Detainee A

here's a play by a bunch of bright, hip, streetwise young adults who dare to depict the possibility that the powers that be might occasionally get it right

Article by Dylan Matthew | 09 Aug 2007
It was a refreshing surprise that a play entitled Detainee A wasn't simply a variation on the well worn theme of the unjust treatment of political prisoners or terrorist suspects awaiting trial. One wouldn't want to detract from the important role such works play but when we've become inured from media exposure, the trick would be to present it in a new and accessible way. Ankur Productions have managed to do just that with this engaging and surprisingly moving ensemble piece, cobbled together by an unusually diverse cast and crew of multi-racial, ethnic and religious origin, tackling those very themes of identity within a fractured society.

The premise is straightforward: the idyll and innocence of the Glasgow based Malik family - a typically 'happy' middle class dysfunctional family - is shattered when anti-terrorist police burst in and arrest the eldest son, Ali. And this is where the text happily diverges from cliché for after Ali's bundled dramatically out the house, not only do we never see him again but we don't even find out what happens to him while incarcerated nor discover the outcome of his case. The story stays firmly in the living room with the remaining family as the shock and disbelief sets in. What initially begins as rallying cry to support each other slowly turns to arguments and recriminations as the seeds of doubt are planted about their son's potentially radical beliefs, activities and private life. It's a slow burning but cleverly realised breakdown as the onion layers are peeled away to reveal hidden truths and the awful possibility that their son, as well as other friends in the community, may not be whom they seem.

And this is what's quite brave about this play. While part of our post-9/11 outrage is justifiably focused on the unjust detention and treatment of hundreds of terrorist 'suspects' and the appalling treatment in Scotland of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, here's a play by a bunch of bright, hip, streetwise young adults who dare to depict the possibility that the powers that be might occasionally get it right. As uncomfortable as this seems, the Detainee A experience unravels further to depict both a philosophical outlook on a radical extremist's point of view as well as examine the more subtle forces at work that could alter someone's essential nature. We're forced to ask ourselves - are these people guilty or merely good souls whose minds have been twisted. And how culpable is the family in failing to provide a wholesome environment?

The heart of Detainee A and its real message comes during its genuinely moving denouement when Ali's friend Yusef reveals that people can turn down dark paths simply in order to belong to something that pays attention to them, that gives them an identity and a place where they feel valued. Here, this primal need is revealed to be a byproduct of Yusef's strained relations with his father, but ultimately he is not beyond regret and redemption. This is the point when you suddenly remember the play has been peppered with casual references about what it means to be British/Scottish/Muslim/Asian/White or combinations thereof and what it means to combine with them. That's the crux of the play, the paradox that, for all our universal traits and shared humanity, we still need to stamp ourselves with a sense of separateness in order to recognise and display where we fit in.

Adapted by Vivien Adam from Shahid Nadeems' screenplay Mistaken, and directed by rising stage and screen star Cora Bissett, this is stirring and topical stuff, all the more impressive for its mostly non-professional cast who have workshopped this into shape in their spare time over the last year. Notable turns come from Sharita Scott whose vocal protestations are the conscience of the family, Omar Raza as the emotional teen brother and Tagz Nazeer whose confident and charismatic presence lends strength to the pivotal role of Yusef, perhaps an actor to keep an eye out for in future.

It's a tad slow and repetitive in places but it's kept alive and vital by enough visual and dramatic touches, some good performances and a thoughtful and emotional payoff.

The Arches, Glasgow. Run ended.