When Karen Martin — acclaimed writer of 1999 performance The Women’s Jail Project — realised she was going to write a play about torture, she admits, she “wanted to run a mile”. Her moment of inspiration occurred as she was watching a public conversation between Julian Burnside QC and Philip Gourevitch, author of Standard Operating Procedure, at the 2008 Melbourne Writers’ Festival. The talk discusses issues arising from the Iraq war and the notorious Abu Ghraib torture images.
Martin’s initial apprehension about the work’s subject matter is understandable. Her script probes the murkiest corners of the human psyche and the most repugnant regions of contemporary political debate. It explores the notion of redemption and the meaning of evil, asking whether torture is ever permissible in the face of the war on terror; it investigates, fearlessly, what the personal and societal repercussions of its use might be. Heavy topics, and difficult to sensitively explore from a comfortable seat in the Western world; indeed, as Martin asked herself in compiling the play’s text: “How do you write about famine when you’re feasting?”
Rendition of the Soul engages, repeatedly, with the issue of what Martin calls the “mediatisation” of torture and war. In its opening sequence, we witness a news director whittling away, through a series of mutterings about not wanting to “offend anyone”, at a television anchor’s truthful presentation of grim events. We are later invited to revisit the theme of euphemistic media lines and sanitised military catchphrases when a soldier compares the semantics of the terms “shell shock”, “battle fatigue” and, finally, “operational exhaustion”. Towards the performance’s end, a silent photographic montage of Julian Assange lends a particularly topical tone to the performance’s exploration of the intersection between media and politics.
It’s contemporary, endlessly embracing the innovative process of remixing. The script references writers from Orwell to Shakespeare, draws on the work of public figures including Barack Obama and Geoffrey Robertson, and includes ample references to Jungian philosophy in its exploration of free will and the attempt to suppress our personal “shadows”.
The fictional academics commenting on the morality of torture throughout the piece draw their names, Milgram and Stanford, from historical experiments on imprisonment and obedience to authority figures — and, in their viewpoints, mimic often-cited scholars like Bruce Anderson. (Anderson, you might recall, suggested in The Independent last year that we not only have a right but “a duty” to use torture.)
Cleverly, an instructional yoga tape replays continuously on twin “television screens” overlooking the stage; the poses of the stretching woman — who embodies relaxed, Western normality — ironically mimic the stress pose of the tortured inmate, and we are reminded of the human body’s potential for, at once, beauty and brutality.