A British Subject
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
December 11, 2009
A British Subject is based not only on a true story but is also written by actress Nichola McAuliffe who, along with her husband, journalist Don Mackay, worked tirelessly for the release of the unjustly imprisoned Mirza Tahir Hussain (the British Subject of the title.) One further intriguing layer is that McAuliffe also plays herself on stage.
A British Subject tells the story of 18-year-old Tahir, who grew up in Leeds. During his first solo family visit to Pakistan, he was assaulted by the taxi driver charged with taking him from the Rawalpindi train station to the village of Bhubar where his extended family resided. The driver tried to rob and sexually assault Tahir at gunpoint, there was a struggle and the driver was fatally wounded. Tahir drove the taxi directly to the nearest police station to report the incident, where he was arrested, charged with murder, arms dealing, and drug trafficking (after only being in Pakistan less 24 hours). He had been on death row for an additional 18 years in a squalid Pakistani prison awaiting execution when Don Mackay and subsequently McAuliffe began their intervention on his behalf in 2006.
McAuliffe weaves a fascinating tale of the couple's many frustrations and the bureaucratic and political roadblocks they encountered in their advocating for their fellow British citizen. When Don Mackay made that 2006 trip to visit Tahir, he was the first journalist to bring this story and the plight of this man to national attention. He encountered resistance from his own newspaper editor who, believing the story would not sell papers, relegated it to page 39. But that experience was the beginning of a journey that included McAuliffe's writing letters to Britain's Prince Charles to beg his assistance in obtaining Tapir's release.
The play is simply presented on a bare painted stage with only a small table and a few chairs that effectively take the story from London to Pakistan with the assistance of sound effects, theatrical lighting, and descriptive narration.
The cast of four plays multiple characters with the exception of Kulvinder Ghir, who only portrays the suffering Mirza Tahir Hussain. His performance is very touching and extremely believable, but I found myself straining a bit to hear his dialogue.
Shiv Growl's primary role is that of Tahir's brother Amjad, whose dedication to achieving his brother's freedom is remarkable. He also adds a bit of humor as the character of the prison governor in one of the lighter scenes of the evening.
Tom Cotcher does solid work as journalist Don Mackay, though at times his performance felt a bit larger than the small space warranted. Additionally Cotcher's brief portrayal of Prince Charles is extremely effective. McAuliffe also does excellent work portraying herself, the taxi driver's mother, Don's news editor, and notably a woman from the British High Commission.
Director Hannah Eidinow keeps the action moving and the pacing swift (apart from Tahir's prison scenes, which understandably may have been labored in real life but are not the most riveting to watch on stage) and the potentially difficult transitions smooth.
McAuliffe's play is an intriguing story about how our lives can be transformed in an instant—negatively or positively. It is about human life being so shockingly undervalued. It is also about how one person can make a difference in the face of apathy, commercial indifference, and potential political inconvenience. What has any of this to do with me, you might ask? In A British Subject Mirza Tahir Hussain says:
In the jails of Pakistan there are many men like me, some will go free, many who were not broken are young and angry, easily swayed to Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
In the end, it is a terrific argument for getting involved in the battles against poverty and injustices everywhere. A British Subject plays to January 3rd at 59E59 and is well worth a visit.