Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Mark Rogers
Osama The Hero is a heavy text. It spans a huge amount of subject matter regarding fear, terrorism, justification of terrorism, torture, the effect of torture on the torturers and perhaps most importantly of all, the volatile environments that are British council estates. All of this in just three acts running under an hour and a half. Dennis Kelly’s handling of the material is deft, and with the exception of a few heavy-handed moments, the play rarely feels preachy. By entrusting the material to such powerless people, Kelly has ensured that the weighty words are easy to swallow. The play was written several years ago, but with the British government currently revising its view on torture, Obama cleaning out Guantanamo and the recent trouble in Sydney public housing, it retains a biting relevancy.
The story is based around Gary, a school kid whose misguided idealisms leads him to writer numerous school projects that question the western notions of terrorism, the penultimate of these being a presentation about why Osama bin Laden was a worthy hero. His polarising views make him the perfect scapegoat for violence that is occurring in his council estate.
Mark Rogers has placed the show on a corner stage, within which a smaller tiled square is placed and it is clear from the start that this is the only area that Gary is allowed to move in. The first act is a combination of three scenes playing concurrently. In the centre, in his tile prison, is Gary. He talks straight to us, desperate for us to comprehend his often misunderstood views. To his left are Louise and Francis who embody the council estate culture, the history and the pent-up rage. Francis is worried that his father’s legacy is being ignored with the arrival of a new neighbour – a pervert, Mark. To the right of the stage, we see this “pervert” and Mandy, his younger female friend. They are a playing a weird sort of coupley game, talking to an imaginary press about their happy family. A division between them soon becomes obvious however, as he pontificates about his desire for even a touch of her, which she refuses all but once.
The second act brings these three parties together, and explores the violence that ensues, with the staging emphasising this violence from the beginning. Immediately after the first act, the lights snap to black and two of the actors winch down the lighting bars, bringing with them a black square box directly above the tiles. It houses a number of fluoroes which flicker and strobe as the sound design shoots out heavy bass accompaniment. Amongst this, Gary is gaffa-taped to a chair and gagged. As the act progresses, we watch as he is interrogated, tortured and eventually beaten to death with a hammer, an image which is achieved here through the murderer smashing the tiled floor, the sound of which was then amplified throughout the theatre. This entire act was limited to the tiles, and sometimes felt cluttered, but more often than not the claustrophobia served the tension of the scene.
The third act follows each character in a personal monologue as they try to move on in the wake of Gary’s murder. For this act, two rolls of plastic are unfurled from the lighting bars leaving Gary to roam his tiled after life behind a veil of plastic. The last act is performed all on one microphone, beginning with Mark discussing his home cooking skills and then building as the other characters also begin sharing their thoughts. All of a sudden we are in a weird open mic club spanning stand-up comedy, spoken word and train of thought discussions. The play ends with every character behind the plastic and shadows being cast by the soft light of Mandy’s iPod.
There were two key elements that I found to be the most strident, but also effective. The first was the violence. Stage violence is something I find myself having stronger and stronger opinions on as I see it used badly in many shows. Time and again I see a realist approach failing to have the strength that the violence clearly needs, and thus more and more I feel a desire for stylisation. The actors can’t actually hit each other with hammers on stage, so instead something has to happen that impacts the audience as much as the literal violence would. I feel that this production found that with the eventual image of smashing tiles. The sheer sound of this action reverberating through the seats of the audience had real power. However, the first two hammer hits, which were achieved through a slow motion action accompanied by a bass thud through the speakers, lacked this. They felt half-hearted, with the bass not being nearly loud enough to have true impact.
The second element was the microphone. It worked beautifully to begin with, doubling the power of every consonant and revealing the rhythm of Kelly’s words. Each actor brought a unique style to the performative nature the mic demanded and the mic-lead took on a life of its own. However, as the monologues intertwined more and more, the practicality of one mic between three performers began to hinder rather than serve the language. One was overcome with a certain sense of relief when it was again handed to a solitary performer.
I left the theatre with a sense of excitement and pride. Excitement at the work - a gripping realisation of relatively new script by a playwright I am growing to love. The more I see of Dennis Kelly’s work, the more I become a fan of his stammered style that can so easily bring massive world issues down into the domestic sphere. But also pride at the artists, my colleagues who have worked hard to bring this difficult play to life. There is nothing that inspires one more than seeing your friends doing good work.