I think if I ever (finally…eventually…at some point maybe) found the time to write a play—something I’d been thinking about doing for a while—I’d probably start with a rewrite of the story of my namesake. It’s not that I have a personal grudge against every version of Iphigeniain existence—Euripedes, for instance, gets a bit of a pass, if only because he extended the story enough to warrant a sequel, and also because I just prefer his work over that of his classical compatriots—, it’s just that it gets a bit dull after a while to have a name that, for a certain (though not insignificant) segment of the population, is synonymous with someone who was just there to be sacrificed because her warmongering father couldn’t follow a simple directive to NOT hunt somewhere.
Never mind that I am also named after my grandmother. The first thing that comes to mind is a body that is there as the object of a sacrifice. Not a character with a hint of agency; an object. Even in versions of the story where she does give herself up to be taken to the sacrificial altar, her speeches preceding this moment have never quite convinced me.
Ah, so you’re telling me I was lured here under false pretenses (aka: a supposed wedding between myself and Achilles, who was also mysteriously unaware this was happening), then told I was going to die (surprise!) so that Artemis can bring the wind back to push your boats across the sea to go fight a war because someone’s property wife was stolen (note the passive voice), and you and your bros made a pact to defend this person’s honor after drawing lots to determine “ownership” of said property wife? Right, sounds excellent. Altar is that way? Good, good. Yes, must do what’s best for the country after all. My thoughts on this? Oh no, I haven’t any thoughts. I am merely a plot device here to enable you to carry on your phallic-driven nonsense. Shame that great-great-grandad had to go and bake his son into a pie and curse our house, but, eh, such is life. Anyway, here’s my neck.
This was flashing through my head last night as I sat watching the first show of the new theatre season (which might soon overthrow Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year…for me): Milo Rau’s Oreste à Mossoul. As the name suggests, this is a reworking of sorts of the Orestes myth—this time drawing from Aeschylus’s Oresteia—with the setting moved from Mycenae to Mosul, Iraq. As per the show program, originally, Rau and his creative team had gone to the city of Sinjar, near the Syrian border, in 2016 with the aim of creating a piece around the subject of migration, only this time tracing the pathway in reverse. Not long after their arrival, however, the city of Mosul, once the seat of the caliphate, was liberated from under ISIS control. The team decided to set up shop there instead.
The choice to bring in the Oresteiato this context is an easy one. Mosul is an old city—one of, if not the, oldest continually inhabited cities in the world—, yet for the better part of a century, it has also been a site of continued cycles of violence: the British invasion after the discovery of oil, the brief period of democracy shattered with the rise of Saddam Hussein, the American invasions in 1990 and 2003, the power vacuum when they left in 2011, and most recently, ISIS and the coordinated attacks against them. To look at it now, one would almost say the city has all but been destroyed.
Yet, as with the Oresteiawhich ends with Orestes facing a tribunal in Athens following his double murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the central question being whether to execute him or to pardon him and end the cycles of violence, the notion of “justice” weighs heavily. Should the ISIS fighters be pardoned or executed, a final debate asks. Those participating in the debate—local residents who signed on to participate in the project and whose words were transmitted to us via a pre-recorded video—remained undecided. Many spoke of the hope of establishing a just, unbiased court system to hear the cases and pass judgement democratically, but when the time came to vote on execution or pardon, no one raised their hand for either option.
ISIS left its marks on the city. They are felt in the fact that a group of musicians has set up to play, publicly, outside the former school of Fine Arts (bombed out during the Allied attacks) when before they had to hide themselves in basements to keep up their practice. They are felt in the fact that the choice to mix live performance with filmed segments is to a degree derived from the fact that getting visas for the local performers to come tour in Europe would be next to impossible, as movement in and out of the country has become heavily restricted. And—to return back to the subject that I opened this with—they are felt in the staging, in the way that characters die.
When the piece opens, the actor who eventually goes on to play Agamemnon (one from Rau’s team) comes down center stage to speak directly to the audience about some of the background behind the performance. One thing he mentions early on was the fact that, as part of his own research, a journalist friend of his had sent him videos of executions. There was, he said, a particular style to it. A shot in the back of the neck. Some women were strangled. You never forget, he added, how long it takes to strangle someone to death.
The scene then shifts. A carpet is rolled out. The actor who eventually plays Cassandra—born in Belgium but of Iraqi descent—comes downstage, turns, and faces upward toward the video screen. Another woman’s face appears on screen in close-up. The fact that they are both to a degree there, on the stage, was a sort of taboo when the piece was developed and then later workshopped/performed in Mosul: women were not normally seen on stage, even before the arrival of ISIS.
But the piece needed its Iphigenia. Would she, the woman on stage asked the one whose image was on the screen, like to play the role of Iphigenia? The woman on screen said yes, she would like that.
The scene shifts. On the stage there is not much happening, but on the screen, we see the woman from before standing in front of a line of men dressed in grey smocks—the chorus—the actor playing Agamemnon standing beside her. The latter also wears a red and off-white striped tunic, which his onstage, physically present counterpart, has also changed into. It is another one of the early signs of bridging the temporal and geographical gap between what is physically present on stage and what once was present but now ‘preserved’ on video, not just in terms of the sets of performers, but between the varying temporal strata on the stage and the one encompassing those in the house. The visual cue of the actor seated off downstage left of the video screen dressed in the same way as his recorded counterpart (though not, as would be the case later for several of the performers, simultaneously performing the recorded one’s actions) is enough of a hint to suggest the plural, or even fragmented, nature of his presence. He both is and is not in two places at once. The change into a matching costume is a reminder of sorts that the person on the screen is him—or rather, was him. It is a version of him that is suspended within the temporal moment of the recording, yet not quite ‘present’ within our own. Suspension and preservation in time carries with it the lack of forward propulsion into the unknown and unpredictable that comes with being in the ‘now’. Time can be rewound back in a recording.
And then comes the strangulation.
Unlike in most retellings of the myth where she is essentially stabbed, here Iphigenia is strangled to death with a cord wrapped around her neck and being pulled not by a ‘priest’ but by “Agamemnon” himself. And, as he had warned, the actor was right: it does take a seemingly long while to strangle someone to death. The realism evoked by the way the scene was choreographed was striking in and of itself, but what carried this moment even further into another instance of geographical/temporal bridging was what was going on with the camera. Simply put, it did not move. Set up a few feet away so that one got a full view of everyone in the room for the scene, the camera functioned more as an eyewitness, or a window, rather than a medium through which to transmit a piece of narrative through the use of a particular—to it—kind of language. There were no close ups, no cuts or changes in visual point of view, nothing to suggest the ‘camera-ness’ of the camera other than the fact that it was set up to record the act for the purposes of transmitting it back here. As such, one sees the act played out from beginning to end: from “Iphigenia” being pushed to kneel down, to the rope being wrapped around her neck, to “Agamemnon” pulling and her sharp, then gurgled gasps for air. There is an expected end result of this—her finally collapsing down, ceasing to breath, and being declared dead—, and the fact that the anticipation of this result is shared by both those in the audience as well as by “Agamemnon” who must continue performing the act of strangulation so long as his victim still shows signs of life results in something rather unique: a momentary shared experience of a unique passage of time between those on screen, those on stage, and those in the house. Everyone, in other words, is beholden to a single temporal progression. The creeping seconds start to become almost palpable.
And then, after what seems like an eternity, Iphigenia is dead, her purpose served. The metaphorical ‘closing of the temporal gap’ is repeated several times over, arguably strengthened somewhat by the shared moment of progression early on. One could call it, in a sense, an attempt to bring those of us in the house to Mosul as much as it was to bring those in Mosul who do not have the right to travel to us into the room, into our ‘presence’.
At the same time, however, there is a limit to how far this can go. Despite speaking openly about the extent of the destruction under ISIS (as well as previous periods of conflict), the current state of Mosul and its inhabitants and the hopes for democracy and justice in forms of direct, plain-speaking address free of almost all metaphor, that sometimes bordered on the didactic, one thing that could not be changed was the fact that, in the end, the recordings would shut off, the actors on stage would bow, those of us in the audience would go home, and…then what? There is no predicting the extent to which a piece can affect everyone in its audience—indeed, for a piece to operate on the assumption that it will have some kind of marking, lasting, change-inducing effect is almost a set up for failure (though as with every rule, there are exceptions). And in a way, Rau’s piece acknowledges its own potential limitations when, towards the end, the actor playing “Orestes”, while seated on a bench downstage, mentions that a contact of his had sent him and the rest of the Europe-based team a video of the aftermath of a car bomb that went off near the Arts school not long after they had all left. No one involved in the project was hurt, but what was most striking was what he said while the audio of the recording played from his phone (no images were shown). He could watch these videos, see this destruction of places that he knew, places where he was, and almost become desensitized.
And he didn’t say this, but I’d venture to say that it has something to do with the fact that he had the power in his hands to make the recording stop. To remove the violence from his reality. To not let it affect him as constantly.
And that’s essentially what those of us living in places far away from these sites of violence, those of us who have the privilege to have the means and a passport that lets us move freely away from these sites of violence, possess. We can talk about and consume it as a metaphysical thing, as something that is not physically, threateningly present to the same degree as it is for many of those who appeared in the video. We can leave it.
And maybe that was the whole point.
A note before going: this blog is likely going to transition soon from a dissertation-related blog (though at this point, given how I still have yet to get any feedback after…a very long while…who knows) to a more theatre-critique focused blog. Hilariously, my choice in theatres that I will visit has not changed. Old habits die hard, I suppose. In any case, I am excited about this, to write more freely without the pressure of making something “look good” for an academic setting.
It feels good to be able to acknowledge that I am at this point.