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Arts Festival Review: Honour Bound

NZ International Arts Festival Review: Honour Bound

Review by Lyndon Hood

Honour Bound
Sydney Opera House and Malthouse Theatre
Direction and co-design Nigel Jamieson
13 - 15 March
TSB Bank Arena
70 minutes (80 by the time everyone's sat down)

"Honour Bound to Defend Freedom" is, it seems, the motto of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (though if this fact is referred to in the production, I missed it). The ironies of have been noted more than once - witness the 2004 British theatre production, Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which also played in the USA. The questions raised by the slogan, even in the terse and ambiguous for of Honour Bound's title, are in themselves a fair summary of the piece.

Perhaps best decribed as agit-prop documentary dance, Honour Bound uses a series of images combining movement, aerialism, and multimedia to reflect on, or imagine, the predicament of David Hicks, held at the Guantanamo camp from 2001 to 2007, including 18 months of solitary confinement, before pleading guilty to "providing material support for terrorism".

Various pieces of documentary evidence are presented through the video and sound - closeup interviews with Hicks' father Terry and his stepmother, still images of Hicks as well as the words of various texts (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the authorisation of interrogation techniques to be used at the base, media reports, legal opinions...).

And a series of vivid performance metaphors are woven with these evidences to make the predicament behind them breathe - or perhaps bleed. Some of the vigniettes are more successful than others; overall it is affecting, unsettling and galvanising.

The stage is bordered by giant cage walls (a smaller cage the size of and actual cell can slide out from the back) which the six orange-jumpsuited performers can climb or brace against or clip themselves to, with video projected from the front.

The movement of the performers is suited to the suffering they are investigating. There is a dance solo as Terry Hicks talking about his son being beaten and forcibly medicated on the journey to Cuba. It's a dance with its flow shattered, with sudden collapses and twisted limbs. Elsewhere scenes are presented with a kind of grotesque naturalism, with the suffering of the mind reflected in the body. Or the movement of one dancer is under the methodical control of another - at one time a picture of force and violence overcoming resistance, at another, of the manipulation of passive despair.

The use of aerial work - harnessed performers suspended from wires - is not (for a novelty, in this festival) included for the sake of virtuosity. The vertical actions is integrated with the rest and used with purpose in the images being presented - as when the comfort of messages from loved ones while in solitary confinement is an actual person floating into tenuous, warm contact from above.

The combination of vertical movement and video projection also allows some techincally impressive trompe l'oile perspective tricks. Throughout the production projected words take on a life of their own, flowing over and around the performers as a metaphor for the power of official declarations over the prisoners. At one point a huge stream of text - from the Geneva Convention - streams Star-Wars-prologue style rapidly towards us, forming a huge conveyor belt for a hapless "illegal combatant" to runs up away from us. As he rises on a wire feet working, it really does look like he's doing so. And when it spins out from under him, he falls - perhaps clinging to the underside for a few seconds before falling to the ground and trying and failing again. It is, of course, unfair.

Or, in the more emotional - nightmarish - final image: A black-hooded figure fearfully moving toward the suddenly front falls - backwards and upwards - onto the back of the stage, into the rectangular patch of light that has come to represent the physical and emotional confinement suffered. As that light shrinks, the curled body is so placed that the whole seems to recede - Hicks disppearing into the distance, us rising into darkness.

Although in fact there is a light. Moving, many-beamed lights, shine across the audience throughout the production, both suggesting military movements and masked the placement of harnessed performers onto the stage. At the end they less bright, not so much shining in our eyes - earlier there were single strobe flashes like a visual slap in the face - as shining on us, jarring the complacent invisibility of the audience. The stuff of political theatre, calling for action.

Honour Bound compelling and visceral presentation of the position of the detainees - sealed away from justice and humanity - through the history of David Hicks. It forms a question: here is what we have done - is it right? Terry Hicks says near the beginning that all he wanted was a "fair go" for David - a fair trail, and the questions of guilt in the play are secondary to those of humanity.

At one stage we are presented distorted and naked bodies making the officially catalogued sufferings and humiliations of detainees flesh. And in audio, the only justification available in the words of George W Bush trimmed into phrases - the security of the United States, the victims of 9/11, the wives and children. We are left to come to the implied answer of our own accord.

An epilogue noted that Hicks was freed last year, "two weeks after the federal election". The camp is still there.


Honour Bound on the Arts Festival website (includes video)
TV3 Video - 'Honourbound' offers a chilling look into life at Guantanamo Bay
Scoop Full Coverage: New Zealand International Arts Festival 2008

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