Labyrinths of myth

Tony Reck at The Habib Show

Predecessor to Brecht and often uncredited founder of epic theatre, Erwin Piscator is cited as an influence on The Habib Show, about former Guantanamo Bay inmate Mamdouh Habib. Piscator's celebrated style of documentary theatre should be the ideal medium for unravelling Habib's nightmare, but is not evident in this confused and very selective work.
The Habib Show, Dana Miltins, Terry Kenwrick

The Habib Show, Dana Miltins, Terry Kenwrick

Ten minutes before the audience enters the auditorium, amplified voices are heard, belonging to participants in a Parliamentary inquiry. Representatives of the Australian Federal Police and ASIO are grilled by an unseen politician. The usual probing questions asked in a sophisticated tone of moral indignation are deflected by those wishing to conceal their unusual activities. Why was Habib a person of interest in the investigation of alleged terrorist activity? How was it that Australia's security system oversaw Habib's 6-month disappearance without knowing his whereabouts? If he was subject to the US policy euphemistically labelled 'rendition' and shipped off to Egypt, how could it be that an AFP officer observed Habib's alleged torture by electric shock and the threat of bestiality? Most importantly, if Habib was an innocent sourcing Islamic schooling for his children while in Pakistan, how did he end up among the “worst of the worst” in Guantanamo Bay? These are serious questions that suggest a serious abuse of human rights despite Australia's professed commitment to the rule of law implicit in Western democracy. Yet the tone in which these questions is addressed, interspersed by a chilling sound design of high voltage human screaming, is burlesque, highly emotive, subjective and not documentary.

Part of the problem surrounding the myth that has accumulated around Mamdouh Habib is that no-one is interested in the truth. The populist media can't be taken seriously and the Australian government is well aware that by associating Habib with Al Qaeda, his name will be forever tainted. Habib himself, for understandable reasons, is intent on playing the victim. The well-meaning makers of The Habib Show have a passionate commitment to human rights, but their judgement is blurred by the ghastly treatment it is alleged Habib received.

What is required is a documentary theatre with the capacity to articulate the complexity of the forces at play surrounding the treatment of Mamdouh Habib. Simple expressions of love and pain, although heart-wrenching, are not convincing. Neither is placing these in a framework of mockery. What of the documented statements by members of the Islamic community that Habib was suspected of working for ASIO? Was there evidence to substantiate these claims, or like the dubious statements of shockjocks, politicians and security agencies, were they tactics employed to erode the man's credibility? Audiences require conflicting evidence in order to reach unexpected conclusions about Habib, his treatment by the Australian government, the frightening policy of rendition, and the complicity of our bureaucracy. Otherwise, Mamdouh Habib appears only as a gentle man of passionate religious conviction trapped in circumstances beyond his control, or a radical Islamist the Australian government has succeeded in portraying as a threat to national security, or the enigmatic, self-seeking persona that the populist media has created for him. Ultimately, this offers nothing more than an extension of the myth. Others may disagree, but this should never be the resolve of documentary theatre.

There was gutsy work in The Habib Show from performers working in difficult terrain. Dana Miltins' coy, ironic and subversive prostitute was a standout. But design was the star of the show; always suggestive of the labyrinth that surrounds Habib, an element not so strongly present in other aspects of the show.

The Habib Show, writer, director Gorkem Acaroglu, performers Serge de Nardo, Georgina Nadiu, Terry Kenwrick, Dana Miltins, design Jacquie Lee, lighting John Ford, projections Ian de Gruchy, dramaturg Peter Eckersall, Theatreworks, Melbourne, Aug 31-Sep 17

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg.

© Tony Reck; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006