After peaking around the year 1998, Jake’s (Andy Clark) musical career is deep in the trough. His studio, Limbo, where Music Is Torture unfolds, is about to go bankrupt. He has been recording the same indie-pop band Dawnings’s (played by A Band Called Quinn) album for 15 years, with some interruptions from Jake’s capricious desk. This routine is disrupted when Jake finds out that a song he and his friend Nick (Harry Ward) recorded as a prank is being used by the CIA for their ‘Enhanced Interrogation Program’ – and, more crucially, that he could earn significant royalties from it. Jake is hesitant, but Nick, his friend and alter ego, is in favour of accepting the money.
Louise Quinn’s inspired exploration of torture came from musicologist Dr. Morag J. Grant’s research on the use of music in conflicts and as an interrogation method. A quick Internet search leads you to lists of songs used by organisations such as the CIA to torture their prisoners. In the play, Jake finds out that his song is in a (fictional) top 10, the only one he’s ever made it into since the 90s.
Initially focused on the protagonist’s difficulties to make ends meet, the play slowly takes a more psychedelic turn, facilitated by Dawnings’ (A Band Called Quinn) melodies. Each scene revolves around the recording of a song. Jake is seated at the desk, while the band plays in the live room. There is, however, little interaction between the two spaces for the best part of the performance. In a strange scene, Nick (Jake’s friend or bad conscience, more willing than the hero to compromise his musical ideals to make it to the top) writhes and shakes as Jake listens to music – as though he were being tortured. The moment feels more surrealist than ominous but the message – a disenfranchised man whose life has become entangled with a geopolitical plot that far surpasses his expectations – is clear, and the play successfully finds comedy in this contrast. When Jake tries to explain the situation to Dawnings, the band responds by playing random notes, or by reciting a long monologue detailing various torture methods. Jake and Nick’s song ‘Kill Them All’ is a comically horrible piece of electro-trash, a far cry from the Dawnings’ usual dreamy pop. Its dark humour enables this production to distance itself from its heavy theme, without losing sight of its gravity.