Interview: Kamaal Hussain and Drew Ballantyne on Public Interest

Kamaal Hussain and Drew Ballantyne, director and writer of Public Interest

On 15 September 2003, Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian, died while in the custody of the British army in Basra. The beatings he received were so severe that they resulted in 93 different injuries. New play Public Interest, written by Drew Ballantyne and directed by Kamaal Hussain, is inspired by the British government’s inquiry into Mousa’s death, the findings of which will be announced shortly after it begins its run at the New Diorama Theatre on 8 June.

Public Interest is a thought-provoking exploration of why we go to war and what we will do in the name of peace. The night before testifying at the Baha Mousa Inquiry, two intelligence officers meet secretly in a London hotel. They have come to discuss their likely fate and their responsibility for the interrogation techniques that may have led to a man’s death. But as they soon discover, their conversation is being overheard by Ellie, the bar manager. What follows is a battle by the two men to win her trust.

Public Interest is the first production by Clever as Clever Theatre Company, formed in 2010 by Ballantyne, Hussain and actress Rachel Marwood to tell uncompromising stories about the human condition. On behalf of, Tom Wicker met with Ballantyne and Hussain two weeks before opening night to discuss what they hope to achieve with Public Interest and what they believe to be the role of theatre in society today.

Tom Wicker: What was the impetus for Public Interest?

Drew Ballantyne: For a while, we had wanted to do something that would explore Western presence in the Middle East, the conflicts and how these affect people at home. When I read about the Baha Mousa Inquiry, which was getting little to no press coverage, it seemed to me to be a good way to explore the right reasons to be involved in such conflicts, but set against the backdrop of something completely and utterly wrong; the murder of someone in a horrible and indefensible way. From that point, it was about trying to find genuine, likeable characters who couldn’t justify Baha Mousa’s murder but could perhaps justify the role of the military today.

Kamaal Hussain: When Drew first sent me the play, what appealed to me was the moral ambiguity; the difficulties we struggle with every day but which we don’t necessarily think about in any depth. When you look at the demonstrations that took place against the war versus the tension of supporting “our boys” out there, well, there’s something very interesting in that moral space. There’s so much in between these polarised views.

TW: Public Interest draws heavily on the Inquiry transcripts. What, then, distinguishes it from a piece of reportage?

KH: The fact that theatre’s place in the world isn’t documentary. For Drew and I, fiction was the place to go because it humanises people we may otherwise look at abstractly. Unless you or someone you’re close to is in the army – and, therefore, you can understand why someone would choose to join – it can be very abstract as an idea. So, by producing a fiction, by providing a glimpse into someone’s life and getting under their skin, we can begin to explore what may be unknowable to the general public.

TW: Was public scepticism about government inquiries an incentive to tell this story?

DB: There is scepticism when the government is involved, a presumption that nothing will change, but I’ve read every single transcript from this inquiry and I think that it’s been conducted extremely well. It’s been a long and arduous process, but I believe that everyone involved has done everything they could to get a complete view of what went on. What I haven’t liked is the way that the press would take an eight-word quote from the previous day’s transcript and use it as the basis for a full-page article. A judgement based on a two-year inquiry can’t be reduced to sound-bites. So, I hope that between us – me, Kamaal and the cast – we’ve created as wide a view as we can while remaining in the world of fiction and creating interesting, engaging characters.

KH: I think that some of that cynicism comes, in part, from the bigger, ‘sexier’ inquiries; the ones that Blair has been attending. These push us back to the people who feel strongly that we shouldn’t have gone to Iraq in the first place, the people who marched on the streets. To me, this one, because it hasn’t garnered the same attention, has more clarity and truth. You can go back to the transcripts and find them uncoloured by the press.

TW: Is it theatre’s job to present a more complex or nuanced view than the press is able or sometimes willing to do?

KH: Definitely. There’s no question in my mind that that’s part of our role as artists. Theatre isn’t simply about holding a mirror up to the world; it’s about putting questions in the audience’s minds and getting them to go away and think about them. In the simplest terms, that’s what I hope to achieve in the production of this play. I think Drew’s already achieved it on the page. My job is to make sure that it translates on to the stage.

DB: There’s dialogue in the script that I don’t believe in, and there’s dialogue that I wholeheartedly believe in. And then there’s stuff that the characters say that scares me. But I think all of it is necessary to create a complete image.

KH: From day one, the key words for us have been “balance” and “specificity”. That’s why our tagline is “The last salvation we have is our specificity”. We’ve talked a lot during the process of getting the show to this point about the ways in which people generalise – the way in which Islamophobia or blind faith in our troops works – and the reverse of those things. It’s important for us not to buy into that. We believe that we live in a grey world, not a black and white one. And that’s what our company hopes to achieve: to put some shades in that grey.

TW: Given the subject matter, was this a hard play to write, Drew?

DB: I always knew what the general journey would be, but every day there would be different people at the Inquiry. One day I would read a statement from a detainee and be in tears reading about their treatment. When I came to work on the script, this would be raw and on the surface; and what I wrote would be quite heartfelt. But then, the next day, I would read the transcripts of a soldier or someone involved in the interrogation and I’d see the crippling red tape. I’d completely understand how difficult it was for them to do what they do. Aside from the transcripts, I’ve read the Geneva Convention, which gives you no room for movement. You can’t even look at someone the wrong way when you’re interrogating them. So you get a real understanding for how someone who’s working as a defender of the peace could look for guidance but have no structure within which to do so. I’d constantly be flipping back and forth between what I believed.

TW: Will you revisit the play after the Inquiry announces its findings?

KH: My instinct is to say that just the placing of those questions in the public domain is the point of the play. But it would be interesting to go back and see how accurate we were.

DB: We’ve been looking at various points for when to produce this play since last summer, when it was in its most complete form. Since then it’s been adapted because of events in the world press – most recently, the uprisings in Libya and Syria and the death of Osama Bin Laden. These events are almost more relevant to what the play is asking than the result of the Inquiry. They’re what make it important but also dangerous. Following the death of Bin Laden it would be very easy, again, to give blind support to the troops, to re-start our engines and blindly to go and conquer the world. Now is an incredibly important time to be looking at the justifications, the reasons and the motives for why we’re involved in any conflict. It’s always mattered to me that the play is pro-army but anti-war. I have incredible affection for the army but absolute disdain for war.

TW: Why is the New Diorama Theatre the right venue for Public Interest?

KH: It’s a great and rare space in London. I often describe it as reminding me of a regional rep studio. There are very few purpose-built, black-box spaces here, outside places like the Trafalgar Studios – and even that is a converted building. This was what made the New Diorama the best choice. You’re not dealing with existing architecture that informs the piece or which you have to work around; and you’re not sitting above a noisy pub with Arsenal playing downstairs and screaming fans. Not that I’m not knocking that set-up! There are some productions for which that would be the perfect environment.

But more than this, they’ve been incredibly helpful. The possibility of partnership as we grow together – and they’re developing their name quickly given that they’ve only been in this space for about two years – is an opportunity not to be missed.

DB: I like anyone who answers an email at a quarter to midnight. Because if I’m working, why shouldn’t they be?

TW: What’s next for Clever as Clever after Public Interest finishes?

KH: We aim to have another show out this year, again written by Drew and directed by me, with the third member of Clever as Clever, Rachel Marwood, acting in it. We thought it was very important for the company to do shows that involve all of us in the capacities in which we want to establish ourselves. That’s not to say that won’t change in the future. Drew may direct and I have a background as an actor.

DB: But these will have to be pieces that fulfil our remit, which is to explore the trickier end of debates. We don’t want to polarise; we’re more interested in trying to find out how people tick and to tell the stories that are harder to tell. These are the issues that our next play will explore.

Public Interest is at the New Diorama Theatre from 7 to 25 June.

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