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June 02, 2010

The Empire is not as predictable a play about Afghanistan as you might expect from the Royal Court, argues Brendan Simms: D. C. Moore's The Empire at the Royal Court

Posted by Brendan Simms

D. C. Moore's The Empire
directed by Mike Bradwell
Royal Court Theatre, London
Theatre Upstairs
31 March - 8 May 2010

The first thing that hits you is the heat. I don't know whether it was intentional, but the Royal Court Upstairs was sweltering on a fresh evening. It may not have been dusty, but it felt so. The attention of the audience was directed instinctively towards the ubiquitous water bottles being carried, cradled and drained by the British troops on stage. Welcome to Afghanistan 2010, which this cracking production of D. C. Moore's The Empire brings vividly to life over eighty minutes or so.

At the start of the play, an Afghan interpreter called Paddy (Josef Altin) and a British squaddie called Gary (Joe Armstrong) carry in an unconscious and injured captive suspected of having taken part in an ambush earlier that day. In his shalwar kameez the prisoner looks the classic Taliban, perhaps a foreign fighter from across the border. "Paddy" - whose real name is Hafizullah - confidently announces that he is "Punjabi. From Pakistan".

Once the man regains consciousness, however, all the certainties dissolve. Zia may be Punjabi (by origin), but he is certainly not from Pakistan. On the contrary, the captive announces in perfect English that he hails from Newham in London. He claims to have been visiting relatives in Pakistan before a spontaneous excursion which had resulted in being kidnapped by a local militia. Needless to say, Gary does not believe him and his determination to make Zia confess, aggravated by news of the death of his buddy Phipps from injuries sustained in the ambush, leads him to use ever more brutal methods of interrogation.

Eventually, his commanding officer Simon (Rufus Wright), who is concerned to keep Zia alive for further questioning and in order to avoid the death of a British subject in captivity, has to disarm Gary. The play ends without us finding out whether or not Zia actually did carry out the attack.

Empire, is a work of startling authenticity, confirmed not only be details of the background research revealed in the post-play discussion, but also by the intervention of a bona fide member of the audience, an officer in the Grenadier Guards. Not only did the writer and veteran Patrick Hennessey, author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club, act as a consultant, but the man who played Simon comes himself from a military family. He exuded that air of effortless superiority which allows off-duty military men, and only them, to wear purple corduroys and pink socks with confidence. Even the brutish Afghan National Army man, Jalandar (Imran Khan), who wishes to dispatch Zia without more ado is played by a man of Afghan descent.

All the same, this is not really a play about Afghanistan, or even about the war. The real battle in which these three Englishmen are engaged is the class conflict between Gary and Simon, and the cultural struggle of both against Zia. "Quick, inny", Gary mimics Simon, "No wonder he got all them f-ing A levels". Later he gestures towards Zia and remarks that his school was "full of cunts like him".

Zia, who is clearly some sort of Islamic fundamentalist, if not necessarily a terrorist, tells Gary and Simon (and British society in general) "I come to Lahore, just to get away from the the, the noise of you", including "public school blonde bitch[es]", "black girl[s]", "Surrey" and "Richmond", a broad range of antipathies.

Simon expresses himself a little more eloquently, but in the course of the play he delivers a robust defence of his background, and one infers that his military service is a form of escapism from the world of Gary and Zia. The three of them would almost never have met back in British Civvy Street. They have all gone to Afghanistan to get away from each other, and yet Zia, Gary and Simon find themselves, Moore seems to be saying, eyeball to eyeball in the rubble of an Afghan building. The gulf that divides them at home, remains unbridged abroad. There is no phoney bonding between Gary and Zia, so that a desultory conversation about football soon peters out. The two remain as unreconciled at the end as they are in the beginning.

The politics of The Empire are not as straightforward as one might think. On the one hand, Zia's hyperbolic, post-torture and clearly ironic "confession" towards the end is meant to suggest that if you construct somebody as a terrorist he will eventually end up becoming one. The title of the play The Empire is also a bit of a giveaway: its use, in the context, is invariably pejorative. Gary defines it as:

Doing shit like this. For cunts like you [Simon]. And my granddad. India…Thick cunts led by posh cunts, hitting brown cunts. Way it is. Even now.
On the other hand, Zia's grievances against British society may be aired at length, but they are hardly indulged. He is given plenty of rope to hang himself with. At the end of his increasing manic rant against the shallowness of British society, the audience sympathises with Simon's response that he reminds him of his son,
Ungrateful. Self-important. Incoherent. You've got it all.
However effective dramatically, and satisfying as a put-down, Simon's reply is a cop-out. At this point in the proceedings, we badly need somebody to explain why Zia is wrong. We have to be told why his choice to flee the benefits of a free society in Britain to seek illusory solace in the "purity" of Pakistan is not comparable to Gary and Simon's willingness to put their lives on the line to make Afghanistan a better place, for the sake of its population and security of the western world, Britain not least.

Ironically, at least some of the missing words are spoken by Zia himself, in one of his more lucid moments earlier in the play. Itching to return home, he yearns for

Decent cars. Decent TV. Decent. Women. All of it, you know? Something to do. Anything. You don't realise till you go. What you. Miss.
Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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