Why did they put me in a cardigan?

In my first-ever depiction on the London stage the actor gets my words right, but my look wrong.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

It feels strange to review a play in which you’re actually depicted. I know I should explain what the play is about and whether it’s any good, but all I can keep thinking to myself is: Why did they put me in a cardigan? Why did they give me a poncy, pretentious voice? And do I really say ‘It strikes me’ and ‘It seems to me’ that bloody often?

Project E: An Explosion, currently showing at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, is the latest production from the Work Theatre Collective, a group of actors, directors and producers founded in 2003 which creates new drama collaboratively: they research themes, improvise storylines and then write and refine the script as a team. They recently won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award – a £35,000 grant awarded to innovative dramatists – and this is the result.

It’s an experimental work. Unfortunately the experiment is not a great success. The play explores the explosion as a metaphor for contemporary society: not just the literal explosions created by terrorists, but also explosions of rage in atomised individuals and those explosions conjured up by pyrotechnic-loving film directors. The rather clunky story – involving a customs official, her Buddhist dad who is also an undercover spy, a strip joint, a film director and a criminal gang that plants bombs – is interspersed with the words of real-life writers and philosophers musing over the meaning of explosive violence. That’s where I come into it.

The dramatic action is broken up by dramatised interviews, where the actors adopt the personas of various thinkers and repeat their words verbatim. Think of it as philosophical relief. There are snippets from French film director Francois Truffaut’s famous interview with Alfred Hitchcock in 1967, when they mulled over the nature of suspense. We’re given a glimpse into a rather irritating interview with Jean Baudrillard from 1993, in which the notoriously postmodern French philosopher discusses ‘What is an interview?’ (maybe that interview never really happened…) And then there’s the dramatisation of me in conversation with Faisal Devji, author of Landscapes of the Jihad, at an event at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in July this year.

Devji comes out of it well. He is played by the tall, dark and brooding Alex Zorbas, dressed in a black suit and white shirt, who gets Devji’s South Asian accent just right. I, on the other hand, am played by Jim Pyke – a fine actor, yes, but also a little on the short side and with thinning hair. He wears a cardigan and speaks in an excitable voice, looking and sounding more like an Open University presenter circa 1984 than Brendan O’Neill circa 2006.

The look may be someone else’s, but the words – for better or worse – are my own. They reproduce my argument that al-Qaeda chops and changes its political positions in tune with debates in the West, with Osama bin Laden shifting from obsessing over Saudi Arabia in the mid-Nineties to Palestine after 9/11 and then Iraq from 2003 onwards. ‘He sounds increasingly to me like Michael Moore’, says Jim Pyke’s Brendan O’Neill, which I’m pleased to say got a bit of a laugh.

They also have me discussing how ‘exceptionally narcissistic’ al-Qaeda is, as reflected in Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer’s video testimonies explaining why they executed 7/7. ‘ I wonder if al-Qaeda can be seen as an extreme form of the politics of identity. I wonder if the reason [the 7/7 bombers] believed they could speak for the entire Muslim world is because they have been nurtured in a culture where identity overrides almost everything else’, my character says. (Mental note to self: stop saying ‘I wonder’.) Unfortunately, though, Pyke says these words in a somewhat pretentious voice, his hand rubbing his chin almost professorially, which made me come across as more pompous than I am. Honest.

The play is a good idea, and full of good ideas (if I do say so myself). But the various multilayered strands never quite come together. For example, the team selected some brilliant material from Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock. The two directors (Pyke this time playing Truffaut, with more swagger and verve, of course, than he played me) are depicted discussing Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, in which a gang of saboteurs from an unnamed European country carries out a series of bomb attacks in London. Truffaut accuses Hitchcock of having crossed the line – and abused his position as a director – by allowing the boy in the film, who unwittingly delivers a bomb for the gang leader, to be blown up. Hitchcock gallantly agrees this was a ‘terrible error’, and says he now realises that the real terror of a bomb is not in seeing it go off but in waiting for it to go off, in expecting it to happen. ‘There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it’, he says.

In many ways, Hitchcock’s observation captures what is most scary about contemporary terrorism. It is not the terrorists’ bombs that terrify us, but our own anticipation of their bombs. Their attacks come and go without doing much long-term damage. It is our fear of their attacks that does the real damage, in political, social and democratic terms. So al-Qaeda’s success is in tapping into Western society’s profound paranoia and giving rise to an ever-represent atmosphere of Hitchcockian suspense (he said, rubbing his chin professorially).

And yet, the Work Theatre Collective’s insightful research into Hitchcock’s and others’ thoughts on drama, suspense and explosions never quite crosses over into the parallel story, which appears rushed and confused, untouched by the broader interesting themes thrown up by the play’s experimental moments of philosophical relief. The end result is a kind of schizophrenic split between high-brow musings and a storyline more suited to The Bill.

Finally, I can’t help reflecting on the hall-of-mirrors nature of my first-ever depiction on the stage. Part of the conversation between Devji and I at the ICA explored how al-Qaeda’s explosions are essentially a performance, made-for-TV terrorism that is meant to be seen and heard rather than to effect real change. We also remarked on the irony of us discussing this ‘performance terrorism’ at a prestigious institution – the ICA – known, amongst other things, for putting on the performing arts. Now our discussion in a performance arts venue of al-Qaeda’s performance terrorism has been reproduced in an experimental play performed in Battersea – and I am writing about my experience of watching an actor performing my discussion of al-Qaeda’s performance terrorism. I guess this is the form that aftershocks take in our era of performance terrorism – not so much spin-off violence, but spin-off performances. It is weird and postmodern on so many levels. Baudrillard would be proud.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

This article was first published on Culture Wars. Project E: An Explosion runs until 19 November. For more information visit the BAC website. Read the full transcript of Brendan O’Neill’s conversation with Faisal Devji here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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