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New London play tells story of "Guantanamo Boy"

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - A theatre in east London is staging new play "Guantanamo Boy" this week, focusing on the U.S. detention camp as it marks it 10th anniversary and engaging local Muslims in political debate.

The production, based on a 2009 novel of the same name by Anna Perera, opens on Tuesday at Stratford Circus, located in an area of the capital with a large Muslim population.

"Stratford wanted to start making emotionally challenging theatre for a teenage audience and we are in east London with a lot of Asian resonance," said director Dominic Hingorani.

"It (Guantanamo Bay) obviously has a lot of resonance with people here."

It is not the first time detainees' experiences at Guantanamo Bay have been portrayed on stage and screen.

Michael Winterbottom co-directed docu-drama "The Road to Guantanamo" in 2006 based on the true story of three British Muslims who were held at the U.S. military base in Cuba before being released.

And South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu appeared in a U.S. version of a London play called "Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom" based on spoken testimony given by detainees.

Hingorani said his adaptation of Perera's novel looked at Guantanamo through the eyes of a Muslim teenager from Britain who is detained during a family visit to Pakistan because he is suspected of being a terrorist.

Although fictional, the book was inspired by the incarceration of teenagers like Mohammed El Gharani, a Chadian citizen released without charge in 2009 after more than seven years in captivity, including at Guantanamo.

His lawyers said he was 14 when he was seized in Pakistan in 2001 before being turned over to the U.S. military, although the Pentagon disputed his age.

"We are reimagining this experience through a teenagers' eyes," Hingorani told Reuters. "It was very important to keep an eye on the fact that we are taking the audience with us in order that they can engage."

Asked how graphic his recreation of the conditions at the widely criticized detention camp would be, he replied:

"I am trying to give the audience an experience that is unsettling and intense and to some degree a sense of how violent and upsetting that environment must be."

UK THEATRE TACKLES THORNY THEMES

Guantanamo Bay was set up following the September 11, 2001 attacks to hold individuals suspected of links to groups classified by the United States as terrorist organizations.

The facility has been widely condemned amid allegations of torture and for holding detainees without trial. Three years ago U.S. President Barack Obama promised to close the camp, but it remains open with around 170 foreign captives.

"Whatever your politics, we are talking about human rights and the consequences of human rights being expendable," Hingorani said.

Guantanamo Boy is one of several recent London plays that tackle political themes.

"The Trial of Ubu" at Hampstead Theatre puts Alfred Jarry's creation Ubu on trial at the International Criminal Court, while "The Riots" at the Tricycle Theatre examined social unrest in Britain based on eyewitness accounts.

Hingorani argued that while not theatre's sole mission, the stage should engage with current events.

"It's not didactic, telling people what to think, but it can explore and interrogate and challenge the political landscape.

"It's very difficult to take politics, be it personal or party politics, out of the equation, because it is a part of the world we inhabit."

Guantanamo Boy opens on Tuesday and ends on February 11. A national tour is planned for the autumn.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)

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