggles made out of diving masks taped over to sensorily deprive them. Whereas in Edinburgh, the audience was confined within the white light cage, at the Trafalgar the cast play within a cube of neon tubes which fizz and flicker with the action.

Of the actors, Antony Bunsee is compelling as the troubled ex-detainee and Penny Layden has a cool detachment, a distance she puts between herself and her past life. As her daughter Rhiannon, Greer Dale-Foulkes is a quirky teenager full of contradiction and enquiry.

There are moments when Steven Atkinson's production feels over worked as the director wants to do full justice to Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's remarkable script but this is a most original play, albeit with an ending which is tidier than the many difficult issues the play raises.

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Written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Directed by Steven Atkinson

Starring: Penny Layden, Antony Bunshee
With: Christian Bradley, Nathalie Armin, Greer Dale-Foulkes
Design: takis
Lighting: Matt Prentice
Sound: Steve Mayo
Running time: One hour 15 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 2nd April 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th March 2011 performance at the Trafalgar Studios Two, Whitehall, London SW1A 2D (Rail /Tube: Charing Cross)

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