BBC Radio 3, 29 October 2011
Set in the early days of the British operation in Afghanistan, The
Empire focuses on a group of soldiers coping with the sweltering heat, an enemy that refuses to play by established rules
of combat, and racial and class prejudices within their own ranks.
Phippy (David Kirkbride) is fatally wounded in an attack, and Captain Mannock (James
Newton) and Gary (Joe Armstrong) capture Zia (Ashley Kumar) as their prime suspect and hold him hostage in a makeshift shelter,
aided and abetted by a local soldier-turned-guide Hafizullah (Josef Altin), whom they refuse to call by his given name. As
the action unfolds, we find out that Zia is a British citizen who has decided to fight for the Taleban cause; this presumed
lack of 'loyalty' to one's country infuriates Gary to such an extent that he is prepared to flout the Geneva Convention regarding
treatment of prisoners of war. Although Mannock restrains him, it is clear that he shares Gary's views; it is only his
upper-class education that stops him from violent intervention.
History played a large part in my understanding of this play. Over a hundred years
ago the British fought a similar campaign in Afghanistan as part of a long-standing colonial war. Gary and Mannock do
not realize this; they believe that they are simply responsible for 'liberating' the country from terrorism. The fact that
any encounters with the colonial Other reveals their prejudices never even enters their minds. Zia is guilty of
the same misunderstanding, despite the presumed 'nobility' of his cause; as a British citizen he middles in another country's
Author Moore invoked several binary oppositions throughout the course of the
action (west/east, colonizer/colonized, Christian/Muslim) to show how they prevent any progress towards cross-cultural understanding.
Unless individuals can go beyond them and approach members of other cultures on their own terms (by calling
them by their proper names, for instance), then any progress is impossible. The Empire also made a strong
case for ending the Afghan campaign: perhaps the politicians of all sides should suspend their speechifying and take
into account the expewriences of ordinary people, such as those portrayed in Moore's play. The director was Polly Thomas.