In which we catch up with Nick Gill, the writer of our next production, fiji land…
In a warzone somewhere in the world, there is a place called fiji land, where three soldiers are responsible for some very unusual charges. As the play progresses, the soldiers become increasingly extreme in their interactions with those they are guarding. What inspired you to write this play?
At the time, revelations about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay were coming out, as well as all the seemingly-surreal torture methods (like being assaulted with an incredibly-loud theme to Barney the Dinosaur) that have since turned up in films and TV shows all over the place. It seemed an interesting idea to up the surrealism and paranoia to include imprisoning non-sentient beings, and to see the effects that paranoia would have on their captors. Amnesty International happened to be running the ‘Save the Human’ competition at the same time, and having a deadline meant that I had to finish it, rather than let it languish in a drawer with all the other half-begun ideas.
The title comes from a statement made in 2007 by Ali Shalal, an Abu Ghraib detainee, accusing his British captors of torture; “fiji land” was a moniker used by the soldiers to denote a particular part of the prison compound. To what extent do you see fiji land as a play specifically about the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib, or do you see it as a more general exploration of the human desire for violent control over others?
The second, absolutely. I think to try to talk about the specific horrors of what happened, and happens, in these facilities would be to trivialise them – the exact opposite of what I intended.
In both Britain and the US, comparatively few service personnel – relative to the number of allegations made – have been brought to account for their roles in the human rights violations of prisoners during the Iraq invasion. Do you feel that the question of how these abuses were allowed to occur has been adequately addressed by governments present and past?
Ach. I’m not a historian, but I think I’m right in saying that the Nuremberg trials set the legal precedent that ‘I was just following orders’ isn’t a legitimate defence. Having said that, of course, various governments have played fast and loose with legal definitions, with the result that a lot of these activities weren’t technically illegal, so it’s very hard for someone like me, without specific professional knowledge, to say what should have been done. Personally, I would say that a great deal of what happened is immoral, and absolutely shouldn’t have happened, but that’s a different question.
An Army joke runs that half of those who join are born psychopaths, and the other half are made psychopaths by joining. The characters in the play behave in increasingly unhinged ways. To what extent do you think that it is possible to maintain a sense of your own humanity when operating in a context where violence is the norm?
I hope I never have to find out. ‘Psychologist’ is another one of those things on the big list of ‘Things I’m Not’, but people are very good at adapting to new circumstances. Once you’ve done something a few times, no matter how horrific it is, your brain comes to accept it as something that happens from now on; people can become accustomed to violence with great ease. To me, the real surprise is how just how shocked the world seems to be when atrocities committed by soldiers are revealed: as a society, we’ve spent a lot of time and money making people who are good at killing other people, so that we don’t have to. Can it really be that surprising that these people end up with a different sense of what’s acceptable behaviour?
Your work often deals with worlds that are collapsing; Sand was a bleak exploration of nuclear catastrophe, while the protagonists of mirror teeth and fiji land are powerless to stop their lives imploding. What interests you about writing about people, and societies, on the brink of annihilation?
There are two things that people always say about feelings of imminent apocalypse. Firstly, they say that ‘Every generation feels like it’s living at the end of the world’, and then they say ‘but I really do think that our generation is different’. Which isn’t really answering the question, is it? I suppose the pedestrian answer is that no-one’s going to bother to watch a play about a world where everything’s fine.
Experimentation with words and form is a hallmark of your work, exemplified in Sand, which portrayed the disintegration of its characters – and the world – through the disintegration of language. How do you see this kind of experimentation fitting in with the thematic content of your work?
re: experimentation. BS Johnson always said that he didn’t like the title of ‘experimental’ writer: the experimentation happens long before a book’s printed and someone gets to read it. The books themselves are the results of experiments that the reader never gets to see. But I try to find a form that suits what I’m trying to write, and that gives a bunch of actors and a director something to work with: if your audience could just sit down and read your script, and get as much out of it as watching a production, then what’s the point in putting it on in the first place?
Which writers/practitioners have you found most influential?
I’m wary of saying too much, as then it becomes obvious who I’ve ripped off. Ah, it’ll come out eventually anyway. A quick list is Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, Samuel Beckett, Georges Perec, BS Johnson, Wallace Shawn; I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.
fiji land runs at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford, from 8 – 11 January 2013.