“I learned to love what they were doing to me”
Compellingly performed by a five strong cast, Lidless transfers to the Trafalgar Studios 2 after a well-received run in Edinburgh last year. It is a new play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig examining the legacy of the Guantánamo Bay interrogations and whether one really can move on from the past. Swept up in the extreme atmosphere, US Army interrogator Alice is one of the most effective workers they have, especially when it comes to a particular detainee Bashir. She takes part in a PTSD drug trial which wipes her memory of all she has been complicit in but fifteen years later, as we see she has started a new life as a florist in Texas with her husband and teenage daughter, Bashir who has not forgotten anything that happened, re-emerges with a pressing demand. His appearance shatters the fragile peace in this family as the ramifications of what Alice has repressed reverberate terribly throughout her family.
It is well acted throughout: Penny Layden’s unquestioning soldier relishes the power thrust into her hands by the military and though she has reinvented herself, Layden suggests that the violence in her is never far from the surface; Greer Dale-Foulkes brings an edgy inquisitiveness as a child in a world full of adults obscuring the truth from her and Antony Bunsee is graceful as the dignified but determined victim, relentlessly pursuing what he sees as his due.
But for a work that won the Yale Drama Series Award for Playwriting in 2009, I was a bit disappointed in the play itself. There’s a anti-US tone which is reflected in the uneasy balance between the two-dimensional US villain versus the more fully-rounded, almost saint-like persecuted victim, but the main problem comes in the mix of the personal and political here as the issues of justified torture in the war against terror are left behind as Lidless becomes a family drama longing for the depths of Greek tragedy and ending up closer to melodramatic, contrived soap opera.
The design by takis reconfigures the Trafalgar Studios 2 in the round for the first time, which isn’t quite the unqualified success one would have hoped. The arresting format that was devised for The Early Bird with its clear Perspex cube in the middle of the Finborough was magnificently effective but here, the illuminated frame that marks the space in the centre of the Trafalgar 2 feels a little superfluous. The bright lighting keeps much of the audience in view but without the sense of complicitness in the proceedings which might have made that work and the direction doesn’t play well in the round, many scenes were fairly static and blocked as if playing in traverse (I would recommend avoiding sitting at either end of the studio, if you can).
At only 75 minutes, Lidless doesn’t outstay its welcome, but with its lack of balance in the portrayal of its main characters, its refusal to entertain the shades of grey inbetween and resorting to coincidence too many times, it ends up stretching credibility rather than examining the questions that it initially poses. This ultimately made it feel like a bit of a missed opportunity, I imagine it will just be preaching to the converted here rather than actually changing anyone’s mind.