by Anna Bruce-Lockhart

Opens in London on May 2.

The truth is out there, in that mulch of media-relayed current events, but we’re not privy to it. Do any of us believe what we see on television, or really know what sort of world we live in? With luck, we’ll soon be given a good idea, when Reader opens in London.

The work of Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, Reader is a politically charged but personal play about what happens to a society when it suppresses important truths in the name of higher ideals. Although it is set in a futuristic society, it is nevertheless a patent reflection our own. The main character is a professional censor, known sinisterly as The Pope, at whose hands the texts of the day are hacked into a language palatable to the controlled, 1984-like society he lives in.

That continues until one day, when he begins work on a book that reflects his own life and forces him into a self-awakening. Dorfman says that the play was “a way of asking what would happen to a man who has spent his life suppressing the works of others if a book he was about to ban suddenly began to reveal secrets from his past and predict an anguishing future which was coming alive in front of his eyes”.

Reader sprang directly from the author’s experience; it began life as a short story, written in vengeance against a dictatorial approach to art and literature in Chile at the time. “It was a sort of semi-tragic joke I was playing on those who had been censoring me and other writers all through the 20th century,” Dorfman says. But the story soon expanded to address wider contemporary issues. The US government’s attack on Iraq has unmistakable echoes of the violent, CIA-backed end to Allende’s Chile in 1973. “The play continues to be sadly relevant. The governments portrayed in it smother, manipulate and control information in the name of the highest ideals, using the fear of the populace in an ongoing ‘war on terror’. Sound familiar?”

This is the first show ever to be staged at Amnesty’s UK headquarters. Provocative theatre and an organisation like Amnesty might seem an odd pairing, but there’s every reason to believe the charity’s humanitarian message can reach a wider audience through the play. Dorfman himself is particularly happy Amnesty has chosen to host this play. “They’re opening what we can hope will be a thrilling array of works with a play which demands that the audience question the world and how it’s organised,” he said.

In the director’s chair is Frank Tamburin, fresh off the plane from the US to oversee this project. He’s keen to see the underlying issues acknowledged. “We’re living in a strange climate these days,” he said. “Sex and violence are endemic, so is an aggressive youth culture and angry, alienating music.” Tamburin’s concern is that, just like Dorfman’s futuristic society, ours too is clamping down on freedoms in the name of “protection”; that CCTV cameras, chips in credit cards, even Oyster cards track us everywhere we go. “We’re casting about for terrorists, and there’s a violent bias against wrong-doers of any sort,” he said. “Look at us: two towers fell down and we’re all prepared to go along with this overprotection.”

It’s the same story that threads through much of Dorfman’s work. He’s a man whose personal history outstrips even his most sensational fiction. Before the political coup in Chile on the eve of Augusto Pinochet’s reign, Dorfman worked as a cultural consultant under Salvador Allende in La Moneda, the government offices in Santiago. On the day of the coup he was out of the office and, while his name was on the “emergency list” of staff, all of whom disappeared or were killed or tortured, Dorfman was never chased up. It was only afterwards that he discovered he’d been saved deliberately, in order to disseminate the truth of the event.

Ariel Dorfman’s Reader is at bottom an alarm call. It calls time on the complicit roles we play in the society we’re part of and the repression by that society of the less powerful. “I hope that some of those who attend may be alerted to the dangers of censorship”, he said, “and understand that when we silence those with whom we disagree, we are, ultimately, suffocating a secret part of ourselves.”

The play will be produced by Vulture Culture, a small company that started at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and went on to the Edinburgh Fringe and later London. They are fresh and stubbornly idealistic, perfect for this project.

The end of the play leaves mysteries unresolved. Dorfman has said that it’s because he wants the audience to feel “that the story on that stage has not yet ended, that how it really ends will depend on how we, who are also watching, act out our own lives”.

And that’s why it’s vital to see this unique, Amnesty-backed production. Not only is it a brilliant and rewarding play, but it is “an adventure of the mind”, to use the words of Dorfman himself.

He invites theatregoers to “clear their hearts along with their diaries and see something that is quite different from anything available on the London stage today”.

May 2-5, 2007
Doors 7.30pm, Curtains at 8.00pm
Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre, Shoreditch
Nearest tube: Old Street (Northern Line)
Tickets £10
Tickets available at online.