Last Resort, Tom Barnes talks Enhanced Interrogation, Holiday Resorts, and his New Guantanamo Play

Guantanamo Bay is a ridiculous place. 

It could quite easily have been conceived by George Orwell or J.G. Ballard. Ironically enough, George Orwell’s books are banned from the base, as Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve found out when he would take books to a British detainee named Shaker Aamer. Originally, 1984 was allowed in but Shaker Aamer’s essay on what the book was really about, opened the eyes of the otherwise ignorant guards, and these rules became more stringent.

‘Unbelievable’ really is the word. 

Guantanamo Bay, despite popular portrayals, in more than a detention centre. It is a 45 square mile US Military base, dating back to 1903, long before the Cuban revolution. Somehow it still exists, despite Cuba still refusing the original $4,085 annual rent owed to it from the US. It is home to a McDonalds (the only one in Cuba), a Blockbuster video (presumably the last remaining branch in the world), and a gaudy souvenir shop – think ‘my brother went to Guantanamo Bay and all I got was this lousy t-shirt…’

Most interesting to us as a theatre company is the holiday resort at Guantanamo Bay. It is used by US military personnel and their families. Sure, it has fantastic weather, is easy to get to, has great security and everything you might need to have a holiday – but who is staying there? Don’t they know what else happens just over the fence? We, 2Magpies Theatre, made a show called Last Resort to explore this unlikely resort and to unpack the controversial ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (a euphemism for torture), that are employed at Guantanamo Bay. 

 The show is multi-sensory, as is torture

Euphemisms at Guantanamo Bay are another quirk which seem more fictional than anything George Orwell made up. For instance, there have been numerous suicides at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. Officially, there have been zero – instead – “acts of asymmetric warfare [have been] committed against us," according to the prison commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris Jr. This is indeed an excellent way of lowering the suicide rate. It is also nonsense. Another example would be the transformation of ‘hunger strike’ to “long term non-religious fasting.”

‘Enhanced interrogation’ itself includes stress positions, use of music to torture, sleep deprivation, withdrawal of food and force-feeding. Dialled down, some of these elements would not be out of place on an 18-30’s holiday. Interestingly they all play on inherently enjoyable things: music, food, sleep. We have transposed these controversial techniques into the realm of the holiday resort. The audience experience some of these techniques, others they witness. Sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t know. In doing this, we force the audience to consider where the line is. Is this an acceptable way to treat a human being? What about if they’re guilty of terror offences? What if they’ve just been accused of terror offences. What if there is not enough to evidence to sentence them in a trial, but they are considered too dangerous (perhaps because of their connections) to release? 

The plot thickens. 

The show is multi-sensory, as is torture. Our audience sits in bright orange deckchairs, they get a complimentary cocktail on arriving (a Cuba Libre, no less), and can put their feet in their own miniature beaches. As a theatre company, we’re aware the topic of the show could sound depressing. This is where we seek to overcome these obstacles, win the trust of an audience, and then take that trust to new places. 

 innocent people have been detained indefinitely

We started making Last Resort in December 2015, when at the time, Barack Obama was President of the United States of America. One of his first pledges was to ‘shut down Guantanamo and restore Habeas Corpus’. Now in August 2017, the new President of the United States of America wants to fill Guantanamo Bay with ‘bad dudes’. A lot changes in 18 months.

In this new era, Last Resort, and more importantly the work of organisations like Reprieve has renewed importance. Terror attacks have been increasingly frequent in Britain and Europe since 9/11, and we are coming closer and closer to confronting our own opinions about how the threat is dealt with. After the 7/7 bombings in 2005, you could be detained without trial for 40 days in the UK. To some, this is a suspension of Habeas Corpus and the right to trial. To others, this is a necessary evil to protect civilians. It’s a tricky line, with compelling arguments on both sides. This is the beginning of a debate rather than the end of one, but it certainly reveals a relevance and a symbolic importance of somewhere like Guantanamo Bay. 

In human rights terms, Guantanamo Bay is falling down the priorities list. Where we once thought it might close, this now seems even more unlikely. Even with this diminished interested, what stills stands is Guantanamo Bay’s symbolism. It is a US military base on Cuban soil. It is a place where innocent people have been detained indefinitely. It is a place where convicted terrorists have been held. It is a place where inmates have gone on hunger strike as a last resort to protest their imprisonment. It is a place where hunger strikers have been force-fed, in some cases rectally, also as a last resort. This is a theatrically rich place, full of inconsistency, juxtaposition and symbolism. Doubtlessly one day it will close, and it will be interesting to see what happens to it; whether it is bulldozed or kept as a reminder, like WWII concentration camps. Whether it becomes a holiday resort, seems unlikely… 

Last Resort by 2Magpies Theatre can be seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (at Summerhall) from 2-27 August 2017, and will be touring the UK in Spring 2018.

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