Review: Last Resort, at Summerhall, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Last Resort Guantanamo Bay poster image with man in handcuffs on deckchair in front of watch tower and barbed wire

If you remove the modern political context, the name ‘Guantánamo Bay’ could be just another holiday resort. It’s in the Caribbean Sea, an American enclave on the edge of Cuba. There’s a branch of McDonald’s, and ‘over 6,000 species of flora and fauna’. Perfect package holiday material, right? That’s what 2Magpies, the makers of Last Resort, thought when they applied an all-inclusive tourist lens to the notorious American naval detention camp for suspected terrorists. They’ve created an immersive theatre piece that, for all the surface jollity of deckchairs, sand and Cuba Libre cocktails, successfully chills audiences to the bone.

The venue also lends a sinister air: hidden below ground in a dingy Summerhall space, with an eerie yellow glow, are rows of deckchairs, each with a small bag of sand for the audience to place their feet. The bag is orange, like the shorts of the two holiday reps (Tom Barnes and Eve Parmiter, using their own names), the deckchair fabric, and the plastic cups of the cocktails served on arrival, complete with mini umbrellas. Orange, like detainees’ jumpsuits.

Last Resort play with deckchairs and bags of sand in Edinburgh Fringe venue
A flurry of activity as the audience gets into position for the start of Last Resort.

Tension slowly builds as Eve shows her newer colleague the ropes. Seemingly banal descriptions, like ‘late checkout comes as standard’, become more significant. There’s a banned books list; the choice of water sports includes water boarding, which you could easily mishear as something innocent. One of the most successful moments comes during guided meditation at the ‘spa’, when Parmiter describes the horrors of water boarding in an alarmingly soothing tone, as audience members sit back with a damp cloth on their face. Fortunately, nobody gets water boarded, but the guided meditation conjures up vivid mental images.

In between Tom’s torture sessions, which include ‘stress positions’ that prisoners must hold for up to four hours, and aural disturbance tactics with disco music, distressing facts are delivered in unnervingly calm tones. 2Magpies worked with Reprieve, a human rights charity which represents Guantánamo inmates, to create Last Resort. However, the piece doesn’t feel like a lecture: it’s a dynamic way of presenting facts that we’d all rather not know about. Regardless of the heightened terror threat across the world right now, learning that ‘one piece of intelligence justifies enhanced interrogation tactics’, and that there are ’41 detainees with no evidence for a trial’, should sit uneasily. Here, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ carries no weight.

Guantanamo Bay Camp X-Ray prisoner image with US guards, by Shane T. McCoy
The real Guantánamo Bay, seen by a US Navy photographer. Credit: Shane T. McCoy, shared via Wikimedia Commons.

The longest section of Last Resort, a drinking game to represent force-feeding, has an overly long build-up, and its climax may prove too distressing for sensitive viewers, but Barnes and Parmiter have mostly found the middle ground between shock value and uncomfortable facts. The forced drinking is horrific, with Barnes’ guttural choking noises; it reminded me of force-feeding scenes in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Suffragette play, Under Her Skin (shown at the National Theatre in 2008). What pushes the horror factor further is Parmiter revealing the length of one prisoner’s hunger strike. Just seeing this procedure once is enough, let alone thinking of someone living it day in, day out.

Last Resort achieves its aims of highlighting the moral vacuum of Guantánamo Bay’s detention system. The juxtaposition between holiday camp superficiality and scarily legal torture procedures is both disturbing and clever, and the intimate staging would easily translate to a Black Mirror-esque TV drama.

Whilst I would have liked to see some post-finale information from Reprieve (maybe a leaflet?), I appreciate some viewers would prefer to enjoy the drama, then lose themselves in light-hearted Fringe alternatives, and let every subsequent terrorist attack leave them less guilty about Guantánamo prisoners’ fates. But the play has stayed with me constantly, and I can’t help thinking we’re dooming innocent people to psychological and physical torture on a distant island. Hopefully, Last Resort will deliver lasting support for Reprieve, because no amount of distractions can disguise what’s going on at the edge of a sun-drenched island.

Verdict:  4 stars

Last Resort is at Summerhall (Venue 26), Edinburgh, until 27th August 2017 (excluding 21st), with performances at 12:00 or 18:30; duration 1 hour. A UK-wide tour begins in Spring 2018.

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