BATS Theatre
May 27-June 11 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Guardians is a play comprised of the monologues of two characters identified only as “American Girl”, and “English Boy”, a London journalist aspiring to write for the Guardian. The story of American Girl is loosely based on that of Lynndie England, who was convicted of misconduct in the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At the point of the play she is awaiting trial in an American jail, costumed in bright prison overalls. The story of the British journalist is based on a 2004 scandal at The Daily Mirror, where a fabricated photograph depicting Iraqi abuse at British soldiers’ hands was published and then exposed as a fake. Taking this well know factual background, playwright Peter Morris crafts a work that explores sexual and cultural politics in the face of a scandal and the nature of victimisation.

Despite there only being two characters, who never interact, Morris manages to offer many facets to his themes through them. The two characters contrast in every way – their gender, their education, their tone (his, cynical; hers, confessional). The only thing they seem to have in common is that they both occupied positions of guardianship: hers as a soldier commissioned to protect “freedom” in newly “liberated” Iraq; his as a protector of the “truth” and vital link in the media; the “Fourth Estate” between the governed and the governors. They are also both troubled by the part they have had to play in respect of the recent well publicised events in which they were involved and are now questioning their beliefs. Although, as mentioned, they do this in very different ways.

American Girl (played by Heather O’Carroll) is surprisingly, given the widespread condemnation of those featured as the perpetrators in the Abu Ghraib photos, the far more sympathetic of the two characters. Once I got over the slightly distracting and grating West Virginian accent, her struggle to comprehend and account for what had occurred was touching, although I was concerned that a little too much blame was being laid on the influence of a domineering man (her superior) with whom she was sexually involved. Whilst she does seem to have been the scapegoat for much larger failings, I disliked the extent of the mitigation attributed to her innocence/ignorance. This also seemed to sit uncomfortably with her challenge to the audience to examine their own complicity late in the play.

English Boy on the other hand (Sam Snedden) thinks he knows it all based on his access to material not seen by the public. But the limits of his understanding are demonstrated by his glib, grandstanding statements and the scandal he attempts to manufacture. He’s obviously read his Foucault at Oxford: “An ordinary person’s experience of power is invariably centred on its sexual manifestations.” But his personal experiences are far more complex – the boyfriend that he claims to love and yet enjoys compromising and degrading is a clear example. The danger of using sex as a power tool becomes obvious in both stories – it’s hardly a new theme, but the Abu Ghraib photos have perhaps illustrated its latest manifestation.

A concerning link between sex and moral degradation is implicit in the play. The sexual nature of both the real and faked pictures is foregrounded, and this in turn is lined inextricably to positions of power. The boy is a sexual sadist, the girl a masochist (despite the photos) – so he is victimiser and she is victim, despite appearances. And that doesn’t even get into their class differences. There is something too facile — and predictable — in both portraits, of a tabloid journalist as a moral reprobate, and a regular member of the Army as the exploited pawn of authority and a symbol of American social injustice. Perhaps this could have been remedied to an extent if the play had demonstrated a few more commonalities between the two characters although that would sit uncomfortably with the monologue form. Not much insight is offered into what makes people with initially “good” aspirations go bad in positions of power that owe duties to others. What we do get is a more personal insight into events/ that are incredibly hard to comprehend when viewed as a set of explosive images. As the English Boy points out, the Abu Ghriab pictures were the perfect caption-less pictures – but this seems to troublingly suggest that they don’t require explanation and interrogation. The play tries to provide some of this. However, reducing explanation to the abuse of power and corrupting influence of sex also feels inadequate.

The play is nonetheless, provocative and well directed by Damon Andrews and performed with conviction by O’Carroll and Snedden. The monologue form sustained my interest, although it is fairly statically staged on a raised white box, brightly lit by Rob Larsen We seem to be getting offered many theatrical perspectives on the war with Iraq specifically, and Western moral ambivalence generally – this one is a welcome addition to the mix. Despite my objections to its messages – explicit or implicit, I thought it was a highly worthwhile and thought provoking watch.