Radical American theatre company the Riot Group took last year’s Edinburgh Fringe by storm with its anti-war satire PUGILIST SPECIALIST. We met playwright Adriano Shaplin in California ahead of the group’s first ever Glasgow performances. Words: Mark Brown
eeting Adriano Shaplin. author of
the multiple award-winning play. I’ugi/ist .S'pm'iulist. on the notoriously radical Berkeley
campus of the University of California has a feeling of
authenticity about it. Like interviewing Muhammad Ali in a boxing gym. or talking to Irvine Welsh in an Amsterdam nightclub. Shaplin. who was teaching theatre students at Berkeley until last December. is an almost archetypal political artist. Motivated. in equal measure. by his passions for theatre. intellectual debate and political change. the 24-year-old playwright and actor seems to be in his natural habitat as we sit drinking in Berkeley's Free Speech Movement Cafe.
Not that he is entirely at peace with the university authorities. who have. he says. ‘co-opted‘ the free speech movement. softening the radical tradition of the campus by turning it into something of a tourist attraction. This comment is typical of Shaplin: he doesn’t deal in one-dimensional political platitudes. there are always complexities.
It is precisely the complexity of I’ugi/ist Specialist which helps to account for its phenomenal success. The Vermont- born playwright believes that slogans are for demonstrations. while the theatre is ‘a place of catharsis. a place to explore complexity. and a place to use drama to explore things in their full detail'. He is. he says. a ‘|()()‘/( supporter of the anti-war
22 THE LIST 19 Feb—4 Mar 2004
movement'. but insists this doesn‘t mean he has to partake in a one-dimensional representation of the US military. ‘I don’t think it's helpful to construct monsters out of the American military and use them as a punching bag for what really is a corrupt administration and a comrpt ideology.‘
With I’ugilist .S'pm‘iulist he is keen to construct a stage representation of a US marines assassination squad which posits questions about the American state apparatus and its need of enemies. The play is a multifaceted satire exploring the ways in which the political and military leaderships in the US represent their enemies and control information in order to justify their wars. With George Bush and Tony Blair still wriggling on the hook over their representation of intelligence about Iraq‘s unproven ‘weapons of mass destruction'. the subject of the control of information could hardly be more topical. Indeed. far from undermining the pertinence of the drama. the capture of Saddam Hussein back in December also served to heighten the play’s relevance.
Shaplin believes that the US establishment has a profound love-hate relationship with its enemies (the lictionalised enemy of the play is codenamed ‘the bearded lady'). and that the capture of Saddam ushered in a time of magnified hate. 'The play is. in some ways. about the techniques of representation employed by the government. the war machine and the media. techniques of dehumanisation.’ he explains. When the [S military finally captured Saddam. both they and a compliant