Kirsten Kearney catches the National Theatre of Scotland at OMAC
Snuff. The flyer should have given it away. A man sits, mesh sack on his head, legs bound to a chair and hands tied behind his back. A snuff movie? This only dawns on me as the same man appears on the stage in front of me, after I have pondered cocaine habits and Victorian solutions for bad odours.
Who can you trust? Emblazoned across the Scarface poster clinging to the wall of Kevin’s dingy flat these words sum up many of the discordant themes within the play.
Barricaded in behind his locked door, Kevin’s world has turned upside down in the two years that his friend Billy has been away with the British army in Iraq. Disempowered and disengaged from reality, Kevin’s high-rise council flat block has been filled with asylum seekers in the dead of night without informing the other inhabitants.
‘Naebody telt me!’ screams Kevin. ‘Naebody telt me!’
Glaswegian actor Brian Ferguson shrinks himself into the cowed body and mind of Kevin and creates a character perfect in its portrayal of a man right on the edge of disintegration.
The transformation of Ferguson, the Stage Best Actor for the cocky soldier Cammy in Black Watch, into the pathetic figure of Kevin is testament to his ability to inhabit a character and present them 100% believably on the stage.
Racist and delusional, Kevin’s character allows for director Davey Anderson to toss around ideas and concepts fresh out of the furore over the war in Iraq. The central scene in the play sees Kevin dress Billy in a Guantanamo Bay regulation bright orange jumpsuit, tie him to the only chair in the flat and hood him.
As loud dance music plays, Kevin turns into a snuff movie king, as he threatens Billy with a gun, balaclava-clad in front of his own video camera. This scene is the most potent in the play and expresses the empowered-disempowered concept central to Snuff. Bouncing with energy for the only time in the play, Kevin, whose life has crumbled around him, becomes empowered, bullying and destructive.
Ferguson’s disconcerting portrayal of Kevin answers no questions and allows for no easy conclusions. As he re-enacts torture scenes, albeit with an empty gun, Kevin steps inside his vision of Billy’s world and becomes the master of it.
Billy’s world is not heroic or complete. A Glasgow ned, Billy signed up for the war because he was bored and felt he was nobody. Two years on, he is home on leave and does not want to go back. Haunted by nightmares of suicide bombers, Billy’s story is only alluded to and much or most is left unknown.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s prize-winning Black Watch play fills in the gaps that Snuff leaves gaping open.
Steven Ritchie appears on the stage as the quintessential spide. Clad in a shell-suit, Ritchie’s Billy hides his history beneath his youthful confidence. The gradual slippage of this mask is masterfully handled and slowly revealed. Seated in front of a Union Jack with the video camera turned on him, Billy’s brash exterior crumbles under Kevin’s insistent questioning.
‘I have photographs I shouldn’t have,’ confesses Billy, in direct reference to the much-maligned photographs of American soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners. In the person of Billy, Anderson also draws the thin line between abused and abuser and illustrates the human cost of the war, on both civilian and soldier.
The play’s third character, Kevin’s sister Pamela, played by Siobhan Reilly, appears only within Kevin’s video-taped world, but her presence or more accurately her absence haunts the play. Reilly’s portrayal of a happy-go-lucky young woman contrasts with the misery around her, but the darkness within her world is not far beneath the surface.
Snuff is a play full of holes. Maybe deliberately. There are frequent clever directorial asides that the audience may pick up on; the Heat magazine neatly filed and categorised in Kevin’s system, the mock-up of the Daily Mail with the word SURRENDER! above Blair’s face.
The sacking of the new England football manager Steve McLaren on the back page, setting this play in some sort of future. Hiding the question Who can you trust? behind the Union Jack on the wall. The flames that emerge from the kitchen at the end, as 'Rule Britannia' plays.
While perhaps deliberate, the lack of development of many of the topics raised within the play is frustrating. While major issues are raised; the treatment and integration of asylum seekers in Scotland, the disintegration of civil society, the cost to young soldiers of involvement in a major conflict situation and the abuses meted out on prisoners, it seems that they are dropped all too quickly, without dealing with them in enough depth.
There is the feeling that too much is going on within such a short play. However, the play is deeply intense, challenging and puzzling, leaving the audience to ponder over the unanswered questions and about their own response to the play, the characters and to the war.
‘One of the reasons I do theatre is to try and change things,’ Ferguson says. ‘Good new writing that opens people's eyes to what's going on in the world can only be a good thing.’
Perhaps this is the cleverest of directorial tricks. After 60 minutes of Snuff, the drama is actually only beginning.
It isn’t often that the National Theatre of Scotland grace the boards of Belfast. And the National Theatre of Scotland Unmissable at that. So it was a shame that so few Northern Irish theatregoers turned out to OMAC to see it. But for those who were there, the Arches Theatre Company produced a drama that was definitely not to be missed.