By Aidan Hookey (student ambassador)
The past two years have heightened understandings of emergency and provoked new questions about what it means to be in 'crisis'. Lockdowns have isolated but also concentrated our minds. Justice and the law, viewed at a distance, seemed at once more significant, but increasingly disjointed.
Law and justice are central themes in Professor Desmond Manderson's FAAL FASSA FRSC new play, Twenty Minutes with the Devil. Their relationship is explored against the backdrop of drug wars, violence, corruption, and the crisis of politics in the 21st century.
Charting the true story of the arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2016, Professor Manderson and his co-playwright, Dr Luis Gómez Romero, explore the lesser-known details of the much-publicised events.
Famously, after escaping a police raid through a sewer, El Chapo was pulled over by two highway police officers. Having been tipped off that 40 cartel assassins were on their way to free El Chapo, the police took him to a country motel room. The army was also on their way, but they didn’t know who would arrive first. And what was said inside the little room remains a mystery. In this Q&A, Professor Manderson sheds light on the play's inspiration and what it offers audiences.
What drew you to the El Chapo story?
We were sitting on the beach and Luis started telling me this story about El Chapo being arrested. It is a bizarre story. I told Luis I knew the story; it was interesting, but it was well-known and Luis told me that there was more to it. The real story is what they talked about when they were in that room.
[El Chapo] threatens the cops and tries to bribe them, but for some reason, they stay. So, why do they stay? What is their investment in this process? Any cop, but a cop in a place like this especially. That’s the untold story, and nobody will ever tell that story, so that’s when I said to Luis we should write a play.
It came out of my connection with Luis, and his connection to Mexico, as well as our personal interests in the drug wars, and who is responsible for that, which obviously doesn’t have a simple answer. It isn’t the story that is often told by the cops or the story that is told about them.
Were there particular themes or topics that were foremost for you going into the writing process?
The great thing about a play is that once you start imagining characters, characters have their own motivations, and then have to think about what they would do in this situation, and what would their next move be. The characters all have their own interests, so we saw it as a way to explore that.
But we also saw it as a way to explore underlying issues about law and justice, and the problems of the world, and what law has to say about that anymore. To explore why justice is out of reach, and why the law is impotent.
There are multiple positions, and our characters are mapped to specific ways of thinking about law and justice. The characters are used to establish the positions, what the tensions are, and how we might salvage something. How we might get out of this locked box, this room that we are in, which is called 'the world'. The storm is coming, just like it is coming for our characters, and we have limited time to work out what we should do
With respect to the play's themes of law, justice and crisis, how is the story driven by your work as a law professor? There must be challenges integrating academia, personal experience, and this type of writing process.
It is a new way of communicating. It can’t be like academia. It can’t be like that. We tried to embody ideas. You have to show, not tell. We had to embody these ideas and make them real. Those points or moments or histories, it has to be important at that moment on stage. The characters don’t care about abstract ideas of law and justice; they just want to get out alive. So you have to turn the ideas into something real that is embodied in real people, and that is a very different way of exploring the writing process.
We kind of knew where we wanted to get to, but we didn’t know how to get there. We also wanted to sublimate that message in ways that gave the characters their own agency, and the audience their own agency. There are a lot of agents in a play. Everybody gets to have some ownership, and the meaning comes through that ownership.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but in the end the most rewarding.
The play has been postponed twice during the pandemic. How has the story evolved to the situation as it looks now? The themes seem to have become more important, in terms of crisis, epidemic and emergency, in some ways.
We wanted to make it very true to its time, but I think there is more awareness of what it means to be trapped with nowhere to go, and with impending disasters that we try to avoid but we can’t avoid. I think that is very present in our minds. I think it has given the actors new resources to think about what that feeling of being locked down is like. I’m hoping that the audience will also have an extra way of empathising and relating their own positions to the performers' positions. So it does have some resonance that it didn’t have two years ago.
People responded to the last few years in very different ways. In a time without movement, with the stasis of the modern world. When you are forced to confront that stasis, it changes people. Not in the same way, but it has changed people. I suppose the last two years have given audiences a stake in what is happening on the stage that is different from what it was before.
Professor Desmond Manderson and Dr Luis Gómez Romero’s play Twenty Minutes with the Devil runs from 18-25 June at The Street Theatre. You can get your tickets here. You can also hear Professor Manderson speak at a pre-show Q&A session on 23 June, titled The Crisis of Justice in the Modern World.