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★★★★★ (5 stars)
Malala Yousafzai is the 16-year-old education activist, shot in the head by the Taliban. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was the 16-year-old American killed in a drone strike, allegedly because of fears he might become a terrorist. They are two named faces representing the innumerable children directly affected by the war on, and of, terror. That the nightmare that is Guantanamo Boy could have even a scrap of truth is horrendous – but it does, which is why this play needs to be seen.
Based on Anna Perera’s book, Guantanamo Boy is the story of Khalid (Antonio Khela), a 15-year-old boy growing up in Rochdale. He likes video-games and girls; he dislikes homework and housework; he’s a bit cocky. So far, so normal – until a trip to see family goes horribly wrong, and he becomes guilty of a crime he didn’t commit; voiceless, imprisoned, and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
The intimate, in the round setting was perfect for this production. Appropriate to the schoolboy environment of the opening scenes, the audience sat on benches, which were increasingly uncomfortable as time wore on – matching the shift to Khalid’s harrowing detention. Rachana Jadhav’s set at first encaged the audience, before separating and splitting them through metal mesh, clanking and noisy. The sound and lighting recreated some of the torture techniques used in detention centres – random bursts of fiercely bright lights and deafening white noise. It is this purposeful disorientation that leads to Khalid’s complete deterioration.
The opening scenes in Rochdale are funny, and the performers’ physicality, and the realistic rhythm of conversation, are recognizable – Khalid’s friends and family could be ours, and Khalid could be us. Guantanamo Boy carefully demonstrates that whilst Khalid is fictional, what happens to him is all so possible; more than that –it did happen, it does happen, and it will continue to happen if nothing is done. The play is full of officials shifting the blame – the British insisting that their hands are tied because of the Americans, the Americans refusing even to recognise the beatings that Khalid endures under their watch. It is a production filled with an honesty that some of the media has shied away from.
The performance is let down a little by the space’s acoustics, and the rapid dialogue can at times be difficult to hear, though this should hopefully improve as the show tours different venues. Guantanamo Boy is painfully immersive, but that is no bad thing. It is chilling, infuriating, frustrating, and uncomfortable; it is necessary and it is a must-see.
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