The Empire @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Josef Altin, Joe Armstrong, Imran Khan, Nav Sidhu and Rufus Wright

directed by
Mike Bradwell

“Thick cunts, led by posh cunts, hitting brown cunts. Way it is. Even Now.” The conflict might be new but the old rules still apply, according to DC Moores second full length play at the Royal Court. Set in a dusty, bullet-scarred corner of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, The Empire is taut as a high-wire. Gary, an easy going British soldier, is faced with a complex dilemma. Following an ambush with an RPG that’s left one of their number facing death, he is tasked with looking after an injured prisoner presumed to be a Terry, army slang for Taliban until the army medic can attend to him.

Yet when the prisoner wakes up, he starts speaking in a broad London accent. He says his name is Zia, and he’s English; he claims to have been visiting relatives in Pakistan when he was kidnapped.

Zias a talker; a constant stream of words spill from him, and though his story sounds implausible, the more he spins it out, the harder it is for Gary to know what to believe. What he does know is that if they hand Zia over to the Afghan army, the ANA, its doubtful hell last long. If he’s innocent, as he claims to be, they would be condemning him to an awful fate, and yet he may well be responsible for the earlier attack.

Mike Bradwell’s production is an exercise in tension. He takes an already heightened situation and ratchets things up to unbearable levels. Garys commanding officer, Captain Mannock, is sympathetic but theres a clear division between the two British men. The Captain is a well-spoken Sandhurst type, whom Gary snittily refers to as Rupert; in some ways Gary has more in common with Zia, who hails from Wanstead Park. As the tension builds between all three men, Hafizullah, a young, placid ANA soldier (whom Gary constantly calls Paddy the labelling of people being a recurring theme) sits to the side and watches, smoking a series of tiny, potent joints in an effort to blot out the awful things he has experienced and is continuing to experience.

As Gary, Joe Armstrong shows – as he did in Dennis Kelly’s Orphans – that he can do expletive-flecked inarticulacy. He really gets to grips with Moore’s hesitant, jerky dialogue, full of sentences that taper off with a resigned “fuck” and a tired shrug. He makes the rhythms of the writing work for him in a way the other performers don’t quite manage. Josef Altin is also completely believable as young Hafizullah, detached and weary, longing for sleep and peace. Nav Sidhu has the hardest role to pull off as the verbose Zia, his story constantly circling, his voice veering from whiny to defiant.

Though the class conflict that filters through the play is sometimes made too explicit, threatening to blunt the blade of the writing, what Moore does particularly effectively is to highlight how one of the principal agonies of war is in the constant waiting, the uncertainty.

Bradwell’s production makes superb use of the space at the Royal Courts intimate Upstairs theatre. Bob Bailey’s set, scorched, bleak and rubble-strewn, makes the space feel even tighter, effectively draws the eye in on these heat-numbed and increasingly desperate men.

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