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Gary Younge
Fortress New York takes post-9/11 play to its heart

Number one on the bestseller list is Unfit for Command, a book by Swift Boat veterans denouncing the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's war record. Number one on the New York Times paperback non-fiction list is the 9/11 commission report on the terrorist attacks on New York city.

And so on Thursday night, as a Yemeni prisoner stood at a preliminary hearing before a US military commission in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, a play relating the Kafkaesque experiences of British detainees in Guantánamo Bay opened to a standing ovation in New York city.

"I felt confused as to whether I should appreciate it as art or as real life, because it was really both," Richard Levy said afterwards.

Guantánamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, the off-Broadway production created "from spoken evidence" by the former Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain and the writer Gillian Slovo, arrived at the 45 Bleecker Street Theatre via the The Tricycle in Kilburn and the West End to strong reviews. "It exerts an icy visceral charge that is never achieved by flashier agitprop satire," the New York Times commented. "What pulls hardest at the emotions are the detailed epistolary accounts of life in prison and the letters' change in tone from willed optimism to abjectness to, in one harrowing case, something approaching madness."

"I know the stories cold," said Michael Ratner, a New York lawyer who has represented many Guantánamo detainees. "I know that in some cases the reality is even much worse than it was depicted. But I was still completely moved. It really showed the dead end of their situation. The fact that there is no way out."

A few things were lost in translation. The line in which one detainee says he keeps thinking Jeremy Beadle is about to turn up and say it's a hoax obviously had to be removed. And when it came to British accents, Manchester became Liverpool, Yorkshire became Cardiff and one actor's efforts wavered between Somerset and Sri Lanka.

But the American audience never missed what they had never known to exist. And the accents were only troubling if you first knew and second cared, which would have been true of few if any in the theatre. And in this example of the special relationship turned inside out, in which British and American radicals meet to grieve over what has become of the transatlantic alliance, there was national pride in saving the biggest laughs for your own leaders. Americans laughed hardest when Donald Rumsfeld emerged; in Britain, Jack Straw got the biggest chuckle.

Compared with the political theatre that has emerged from the US, Guantánamo was subtle. Tim Robbins' play Embedded, which explored the relationship between the media and the military, began: "If you don't like it, get the fuck out and don't expect your money back."

"I was expecting to have an intellectual response," said Sara Baerwald. "But it was very emotional. I cried."

For those whose ducts welled up, there was help at hand. Outside the theatre pink party bags, courtesy of Women Centre Stage, were available with lipstick, mascara and and wrinkle remover for those whose frowns at US and British foreign policy left permanent scars.

That Guantánamo opened as the city turns into a fortress, as the police presence positioned themselves to quell protest in advance of the Republican convention, was no coincidence. In a city where, according to a poll in yesterday's New York Times, more than half the population is worried that there will be a terrorist attack in the coming week, people need something to take their minds off things. They have a festival of political art to chose from.

At the Roebling Hall Art Gallery in Williamsburg you can see the Dan Ford's The Burning of The National Library in Baghdad, Troops Observing Looters, in the style of Turner. Larry Litt's Before You Don't Vote, an inspirational video of ordinary people talking about democracy, will be showing at the Kitchen Arts Centre. And at the Experimental Party Disinformation Centre, Rick Silva displays Grandmaster Bush, a DJ who spins a rap song sampling presidential speeches.

Indeed, if there was a concern about Guantánamo, it was that the people likely to see it where those who agreed with it. "This is the kind of play that should be seen by 30 million Americans," said Mr Levy. "I think the people I sit across the table with during negotiations would be moved by this. It could really make a difference and change their understanding."

Whether it would get this kind of reception outside New York city, where cinemagoers queue around the block to see the Battle of Algiers, is a different matter.

"It's difficult to say," said Jeremy Pikser, consultant to the director on Reds, an Oscar-winning film about the Russian Revolution. "When Reds came out, I thought 'When this opens in South Carolina, they'll fire bomb it.' But they didn't."

"But did anyone in South Carolina go to see it?"

Mr Pikser said: "No, not really."

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