The Empire at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London SW1

  • From The Times, April 12, 2010
  • Dominic Maxwell

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Joe Armstrong (Gary) and Josef Atlin (Hafizullah) in The Empire

It can be hard to tell friend from foe in the heat of the Afghan desert. In D. C. Moore’s second play for the Royal Court, a laconic British lance corporal, Gary, is guarding an injured Asian prisoner. They assume he’s a “Terry Taliban” — after all, he was found right by a rocket launcher. And when they hand him over to their Afghan associates later, he can expect no mercy.

Except … When Zia wakes up, trussed up in this abandoned compound, he insists that there’s been a mistake. He’s from Newham, East London. He was on holiday at his uncle’s home in Pakistan, took a little jaunt into Afghanistan to do some business. He’s a bit of an arse. But he’s no terrorist. Is he?

One of these days Moore is going to write a really wonderful play. He has a strong eye for a dramatic set-up and a superpower for colloquial dialogue: “Did you take a wrong turn before Ibiza?” spits the dubious Gary, who’ll go on to endure a lot of what he sees as Zia’s “gangster singsong”. And I love the way the posh commanding officer, whom Gary nicknames Rupert, goes on to reveal depths of character — and, as played by Rufus Wright, a nervous poise — as this 80-minute play goes on.

But superbly staged though Mike Bradwell’s production is, with its evocative lighting, offstage sound effects and the rubble that spills into the front row in Bob Bailey’s design, Moore’s fine lines sometimes obscure the need for his story to push on. I had the same problem with his monologue Honest at Northampton last month — brilliant writing, but it could do its work in half the time.

Here, there are interesting insights into the mentality of an army of occupation. Are callousness and cruelty acceptable here, perhaps even necessary? Does the class system persevere in the modern Army — and, in a way that might provoke desperate acts, in society at large? Nav Sidhu’s Zia is intriguingly irritating: he doesn’t sound false, he doesn’t sound true.

Joe Armstrong is stunning as the jaded Gary, who nudges away unforgivingly at Zia’s story. But I felt that the soldiers could have questioned Zia’s credibility more forensically. And that they didn’t so that the central tension of the play could be artificially sustained. This leads to an ending that’s tense but which doesn’t spring entirely organically from what precedes it. A bit more interest in plot, and Moore will start to fulfil his huge potential.

Box office: 020-7565 5000, to May 1. Then May 13-29, Drum Theatre, Plymouth

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