It's always fascinating to see famous writers' early work. But the real value of this 100-minute, 1972 radio play by Caryl Churchill, which draws heavily on Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, lies not so much in what it reveals about Churchill as what it says about its all too topical subject: the devastating impact of torture on practitioners as well as victims.
Fanon, who appears as a largely silent witness, was head of the psychiatric unit in an Algerian hospital. In the play, we see him listening to a series of patients shortly before he quit his post in 1956 to work with the FLN (National Liberation Front) in their fight against French colonialism. In the play's longest encounter, we see a badly rattled French "administrator", who clearly practises torture, and his wife, trying to have their disturbed daughter, Françoise, classified as insane. Other patients include a French policeman who vents his rage at those he interrogates on his own family, and a couple of indigenous Algerians – one a death-haunted guerrilla, the other a frenzied patriot constantly accused of cowardice.
The play offers clues to later Churchill work: the teenage Françoise, whose catatonia is partially caused by hearing the cries of tortured victims in the parental home, foreshadows the terrified little girl who sees her uncle beating "traitors" in Churchill's apocalyptic 2000 play, Far Away. But the main interest lies in Fanon's unforgiving exploration of colonialism. The French administrator lives in a cloud of self-deception, believing in the beneficial impact of Racine and Proust on the local population. The policeman argues in all seriousness that, "It's no joke torturing someone for 10 hours."
But while the director, Jim Russell, is to be congratulated for unearthing an important play, his production is both undercooked and static: its one concession to theatricality is the grim image of a life-size puppet symbolising the victims of colonialism. Ruth Pickett as the sectioned Françoise, Ruth Lass as her overbearing mother, Simon Yadoo as the disintegrating cop and Miles Mitchell as the patient Fanon all give decent enough performances. But, in the light of all we've learned about Iraq and Afghanistan, the play suddenly seems appallingly relevant.