It’s an uncomfortable truth that torture is taking place in silenced pockets of the world, as I write now and later as you read. Mario Benedetti’s play Pedro and the Captain aims to tell the story of these universal prison cells filled with horrifically oppressed and dehumanised prisoners. Working in partnership with Redress, a charity whose aim is to bring justice to victims of torture, Columbian director Miguel Hernando Torres Umba sees Pedro and the Captain on a London stage for the first time in thirty years. However, to the production’s detriment, little has been done to adapt the play and make it a mouthpiece for the victims of today’s political crimes and injustices.
Pedro and the Captain is staged entirely in a shabby prison cell and is centred around Captain’s (David Acton) interrogations of Pedro (Joseph Wilkins), with the former hoping the latter will disclose information about the communist activities he’s been accused of. The play’s opening is confusing: Aurora (Laura Obiols) stands at the back of the auditorium, informing the audience, almost inaudibly, of her husband Pedro’s disappearance. With Obiols clad in the same ‘Save Pedro’ t-shirt as other supporters of the production, it’s unclear whether her appeal is a real-life plea for help, or part of the storyline. Her show of desperately missing a husband is unconvincing though, and this is all we see of Aurora, as the action thereafter hones into the interrogations on stage. In a show written by a Uruguayan playwright and staged by a Columbian director, the decision for the two main characters to be played by English actors using Spanish names is one I’d be curious to hear more about. It throws the piece into an undefinable space and time, which is the intention of Benedetti’s original text, however it seems an opportunity is missed here to engage the audience with current, real political injustices.
The play’s content is less shocking to today’s audience, who are exposed to extreme violence via the media in ways that an audience thirty years ago wouldn’t have been. Yet Benedetti’s writing is clever, thoroughly exploring themes of domination, fear and resistance in the relationship between interrogator and prisoner. Pedro is silent throughout the first scenes of the play until a particular round of torture leaves him feeling “a dead man”, powerfully claiming “we dead ones can talk.” He then begins to jabber to the Captain, without ever giving away so much as a nugget about an ally, instead provoking Captain – the assigned interrogator – to pour out the passions of his own guilty conscience. Pedro’s small victory over Captain is visualised effectively in the final moments as Captain, by then a shattered man, cowers in the corner before begging (unsuccessfully) at Pedro’s feet for a confession. Thus the play ends with Pedro on the physical and moral high ground.
Acton is every bit the manipulative, twisted interrogator – a hunter hoping to flatter, coax or blackmail his prey into biting the bait. Wilkins’s Pedro, whose grubby prisoner overalls stand in stark contrast to Captain’s crisp business suit, defies stereotypes with his middle-class eloquence. He returns to the stage after each episode of torture (an off-stage occurrence portrayed through erratic flashes of light resembling electrocution, and muffled, underwater sounds of opera and screeching resembling waterboarding) looking more and more the exhausted torture victim, largely thanks to Heba Prieto’s face and body make-up.
Pedro and the Captain is original in its exploration of the effects of torture on the perpetrator as well as the victim, and the play brings to life important realities that have the potential to be hidden away by governments across the world. However, more could be done to revive this dated play for today’s audience, particularly through relating it to current political crimes and cases of torture, which charities like Redress are working hard to raise awareness for.
Pedro and the Captain is playing at The Vaults as part of VAULT Festival until 6 March. For more information and tickets, see the VAULT Festival website.