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Contemporary Conflict: creative writing and political drama

Researcher: Professor Colin Teevan

An influential playwright and screenwriter for theatre, radio and television, Colin Teevan has made a significant contribution to dramas of war and conflict. Drawing on sustained research into international political conflicts, his plays have been broadcast on radio and TV, and performed in stage productions across Britain and the US.

Focusing on the paradoxes in Western liberal thinking that have led the US and its military alliances into numerous wars, both hot and cold, he first addressed this subject in the ground-breaking How Many Miles to Basra? (broadcast on Radio 3 in 2005; first produced on stage in 2006). He is one of a group of researchers at Birkbeck working on the history and representation of war, where related events have recently included the conference, ‘After the War’ (2009) and the symposium, ‘Iraq War Culture’, on the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War (March 2013).

Teevan’s political dramas consider the contradictory relationship between the reality of a conflict situation as experienced on the ground by individuals who might be seen as agents of western culture (a soldier, spy, aid worker, artist, scientist, journalist or political tourist) and the agendas of the echelons above them.

Teevan starts from the method of verbatim drama (associated with the political theatre of places such as the Tricycle Theatre in London, with whom he has worked extensively) and transforms individual testimonies into multilayered fictional dramas. Based on historical and current affairs research, his dramas emerge from face-to-face interviews with individuals involved in the conflicts at different levels and in different parts of the world. He has drawn on interviews with the destitute, Mossad agents, nuclear scientists, Washington policy makers, EU negotiators and British and US soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan.

Teevan’s works relating to war and conflict include:

The Lion of Kabul, performed as part of a suite of twelve plays, Great Game: Afghanistan, at the Tricycle Theatre, London, 2009. These plays dramatised the historical context, since the nineteenth century, for the contemporary military intervention in Afghanistan. Following their run at the Tricycle, the suite of plays became a command performance for the British Army (2010).

General Sir David Richards, Chief of Defence Staff, wrote in The Times: ‘We talk about the theatre of war but it is rare that a general has the time to watch a proper drama, let alone one that lasts so long, but I found The Great Game a fascinating, entertaining, and historically accurate account of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan since the 1840s and well worth the time. More than 200 members of the audience were from across the military and defence, including 15 Sandhurst officer cadets who saw it with me on Thursday. Nothing learnt in the classroom will have had the same subliminal effect as this. It is crucial for us who work out there to have a more nuanced understanding.’ (The Times, 3 October 2010). The Lion of Kabul was also debated on BBC2 Newsnight Review and Channel 4 News in May 2009.

In 2010, the British Council commissioned and sponsored a US tour for the suite of plays which were received with great acclaim. A teacher who worked in a small, rural high school in Wisconsin, wrote to the Tricycle: “…the show prompted me to think of my own students and how I could use these plays to help educate them about the history, culture, and political realities of Afghanistan in a way that they would find more meaningful. I believe that this is especially important for my students because many of them will join the military as a way to escape their rural, economically impoverished homes”.

The plays were also performed to officials and their guests in the Defence Department at the Pentagon in Washington DC. The performance was seen as ‘an important part of the process by which the Pentagon awoke to the cultural complexities of Afghanistan’. A report describes the theatre performances as an exercise in cultural diplomacy, noting the unusual collaboration involved in putting the plays in front of the Washington audience, ‘The Tricycle Theatre, British Council, British Embassy in Washington, Bob Woodruff Foundation and Pentagon are unlikely bedfellows, but their cooperation makes sense given the subject matter.’

Massistonia, commissioned for Drama on BBC Radio 3 and broadcast in February 2011. Based on Teevan’s own experience, the play is about a theatre director trying to put on a touring production in Macedonia and the forces unleashed against him. The programme was also broadcast twice by the democratic opposition radio Kanal 103 in Macedonia.

There Was a Man, There Was No Man performed as part of a cycle of ten plays at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London, on the history of the nuclear bomb, in 2012. Focused on the current nuclear situation in the Middle East, it examined the contradictory stance of the West in relation to the development of nuclear weapons in Israel and Iran.

‘The Sandancers’, a 120-minute episode in the ITV crime drama series, Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn. Broadcast in June 2012 on the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, it focused on mysterious deaths in a regiment, known as the Sandancers, returning home from Afghanistan. It was a hard-hitting play and had to be rescheduled owing to bad news from the Afghan front.

Teevan’s publisher (Oberon Books) particularly values his ability to communicate deep knowledge accessibly to audiences and writes: ‘If there were more academics as capable as Teevan, the distance between academia and professional theatre would not be so great.’