Sunday, 22 March 2015

Shrapnel 34, review: “Compelling, moving, and at times deeply uncomfortable viewing for Turks”

Ferhat (Tuncay Akpınar) with what remains of his brother-in-law Hüsnü. Photo by Nick Rutter

By İpek Özerim

On 28 December 2011, two Turkish jets dropped bombs on a human convoy close to the Turkish-Iraqi border, killing 34 of a group of 40 people. The official view: based on US intelligence, the strike had targeted PKK militants crossing the border. In reality, they had killed unarmed civilians – mostly teenagers – of Kurdish origin from Uludere village (Roboski in Kurdish) on a smuggling run that their village regularly undertook to bring back cheap diesel and cigarettes from Iraq.

Writer Anders Lustgarten puts this tragic episode into sharp focus with his powerful new play Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre. The drama unfolds around the villagers who embark on this journey, their personal stories interspersed with the wider aspects of the massacre: the arms trade, the role of the media, the ideologies that underpin the Turkish Republic, and attitudes towards Kurds.

Simple props and quick changeovers by the cast, who all play multiple roles, rotate the story around six overlapping areas told in 34 short scenes: the village, Turkish Armed Forces on duty, the journey across the mountains, awards ceremonies, a media news room, an arms manufacturer, and nerdy engineers in an arms factory. 
Hüsnü (Aslam Percival Husain) Savaş (Josef Altin) 

up in the mountains. Photo by Nick Rutter
The play opens with video footage of children reciting their oath to the Turkish republic – “Türküm, doğruyum, çalışkanım…” – a pledge all Turkish pupils have made since 1933, but which was abolished by the AKP government in 2013.

In scene 2, a cast member steps into a single spotlight and gives us a brief snippet about the life of Nevzat Encü aged 19. His family celebrated his birthday around his headstone. The heavy mood of the play is set from hereonin.

We enter Roboski as Ferhat (Tuncay Akpınar) is trying to placate his pregnant sister Semira (Karina Fernandez). She is upset that Ferhat has opted to stay behind to watch the big football derby, while sending his 14-year-old son Savaş on the smuggling run instead.

In a Turkish army barracks, a rookie soldier (Ryan Wichert) has to deal with his bullying superior officer (David Kirkbride), a large man whose bellowing voice alone intimidates. Their exchange is set in the aftermath of another tragedy: the deaths of 23 Turkish soldiers killed in a clash with the PKK.

Nationalist commentator (Karina Fernandez)
. Photo by Nick Rutter 
Lustgarten also presents us with the two faces of the media. First, a reporter trying to tell the truth about the massacre as she sees it, who is admonished by her News Editor mindful of the official version of events. On the flipside, an award-winning commentator whose strident acceptance speech redefines who is the victim and who the aggressor, an allegorical scene that would work equally well for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One of the most memorable scenes involves an executive for an arms manufacturer giving a slick PowerPoint presentation (delivered superbly by Aslam Percival Husain) about their “impeccably” performing weaponry. Having taken us through their considerable arsenal of death, he asks without a trace of irony, “Are we really on the side of the angels?” before telling us world peace depends on the defence sector.

Directed by Arcola Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen, Shrapnel is a compelling, moving play performed masterfully by its cast, but at times it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing for Turks. Those familiar with the history of Turkey will know its Kurdish minority have suffered discrimination for decades, with the Uludere Massacre being one of many terrible incidents etched into the consciousness of the people. Occasionally Shrapnel seemed to veer into the realms of propaganda, presenting Turks as lusting after Kurdish blood, while promoting the need for Kurdish independence: “There is no such thing as a happy colonised people. Never has been and never will be. That is our basic delusion." Had the writer’s concern for the Kurds and telling this tragedy got the better of him or was I just being a sensitive Turk?

Young smuggler Savaş is interrogated by a
Turkish soldier (Ryan Winchert). Photo by Nick Rutter 
I discussed this with Lustgarten in Arcola’s lounge after the play. He felt my ‘propaganda’ point was fair, explaining he had spent two years working for KHRP, a Kurdish human rights group in Diyarbakır in eastern Turkey – an area he describes as ‘Kurdistan’ – ten years ago, during which time he was arrested and interrogated several times by the Turkish army. His personal experiences, coupled with the state’s anti-Kurdish policies and his feelings about nationalism were further amplified by TV broadcasts about Operation Protective Edge that he watched last summer as he wrote Shrapnel.

Lustgarten, a political activist and playwright whose previous work has explored British fascism, capitalism and, in Black Jesus, the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, stressed he was mindful of maintaining balance throughout Shrapnel. He gave examples of where he had injected elements to offset his brutal portrayal of the Turkish regime. However, he conceded that having not visited Turkey since 2006, he may be out of touch with the Turkish public’s shift in attitudes towards Kurdish rights.

Do these shortcomings make Shrapnel any less accomplished? No. Lustgarten’s urgent, provocative style of writing throws up important questions that in his words, “call out the logic of colonialism and domination”. Ultimately 34 innocent people were killed and this docudrama underscores the need for both political accountability and moral responsibility that cuts across a very wide spectrum.

Remembering the 34 innocent villagers killed. Photo by Nick Rutter 
Play ends: Thursday 02 April 2015

Address:  Studio 1, Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL
Start time:  Mon-Sat evenings: 7.30pm, Sat matinee: 3pm
Duration:  75 minutes (no interval)
Language:  English with Turkish surtitles
Entry: £19 (£15 conc) / Tuesday – Pay What You Can (tickets in person from 6pm on-the-day, subject to availability)
Info and bookings: or call Box Office on 020 7503 1646 

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