Anders Lustgarten’s Shrapnel puts horrific Roboski airstrike on Arcola stage

Shrapnel tells the story of the Roboski airsrike on the Turkish/Iraq border

Shrapnel tells the story of the Roboski airsrike on the Turkish/Iraq border - Credit: Archant

Activist and playwright Anders Lustgarten tells Bridget Galton why a short sharp punch is better than lengthy Shavian debate

With James Graham’s The Vote due to broadcast live from The Donmar Warehouse on election night, and a season of political plays running at Soho Theatre, it seems plays are filling a vital role in thrashing out the urgent issues of the day.

Anders Lustgarten, who puts his money where his mouth is as a hands on activist arrested on four continents, is among a new breed of angry and articulate writers who prefer lobbing polemical bombshells to polite debate.

His If You Don’t Let us Dream We Won’t Let You Sleep at the Royal Court - set in a dystopian future – was a rallying call to action against the market-knows-best tropes of ‘zombie capitalism’ and had the Telegraph’s critic frothing at the mouth.

Lustgarten offers unrepeatable opinions about the offending critic with the jist “if you piss him off you know you’re doing the right thing.”

“A lot of contemporary theatre is about a narrow group of middle class people in north London wondering if they should have a child. The resurgence of politically engaged theatre is because twentysomethings are getting royally f***ed over, are rightly angry and asking questions.”

Lustgarten believes the urgency and magintude of the issues calls for a “punch on the nose” rather than dispassionate objectivity.

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“Cold, arch, distant theatre is completely the wrong response to the way people have been screwed over and damaged in an era of austerity. The worst kind of theatre engages with political ideas in a Guardian headline kind of way. It should make people feel uncomfortable

“It should be deep and raw and unpleasant, about the visceral impact of politics on people’s lives.”

Shrapnel 34 Fragments of a Massacre at the Arcola centres on the 2011 Roboski Drone attack in which 34 smugglers were spotted by a US drone crossing the Turkish Iraq border, then bombed by the Turkish army. The play,says Lustgarten, is about complicity.

“You could easily tell that with mules and barrels of diesel those people were just smugglers. No-one really knows why it happened. That’s the question at the heart of the play – what are the things that made that incident possible?

Part of his focus is on the drone makers “who never have to confront the reality of what they are making”.

“There’s a huge lack of moral responsibility, a deliberate moral myopia for people who are patted on the back and rewarded for inventing things. They aren’t necessarily malevolent but they never have to clean anything up or pay anything back.”

His passionately biased work has been criticises as not in the spirit of well made poltical plays - but he’s unapologetic.

“I get slagged off because I don’t argue both sides in a George Bernard Shaw manner but it’s not always two legitimate points of view.

“In Shrapnel there’s a journalist who sees the massacre and starts to question the veracity of her own professional model, the idea that there should be two sides to something – well sometimes there shouldn’t.

“You don’t giving equal rights of representation when someone punches someone else in the face for no reason.”

Both Shrapnel which foregrounds a relationship with two of the smugglers, and Lampedusa –part of Soho’s political season. about the thousands of migrants who die annually on substandard boats trying to cross into Europe “give a voice to people the powerful are deliberately trying to erase from history, who have been besmirched, ignored, brushed under the carpet.”

If there’s a collective tendency to keep other’s misery at arms length, theatre, he says, can focus on individuals.

“It brings the cause of people’s difficulty into focus, makes people understand the causes for things. Theatre is often mistaken for an intellectual medium but it’s a visceral medium. It can show the emotional truth about something audiences have only thought about in the abstract”.

At first, he says, writing was a creative extension of his activism. “Now I see them as quite distinctive though complementary. The difference is in theatre you have to have interest in people you don’t like, to find their voice and represent them in ways that are surprising.”

He mixes up his theatrical style to “keep people guessing”, just as he does his activism. “You go in a suit to a conference, make a presentation on the illegitimacy of this development, then a bit later put on a mask and kick in their door. It keeps them on their toes.”

At 70 minutes Shrapnel - and the 75-minute If You Don’t Let Us Dream - are the theatical equivalent of a knock out punch rather than two hours’ traffic with a gin and tonic in the interval.

“There’s almost no play in the world that can justify being two hours. Crack on, cut the nonsense. Make your point and get out.

“It has to have heart and you have to entertain. The last thing you want to do if people are willing to think about ideas is bore them.”

Shrapnel runs at the Arcola until April 2 and Lampedusa is at Soho Theatre from April 8-26.

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