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A Viennese treat
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 06 - 2011

Nehad Selaiha talks about the Egyptian revolution at the Vienna theatre and music festival and samples a variety of theatrical fare
I little thought when I wrote "Tahrir tales", my first article for the Weekly after the revolution and one that took over 2 months of deep, anxious reflection to produce, would be the happy cause of my being invited to stay a week in Vienna, the architectural jewel of Europe, watching wonderful theatre and meeting wonderful people. Niel van der Linden, a widely respected, cosmopolitan connoisseur of the arts and active, free-lance cultural scout and mediator, read it and brought it to the notice of Matthias Pees, current head of dramaturgy of the "Wiener Festwochen", Vienna's annual theatre and music festival, whereupon that warm, affable and thoroughly amiable person, as I soon found him to be upon meeting him, invited me to a week of the festival that would include a meeting with himself and Stephanie Carp, the festival's director of performing arts, along with the ingenious Lebanese theatre-making couple, Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh (who would also present their recent semi-documentary Photo-Romance in the festival), Egyptian UAE-based visual artist Rania Ezzat, manager of gallery 'Tashkeel' in Dubai, Iranian director Hamid Pouzaari and actress Bita Samimizad and Neil van der Linden, to discuss the possibility of a focus on new theatre in the Middle East and North Africa in the 2012 edition of the festival. There would also be a public conference on May 28 at the festival centre about the recent events in the region and the artists' point of views on them. Niel, upon whose recommendation the speakers at this conference were invited, would act as moderator; the artists would present their work in a short speech at the beginning, with audio-visual material if they wished; I would give a little perspective on the development of the contemporary theatre scene in Egypt and the Arab world, then we would have a public experience sharing and discussion.
The meeting at the festival office (followed by a cheerful, cosy lunch at a charming old, wood- panelled restaurant that strongly reminded me of the Trianon in Alexandria) was lively, informative and productive. Though we missed Mroué and Saneh, who could not make the festival for family reasons, Saneh's mother being seriously ill (I sincerely hope she has recovered by now), we got to know each other better, talked about our work and the artistic scene in our respective countries and touched upon a wide range of subjects, including the current political scene in the Middle East, how it is likely to affect art and theatre and the possibility of future cooperation and exchange. We also agreed on the form and order of speakers on the morrow. The meeting ended propitiously with a sudden downpour, with lightening and thunder, and everybody laughed at my childish jubilation as I rushed out on the balcony to watch the sheets of rain.
At the conference, next day, I was sorry not to find young Bita Samimizad, who had been with us at the meeting, on the panel. Niel treated the audience to video footage of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions from his vast store of documents, as well as to scenes from some Egyptian films that he deemed had predicted and, indeed, paved the way for the eruption on 25 January. Then Rania Ezzat, after briefly sketching the thriving art scene in the UAE and the Gulf in general and its relation to politics and cryptically describing how the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain resonated in the Gulf countries, showed a video of a performance which she made in response to the events in Egypt. It showed her standing still in jeans and a white T shirt, smearing her lips with a red lipstick while an old, patriotic song "Islami Ya Misr" (Be Safe Egypt), written by Mustafa Sadiq Al-Raf'ie and put to music by Safar Ali, which had served as Egypt's national anthem between 1923 and 1936 played in the background with English subtitles. As the song progresses, her face, slowly turning in the direction of an Egyptian flag on the side, reflects the workings of different emotions and a kind of gradual awakening. She slowly wipes her lips with her bare hand, repeatedly rubbing the red colour onto her T shirt, near the heart, like blood, then produces a pair of scissors from her jeans and snips off her long hair (her real hair and not a wig), letting the locks fall at her feat. For the rest of the song, she stands still, with her arms crossed on her chest in the manner familiar in ancient Egyptian statues. When the song ends, she withdraws and does not reappear to receive the audience's applause. Frustrated by not being able to be among the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, this was Rania's way of giving vent to her feelings and offering something to the revolution.
It was Hamid Pouzaari's turn next, and since he speaks nothing but Farsi, he was provided with a translator and Niel took upon himself to introduce his work in general, with particular emphasis on his production of the performance of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle of which we were about to see some excerpts. The production, undertaken behind the back of official authorities and completely self-funded by its 'perpetrators', was the result of a long workshop, lasting several months, conducted in a rural area, north of Iran, on the border with Afghanistan, with 80 Iranian and refugee teenagers. The performance, which took place in an unconventional performance space, in fact a basement, and required the audience to move around, coincided with the official Fajr festival, held annually in Tehran, and was so excitingly experimental and thrillingly daring that it drew many of the festival's foreign guests away from the capital to this distant spot. The heavily censored governmental festival, which had known nothing of the existence of such a subversive production and would have certainly suppressed and banned it if it had, was quick to capitalize on its success and promptly listed it in its programme of officially sponsored events.
After showing us bits of his Chalk Circle and of another performance that he staged with students in the underground car park of a university, Pouzaari talked about the survival strategies dissenting Iranian artists resort to in order to keep on working. They struck me as very similar to the ones used by many young Egyptian artists and theatre makers working on the fringe, and I said so aloud, wondering if very soon we would have in Egypt as repressive an Islamic rule as the one in Iran. Though Hamid and I always spoke through a translator, usually the friendly and willing Bita Samimizad, who speaks fluent American English, there seemed to be a great sympathy of minds between us and, as he strongly brought to my mind many of my brave young theatre friends in Egypt, a warm, affectionate friendship sprang between us.
When it was my turn to speak, Niel mentioned my 'Tahrir tales' and asked me to share some of the thoughts and feelings I had expressed there with the audience, telling them where they can read it in full. The Egyptian revolution had surprised everybody and people wanted to know more about it, how it happened, what had led up to it and where it would go, he said. And so, rather than 'give a little perspective on the development of the contemporary theatre scene' in Egypt, as Mattias Pees had suggested, I ended up talking about the revolution, its background and prospects, and how the Egyptian theatre had reflected and powerfully expressed the growing mood of anger and frustration that finally triggered it. The subsequent discussion and questions and answers centred mainly of the danger of Salafism (and here I referred the audience to Amani Maged's insightful report on the movement, "Salafism: The unknown Quantity", published in the Weekly on 12 May) and the plight of artists under repressive regimes.
Away from the conference, politics, in the broad sense, was very much present in many performances, street events and installations that blended political activism and aesthetic practice. This is not surprising since the festival's theme this year reads "From the world's ends about ends of the world", meaning, as Stephanie carp explains, that it mainly focuses 'on how and whether to survive'. She adds: "There are many reasons to look for the performative element at the world's ends and about the world's end. One of these is the question, formulated and reformulated a thousand times in a thousand ways in every culture, on every continent and by every generation: how do we want to live? "
Spread over more than 5 weeks (from 13 May to 4 June) and all over Vienna, in theatres, parks and squares, and extending to the urban periphery of the city -- to spaces without any cultural predefinition, the festival hosted performances from all over the world, featuring places that ranged from Greenland to Mali and Lebanon, from Kazakhstan to Colombia, from Tokyo to New York, and such pressing issues and chronic problems as global warming and the imminent danger it poses to certain climatic zones, the sex trade, the plight of immigrants and gypsies in Europe, and of the homeless and dispossessed as well, the impending wars over water and the struggle over a fairer distribution of resources, not to mention the lingering mental scars and festering wounds of racism, colonialism, civil wars and sectarian strife.
Reading through the lists of performances, outdoor events, interactive projects, lectures, dialogues and talks in the festival's brochure (you can look it up on the festival's site on the net -- www.festwochen.at/index.php?id=78&L=1),www.festwochen.at/index.php?id=78&L=1),I fought hard to quell my envy of those who were rich enough and free enough to be in Vienna for the whole festival. What in the world I wouldn't have given to be able to see Carlos Padrissa's production in Karlplatz, one of Vienna's central squares, of Iannis Xenakis' only opera, Oresteia, where Aeschylus's text is processed through the tradition of Japanese Noh theatre, or Hard to Be a God, about human trafficking and the porno industry in Eastern Europe, staged by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó on two truck beds, or Beat Furrer's new opera, Wustenbuch, directed by Christoph Marthaler, or the New York City Players' performance of Richard Maxwell's new satirical musical piece, Neutral Hero, or, indeed, Peter Sellars's world premiere of Toni Morrison's and Rokia Traoré's The Desdemona Project and Katie Mitchell's Royal Court Theatre production of Simon Stephens's latest play, Wastwater.
However, having chided myself into conquering my greed, I finally persuaded myself to be content with what I could see, and it was plenty and mostly very exciting. I was glad to be introduced within an hour of arriving in Vienna to the work of New York-based Lebanese media artist and writer Walid Raad, who, as I have since found out, is internationally well known and admired and the winner of many prestigious international awards. His Scratching on Things I Could Disavow : A History of Art in the Arab World, which took up several rooms in the gallery where it was shown, did not turn out to be an exhibition or installation as I had expected, but was a mixture of both, with a pronounced performative element, supplied by the artist himself, who doubled in the roles of lecturer and museum guide.
We were first made to sit in a darkened room, opposite a huge video screen showing a complex diagram, which the artist, all in black, used to explain to us a speculative worldwide artists' pension fund that depends on the contribution by members of the scheme of a certain percentage of the proceeds of the sales of their works. This fund, however, he soon discovered, was heavily enmeshed with an international network of invisible, suspicious political agents and far from innocuous institutions. He followed this with some observations on the ideological, economic and political dimensions and implications of the fast growing interest of Gulf sheikhs to collect art, invest in developing an infrastructure for the visual arts and set up Louvre subsidiaries in their emirates, something that Raad himself has been affected by. The unifying theme here was the dilemma of artists in a thoroughly commercial world and the many pitfalls and secret agendas they are likely to encounter in seeking sponsors and funds in order to survive.
Next, assuming the role of a friendly museum guide, he led us through a series of connected spaces, some dressed with installations to look like empty galleries with bare walls in a new art museum, yet to receive its exhibits, while others showed bits of walls made of high density foam that looked like the remains of demolished buildings and carried old photographs, newspaper cuttings and other archival documents purporting to trace the contemporary history of art in Lebanon and the way it was affected by politics, particularly the civil war between 1975 and 1991. As important as the pieces on show are the stories and comments that accompany them (and are attached to the pieces as written captions for the visitor to read when Raad is not around to deliver them himself). Alternately poignant, as the comment on a collection of colour plates that describes them as an attempt to preserve certain colours and shapes the were lost during the civil war, and playfully witty and humorously fanciful, as the one that describes some lists of names pinned on a wall as "the names of artists who worked in Lebanon in the past century" sent to Raad "in 2002 ... by way of telepathy and/or thought insertion and/or using a future technology," Raad's narratives on the guided tour seemed to teasingly merge fact and fiction, the real and imaginary, document and poetry and always suggest, in many subtle ways, the artist's intense personal and problematic involvement with the politics and history of his homeland.
In this curious exhibition-installation- performance of his, Raad's special brand of political wit and irony seemed nowhere more apparent as in the piece (consisting of a maquette-like miniature art gallery, with white walls and several spaces, complete with exhibits), in which his own body of work becomes the subject of a narrative about shrinking art works. In this narrative Raad says: "Between 1989 and 2004, I worked on a project titled The Atlas Group. It consisted of photographs, videotapes and sculptures made possible by the Lebanese wars of the past few decades. In 2005 I was asked to exhibit this project for the first time at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, the first of its kind white cube space in Beirut. ... When I went to the gallery to inspect my exhibition, I was surprised to find that all my artworks had shrunk. I decided to display them in a space befitting their new dimensions." This is typical of his technique, it seems: taking a grain of history, something factually real and imaginatively constructing an elaborate visual-narrative work round it that questions the meaning of reality, the truth of facticity and the relative ways in which we perceive and understand the world.
In the way of theatre, barring a largely conventional Rigoletto in 19th Century costumes and with some interesting directorial touches (directed by Luc Bondy and conducted by Omer Meir Wellber), all the productions I saw belonged in different ways to what Hans-Thies Lehmann, one of Germany's foremost theatre scholars and critics, has dubbed 'Postdramatic theatre' and defined in his 1999 groundbreaking book, Postdramatisches Theater, as one where "the progression of a story with its internal logic no longer forms the centre, ...[and] composition is no longer experienced as an organising quality but as an artificially imposed 'manufacture'". In this kind of theatre, plot, dialogue and characterization give way to poetry, scenic imagery, or interactive actors-audience play, and you often find crossovers between text and music, site-specific work, non- linear, fragmentary texts, multimedia, even puppet theatre, or a kind of naked, harsh documentary realism with no illusions or palliatives. It is not certainly everyone's cup of tea and some specimens of it can seem thoroughly silly and boring. At its best, however, postdramatic theatre can be refreshingly disorienting, even shocking, and thoroughly exciting. This was the case in Daisuke Miura's Japanese Castle of Dreams, Kristian Smeds's Finnish-Lithuanian version of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, Ruedi Höusermann's Walk to the Patent Office, and the two productions by the Young Vic Theatre (London) and Théâtre de la Ville (Paris) of I Am the Wind and Autumn Dream, both by the widely translated and performed Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, and both directed by the French Patrice Chéreau. More about these pieces next week, Insha'Allah.


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