Review: The Empire, Royal Court Upstairs

“Patch you up, all nice like, splint, bandage your leg. All very civilized actually. But then. Then. We hand you over.”

Played out in real-time in war torn Afghanistan, The Empire is the latest work to take up residence upstairs at the Royal Court. Only the second play by DC Moore, it promises “to dissect the politics of occupation, home and abroad“. 

In the aftermath of a bloody skirmish, a mysterious wounded prisoner is guarded a young British soldier, Gary, and his Afghan colleague, nicknamed Paddy although really monikered Hafizullah. Along with Gary’s commanding officer, they await logistical support and much needed medical assistance but in the long wait under the burning desert sun, questions are asked and frustrations boil over in the search for the truth of just what is going on.

The play was extremely good at showing the confusion of wartime and the extreme pressures that lead to sometimes questionable decision-making. And the relationships between the men are very well drawn: the paternalistic bond between Gary and his CO, the almost imperialist attitudes towards the Afghan comrade and the innate distrust of the prisoner, who once he wakes, becomes the focus of heated debate about the role of the British in the occupation of Afghanistan. Where it was less successful for me was in drawing the comparisons with immigration in the UK, Gary allegedly was one of 3 white kids at his school in Tottenham, but to equate this with a military occupation however well-intentioned seems a little far-fetched.

The writing is mostly sharp and in places very funny, the crack about ‘that’s how I’d like my nan to die’ is still making me chuckle even now, and this is helped no end by a superb central performance from Joe Armstrong. Shouldering most of the weight of this play, he is rarely off-stage, and captures the affability of a regular squaddie beautifully, and convincing entirely with the subsequent darkening of his mood. Rufus Wright does well with his upper class CO, revealing a much sharper mind than is initially hinted it and as Paddy, Josef Altin gets many a laugh (if not that many lines). As the prisoner Zia, Nav Sidhu does fine with an extremely elusive character and copes admirably with the physical constraints he has to operate under: ultimately though I would have liked a little more resolution as to his motivations. 

Set as it is in the one gunshot-riddled room of an abandoned, ruined shack in the desert, Bob Bailey’s set is dressed simply with sun-bleached walls and a gravel floor. Jason Taylor’s lighting is just harsh sunlight, replicating the punishing relentless heat of the desert and it is all very convincing. The simplicity of the staging works well in the small space upstairs at the Royal Court, though I’m not sure how effective the sandstorm was.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this. It speeds by and crackles with lots of humour and was performed extremely well, especially considering this was an early preview. It doesn’t quite reach the depths it aims for though, and in refusing to tie things up neatly in a box, it remains a rather elusive experience.  

Running time: 90 minutes (with no interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Note: quite a lot of bad language in this one