What an interesting coincidence that yesterday, I went to a talk on not just the concept/form of but the word “theatre” within the context of globalization and tonight I saw a play whose content consisted in large part of a continual presence of linguistic multiplicities.
I’ve mentioned Wajdi Mouawad before in one of my early posts with regards to his novel, Anima, but how I first encountered his work was through his plays. Actually, other than Anima, I’m not sure he’s written any other novels, but his theatrical output has been incredibly active.
Generally speaking, I find that the more one is familiar with Ancient Greek mythology/tragedy, the more one can sink into what many (most) of Mouawad’s plays are trying to do, but given how his plays tend not only to reappropriate rhythms, scale, and tropes of classical tragedy but also recontextualize them away from the unattainable, Aristotelian ideal of the ‘regal/untouchable’ tragic hero and into the bodies of other, generally marginalized, figures, the old form, even for those unfamiliar with it, is given new life, a new approaching-epic grandeur and terror.
This play in particular, titled Tous des oiseaux, centers around Wahida, an Arab-American student researching a thesis on al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan – known to history as Leo Africanus, a 16th century Moroccan diplomat who, during one of his travels, was captured, gifted to Pope Leo X and forced to convert to Christianity -, and Eitan, a Jewish-German student studying genetics. They meet in one of the libraries at Columbia University. A relationship follows. Eitan’s family – his father especially – are not happy about this. Following a particularly heated Passover dinner – during which Eitan had planned to introduce his parents + grandfather, who had all arrived to visit him from New York, to Wahida -, Eitan collects the cups and silverware of each family member, and imparts on a journey to get down to the truth of his identity. It is after all, as he claims, only a matter of 46 chromosomes, not the stories of survival, of tragedy, of factions created between groups of people. His search, after initially revealing a startling anomaly, takes him and Wahida to Jerusalem, and to a grandmother he never met.
Having read several of Mouawad’s other theatrical works, I was already prepared for the moment of catharsis that would eventually arrive, the epic reversal that would upend everything, but especially a character’s perception of who they – fundamentally – are as a person. The continual reworking of the Oedipal reveal, if you will. Regardless, even though I guessed fairly early what the reveal was going to be, I still found myself in awe of the whole thing. The performances, it goes without saying, were astounding. The international and multilingual cast was expending a level of energy and endurance and passion that is challenging in a two hour performance, and almost unthinkable in a four hour one (which is what this was). As for the technical elements, the set design resonated the most with me. Starting off as a seemingly solid wall on which was projected a chalk drawing of the skeleton of a library reading room, the set of imposingly tall panels would later be moved about the stage to re-delineate it, reveal gaps, toy with our depth perception, basically through constant fracture and repositioning, question our notion of the illusion of stability, unity, concreteness in favor of a vision of multiplicity, of the plural nature of being, of being able to be both a solidly tall and easily moveable wall. They exist in paradoxe.
And as paradoxes they, like the narrative itself, eschew a strictly linear representation of time and story ‘advancement’, moving and flowing back and forth and ‘folding’ as one might imagine a temporal plane must fold. Time is not a straight line here. Time is present, both within and outside of our ‘now’, always accessible, with temporal shifts occurring as naturally and spontaneously as would a random memory popping into your head. Why should a set design not reflect this sporadic, random, spontaneous ebb and flow?
On a practical level, the walls also exist as surfaces on which to project French surtitles. Yes, this play contained speech in English, German, Arabic and Hebrew but never in French. French remained strictly literary, and even that is not necessarily the same French that made up the original text. Rather, it is a French that results from a retranslation of a translation – one of Mouawad’s goals, as he specified in an interview printed in the program, was to let the multiple languages of the place the play is set in, in this case Jerusalem, ring out from the characters who would normally speak them. If/when the text ever appears in written form, and especially if that form was the original French, it can never – will never – exist in the same way as the live performance does, what with its constant flow between languages, a polyphonic birdsong.
Oh and there was also a genuinely funny subplot involving a man painting large canvases with his sperm and organizing exhibits around this art that he ‘begat’. Actually, to my surprise, there was quite a bit more humor in this than I was expecting.
As it goes with these things, I don’t know if I’m accurately getting at what it was to experience this show live, or even if what I am saying is nothing more than on the surface observation – yeah sometimes I doubt my own abilities to write about this. Regardless, I do know that I would pay to see this again in a heartbeat, to try and catch some things I missed…maybe discover something different.
But there are other plays to be seen first.
Oh yeah, and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!