Negative Signs of Progress is a trilogy of radio plays which tell one unfolding story set against the background of the Arab Spring. 

Here is set in Britain, where a husband is visited by a police officer who has a few questions about the man’s wife. What begins as a few routine questions builds into an international thriller. Over the course of the interview, the man comes to question everything he thought he knew about his relationship and the woman he loves.

There is set in a NGO in Europe. A group of strategists react to the news that one of their field workers has disappeared and may have been kidnapped. Despite their near-total inexperience, they are forced to role play scenarios in which they negotiate with the unknown kidnapper, struggling to separate truth from fiction, Aleppo from Hollywood.

Somewhere is set somewhere in the Arab World. A frightened western hostage finds herself in a beautiful library, the unwilling guest of a man of impeccable civility. The play asks how far the west and the east can understand each other, whether the Arab Spring is a projection of western liberal wish-fulfillment and – when the work of Debussy can become an act of prisoner abuse – explores how easily civilization can be a vehicle for brutality.

I was interested in this trilogy to write something that explored the Arab Spring. I was very caught up in the excitement of that moment, but increasingly wonder whether there was a kind of obverse orientalism in my response: not demonizing the eternal Orient but embracing them as the new West. These were only doubts to me but when the opportunity came to write a trilogy I thought it would be interesting to use one of the great dramatic motifs – how far we can ever know one another – to explore a contemporary political issue.

It also seemed to me that a trilogy was an opportunity to write something about our global connectedness, showing how a brief conversation in a Bedfordshire village might be connected with civil unrest on the streets of Cairo. The plays are set in the first, second and third world (with the world of international governance as a kind of new second world),

I don’t write plays to tell people what I think about a topic. I write plays to find out what I think about a topic, or what I might think about a topic. Story is a very powerful machine for placing events in a context, making connections between disparate things, force yourself to inhabit multiple positions, see an event from a number of viewpoints. Taking any event through the mechanism of story is a way of testing and interrogating that event. The second play is a comedy and it’s probably on the edge of public taste to write a comedy about hostage negotiation, but I think that comedy has the power to scrutinize our own limits and assumptions and it’s worth risking offence to undertake that scrutiny.

The three plays tell a continuous story though I have also written them so each can be listened to individually. I am always very conscious of form and in these plays I’ve consciously adopted a very intimate form for all three plays: they each unfold in one space in real time. The tone of all three is very different: the first is a kind of psychological thriller, the second is broadly comic, and the third is more of a dialectic, debate-led play. I’m interested in how the intimacy of the form connects with the variety of styles to create a sense of connection and disconnection across the three plays that reflects some of the questions the play asks about the relationship between the domestic and the political, between home and abroad, Europe and the Arab World, between being good and doing bad.

The play is about the difficulty we in the West might have in fully imagining the Arab World (and vice versa) and of course this is a difficulty which may afflict the play too. I’ve tried not to hide behind irony, though there is a play of explicit fictionalising in the naming of my one Arab character, but I’m conscious of the awkwardness of me trying to imagine my way over the border. In a sense the third play is asking not only whether we can escape the roles we project on one another politically, but also dramaturgically. I’m inclined to think that the hardline postcolonialist position, that my perception of, say, an Egyptian is inescapably constructed by the history of our colonial relationship, is fundamentally conservative because it suggests we can never escape the past. I hope the trilogy takes us beyond that position, but that’s not ultimately for me to judge.

I’m hoping that people will listen to all three, of course, and I think that each play is strengthened and enriched by the others. There are some motifs that run across all the plays - our ability to know one another, the meaning of books, the barking of dogs - that offer connections across the divides and suggest continuities of experience that are themselves a hint at the humane.

There was a long and appreciative piece on the plays by Omar Willey published by the Seattle Star and you can read it here.

Negative Signs of Progress will be broadcast on 25 February (Here), 26 February (There), and 27 February (Somewhere) at 2.15pm on BBC Radio 4. It is produced by Polly Thomas at BBC Radio Cardiff.

The casts are:

  • Here: Tony Gardner (The Thick of It, Lead Balloon) and Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, United 93)
  • There: Fenella Woolgar (Doctor Who, Vera Drake), Joseph Kloska (Made in Dagenham, Jane Eyre), and Steffan Rhodri (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Gavin & Stacey)
  • Somewhere: Frances Grey (Messiah, Vanity Fair), Mido Hamada (Homeland, 24)

Frances Grey was also in Cavalry and Fenella Woolgar in My Life is a Series of People Saying Goodbye.

You can listen to the three plays below