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Staging reality
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 10 - 2016

From dramatic monologues based on true stories and real people, such as the two performances I reviewed last week (Moldavia's Last Night in Madrid, about Jacqueline Picasso, and Al-Fujairah's An Elegy for the Fifth String, about Ziryab), it is a short distance to documentary theatre. This genre was represented in CIFCET 2016 by two interesting performances. The first, Juarez: A Documentary Mythology, by the Theatre Mitu Company in the USA, tells the story of the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the USA, revealing the causes of its tragic deterioration from a promised ‘Laboratory of our Future' (as Charles Bowden described it in a book that carries that title), into the ‘Murder Capital of the World' in news headlines. Led by Theatre Mitu's artistic director, Ruben Polendo (himself a native of Juarez where he was born and raised before moving to the USA), the company conducted a series of interviews, research and investigations over two years to explore the history of that border city and the politics-driven economic changes that transformed it from a peaceful, beautiful, prosperous city, with an elegant, sophisticated culture, into a violent, ugly, poverty-ridden place, dominated by government corruption, drug-smuggling and consumption, and femicide, among other horrors.
Framing the actors as both witnesses to memory and myth and vehicles of transmitting the many stories, Ruben Polendo and his artistic collaborators used news reels, verbatim transcripts of interviews, published records and statistics, maps and press material, and deftly interwove them with personal memories, nostalgically and lyrically recalled by Polendo in a voice-over, accompanied by footage of old home movies, slide projections of old family photographs and period music and songs. This documentary material, both personal and historical, alternated with live performance in the form of mime, narration, impersonation and visual metaphors created by the bodies of the performers with the help of a few, simple props, with some of these images projected in powerful silhouettes, as in a shadow-play. The result was a poignant, multimedia theatrical documentary, at once historically accurate and intensely personal. Indeed, with the whole stage draped in black and softly, almost dimly lit throughout, the faces of the actors framed in bright spots, the dark silhouettes flashed against brightly lit backgrounds, and the often hazy black and white footage flickering on the back screen, Juarez unfolded like flashes of memory floating unbidden from the shadowy recesses of the mind, or the dark shrouds of history. But the real achievement of Juarez, in my view, was that it got the audience, the majority of whom had never even heard of Juarez before, to see that city through the eyes of its inhabitants as it changed over the years, recognise resemblances between its history and that of their own native cities in the third world, and angrily condemn in their hearts the ravages of unconscionable capitalism.
Though equally authentic in its material and similarly visually somber, Lebanon's Bas Ana Bahebek (But I Love You) represented another recent offshoot of traditional documentary theatre – namely, verbatim-theatre. Produced by the Beirut 8.30 independent theatre company, which dedicates some to its projects and workshops to the raising of social awareness and women empowerment, the work centered on domestic violence and abusive marital relationships as represented by verbatim transcripts of the recounted experiences of four battered wives interviewed by the founder of the theatre, Lena Abyad, who conceived, put together, designed and directed the piece and also impersonated one of the women. The other three were represented by actresses May Ogden, Darin Shams El-Din, and Dima Matta.
In the intimate atmosphere of Al-Ghad hall (a versatile venue that can be used as a black box theatre, as it was in this case), the audience sat in two rows on three sides of the hall, creating a triangular performance space, clearly marked in white chalk and evenly lighted at the beginning and end. Inside the triangle, the four actresses, barefoot and swathed in black, stood in four different circles, outlined by countless fragments of broken, white porcelain plates that contrasted sharply with their uniformly black attire, and took turns speaking in the voices of the absent interviewed women and telling their stories. As the narratives intersected, the lighting marked the change of narrator by picking up the speaker and framing her in a pool of light while dimming the rest. When they were not speaking, the actresses busied themselves trying to piece together the bits of broken crockery, a visual metaphor of their broken lives and relationships. All four stories were shocking, painful and horrific. Though the level of resistance varied from one woman to another, we realise at the end that all were deeply and irreparably damaged by their experiences.
Now verbatim theatre (alternatively called witness, and testimony theatre) is a cross-breed between drama and journalism that, by definition, ‘promises a more direct and authentic access to actual lived experience' (in the words of A. Stuart-Fisher in ‘Trauma, Authenticity and the Limits of Verbatim'). For this reason, it is said to require no particular skills in dramatic writing in a traditional sense, no imaginative mediation, or manipulation of facts, or embroidering of real events. The trouble is that when projected publicly as ‘art' rather than social activism, as it was in the case of the Lebanese performance, it invariably raises irking ethical and aesthetic questions regarding the status of the work, the creative input of the artists, its claim to authentically represent the ‘real' (which Baudrillard defines as ‘that of which it is impossible to give an equivalent reproduction'), and how the work should be received. More importantly, it raises the issue of the elusiveness of truth in relation to the staging of ‘reality', particularly as ‘Verbatim plays do not typically provide us with the full contextual information of the interviewing process itself', lifting speech ‘out of context' and using it ‘within a different context', as D. Heddon perceptively notes in Autobiography and Performance.
To put it differently, assuming that the ‘whole truth' can ever be grasped and verified, how much of it do the staged stories and testimonies tell? And from whose perspective is it perceived and projected? This issue was obvious in the reactions of the audience to But I Still Love You. While many some, male and female, objected to its one-sided view of conjugal relationships and wholesale condemnation of men as abusive monsters; others, predominantly female, angrily criticised its portrayal of women as helpless, weak and gullible. More damaging still was the festival-context in which the performance was presented. Receiving the show as art rather than as a political act of positive intervention ‘in the creation of history by unsettling the present', to quote Carol Martin – in other words, as a weapon in the battle for change and human rights – the audience mistook the testimonies it staged for ‘artistic truth', requiring from the show what they normally expect in dramatic theatre. No wonder then that as the narrated horrors relentlessly multiplied, one could hear suppressed titters. It could very well be that those titters were a nervous reaction, triggered by mounting tension; but they could also be a sarcastic response to the excessively rigid, melodramatic division of the people in the stories into devils and angels. The truth is that notwithstanding its power as verbatim theatre and its importance in alerting society to a serious problem, the Lebanese But I Love You needed a performance-reception context other than a festival's.
Fortunately such ethical and aesthetic questions as bedevil verbatim theatre do not arise in fictional works based on, or inspired by real stories and historical events. Works of this kind were represented in the festival by Armenia's Mercedes and the Iraqi-Swedish Pillars of Blood. Both works focus on the traumatic experiences of war, political oppression, and/or ethnic-religious violence. Mercedes, by the Yerevan State Youth Theatre, written by Anusha Aslibekyan-Artsruni, directed by Hakob Ghazanchyan, with music by Vahan Artsruni, is a dramatised narrative in epistolary form about the suffering and traumatised lives of survivors of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 living in the diaspora, and their longing for their homeland. The story is projected through the correspondence of two sisters, Mercedes and Zaruhi, who were brought up in Greece and were separated when Zaruhi left to live in Soviet-Armenia. Unfortunately, Mercedes was one of the three guest shows I missed in the festival and, therefore, I can tell you no more about it except that it got a couple of favourable reviews in the festival's bulletin.
Happily, I caught the Iraqi-Swedish Pillars of Blood and it was simply unforgettable. Written, designed and directed by expatriate Iraqi artist, Anmar Taha, and performed by Iraqi Bodies, the company he founded in Sweden, Pillars of Blood draws at once on the traditions of the Absurd and the theatre of images. Using Albert Camus's Caligula as imaginative framework and point of reference in his exploration and articulation of the themes of logic and insanity in today's world, as he says in his note on the performance, Taha spins a haunting, surrealistic piece that metaphorically reflects and universalises the suffering of the Iraqi people in all its gruesome absurdity and takes the form of a flow of disconnected, lurid images that follow the logic of dreams.
In his author's note to A Dream Play, his own favorite of all his works, August Strindberg described ‘the logical shape of a dream' as one in which ‘the imagination spins, weaving new patterns, a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations' and ‘characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble.' Taha's Pillars of Blood follows that selfsame logic. It unfolds on a bare, empty stage, completely dressed in black to look like a windowless torture chamber, with a square picture of the moon in the middle of the back wall, a hangman's noose suspended from the flies on one side, and two blood-red steps on the other, tucked in a corner at the back. In this forbidding space, with the help of different costumes, stilts, grotesque masks of old men and monkeys, and a few balloons, three actors (two women and Taha himself) assume many different weird guises in succession, seeming to literally split, double, multiply and evaporate.
Repetition, seemingly obsessive and endless, is a dominant technique in all the sequences and varies in speed and rhythm from the slow and hypnotic to the quick and feverish. With an austerely limited vocabulary of movements, which include rotation, contortion, convulsive twitching and writhing, dashing headlong in a straight line and suddenly changing direction, crumpling in a heap on the floor, dragging a woman by the hair, or freezing in one position and pose, facing the audience, and maintaining complete silence, Taha creates a series of arresting, disturbing images that speak volumes about the harrowing experience of torture and its violation of the sanctity and dignity of the human body, the anxieties that attend waiting for the unknown, the panic at losing one's way and seeking the right direction, the horror at facing a distorted, brutal reality, and many other vague fears and terrors that cannot be put in words but often assail us in our dreams.
You may very well ask where Iraq figures in this nightmarish vision. Apart from the name of company and the original nationality of the director, both strong markers, the connection with Iraq is subtly present in the images of physical and mental torture and is suggested in the costumes, which include the black, flowing abayas that cover females from head to foot, including the face, in rural Iraq (though here you could not distinguish the sex of the figure underneath), the military uniform of the tormented soldier in the second sequence, the life-jacket and suitcase of the old illegal immigrant, and the traditional, red burlap suit of condemned men. But even if one misses the allusions to Iraq in Pillars of Blood, its portrayal of an insane world in the grip of terror would still resonate with audiences as a valid and relevant imaginative response to our world.

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