Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre
by Anders Lustgarten
What to make of Shrapnel – part sly fable, part dramatic slide presentation but also – tragically – real-life, real-time events when a drone-inspired air strike killed 34 unarmed civilians in 2011 on the Turkish-Iraqi border?
This piece, pivoted on the Roboski Massacre of mostly teenage boy smugglers of Kurdish origin, starts with the schoolchild Kemalist pledge of allegiance to the Turkish Republic and unfurls with stately pace towards a final school register-like roll call of victims.
A TLT diversion: During the Cold War, nuclear weapons , if not exactly instruments of peace, were deemed ultimate defensive deterrents. Any use of the atomic bomb would lead to inevitable Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), went the narrative, and no side would be MAD enough to use them.
But what if governments storing end-the-world bombs to keep the peace give way to the fragmentation of private arms firms exporting technology and weapons, picking out random inhabitants outside villages like Roboski, regardless of their rights as citizens? TLT and her thoughtful jalopy pondered these weighty issues after sitting through this aggressively fragmented play by Anders Lustgarten.
Snapshot scenes roll out on a precise set – variously the garden of a Turkish Kurd village, the mountain passes, an army camp and interrogation chamber, a TV studio, venues for a media awards ceremony and weapons’ company shareholder AGM and the design shop floor of an arms factory.
Wooden frameworked entrances on one side stand below a huge drone computer screen focussing on fuzzy specks – human beings - in its viewfinder, in a design by Anthony Lamble.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side, another smaller screen, sticking out like a signpost, gives a Turkish translation of the pithy dialogue. Interesting because, even without a knowledge of Turkish, the staccato style lends itself to the audience trying to match the English lines with the Turkish.
Six actors take their places on the stage as narrators, villagers, Turkish soldiers, media workers and personalities, arms’ company executives, drone operatives and British technicians, all living in their own villages around the globe.
Director Mehmet Egen manages a tricky balancing act in a finely measured production, ranging from the poetic to the polemic. Lucid performances from a confident ensemble cast also have the benefit of carefully-judged lighting and video design by Richard Williamson and sound by Neil McKeown.
So back to our original question: What to make of all this? It’s not a bundle of laughs but a prickly pear of a play. For even if the sweeping unfairness of Lustgarten’s “we are all complicit” provocation sets one’s teeth on edge, is it any different from the "strike first, ask questions later" nature of the Roboski massacre? Maybe deliberately too elliptic, both as Turkish history and analysis of world powerbroking and economic leverage, the fragments are still sharp edged enough to cut. An amber to green light for a play that reveals the skull beneath the skin of new technology.