On this fall’s theatre season…

So, mental dilemma of the day.

 

I’m not sure if this has more to do with the fact that I’ve just not had as much time to write here as I like, or that I’ve just not been out to see as many things as usual (blame time, of course, but also maybe the fact that this fall has been more dance-heavy in terms of programming at my usual haunts compared with the last couple years), but as we head towards winter, I’m getting the impression that this fall season has not left as much of a mark on me as previous ones.

 

This isn’t necessarily to say that everything has been terrible—The Way She Dies was, as expected, a highlight of the rentrée—, but more that I haven’t been “marked” by what I’ve seen to the same degree as I have previously. Maybe I’ve just become more discerning (read: picky haha). Maybe it’s just mental fatigue from the fact that right now the finish line for my dissertation is right within my reach and I just don’t have the capacity to open myself to much more (and anyway, the rest of my mental energy goes towards dealing with my teaching).

 

 

Or maybe it’s quite simply because a number of things I’ve seen so far have just been…eh.

 

 

This isn’t to say that none of them tried to go outside the box at all. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I went out to Nanterre-Amandiers to check out Pillow Talk, an immersive experience that involved transforming the main stage of the Amandiers into a sort of futuristic lounge space, with pillowed pods set up for individuals to lay down in. The general idea was that you would talk to an AI for about an hour, the position of the microphones on the pillows designed in a way that, in order for the AI’s voice to be heard, one would have to arrange one’s body in such a way that it would mimic cuddling.

 

 

Listen, as someone who really thrives in (and ok, maybe really craves right now) that kind of intimacy, let me confirm to you that there is nothing that will shove you into the uncanny valley faster than listening to an AI whisper a joke in your ear and then “laugh”. Ok, maybe it asking you to sing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” with it comes a close second.

 

 

And yes, I get the whole thing about using this medium to question our own perspectives on interpersonal connectivity, but it’s also become such an obvious approach, I wonder if it even makes sense to do it anymore.

 

 

Anyway, enough of that. That’s not what I actually want to talk about today. No, today what I want to do is tackle a question that has been asked many times, yet nevertheless still remains relevant.

 

 

Why the hell are we still crafting redemption stories for asshole men?

 

 

Now granted, the asshole in question here is a character who, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t do anything particularly egregious other than just generally be a dick to other people (especially the women in his life). Compared to some other real-life less-than-savory individuals out there, this dude is almost inoffensive. Almost. Because at the end of the day, the everyday, small-scale nonsense of his that his friends and colleagues are convinced to forgive in order to help him have a moment of revelatory introspection is the kind of thing that, once it starts building up, contributes to the larger toxicity that not only keeps a certain hierarchical power structure in place, but also, and to varying degrees, silences those (read: anyone who is not a straight white cis-gendered man) who are not at the top of said hierarchy.

 

 

Anyway, let’s get to it.

 

Mort prématurée d’un chanteur populaire dans la force de l’âge. Written by Wajdi Mouawad with Arthur H. Dir. Wajdi Mouawad, La Colline, November 17, 2019

 

 

Of course, this also just happened to be the first show I saw as a 30-year-old. Eh, can only go up from here though, right? Right.

 

 

Actually, I almost ended up missing this show entirely as I was still…recovering…from the festivities the night before. Somehow though, I managed to shower, eat something, and make myself look just presentable enough to make it out the door in time.

 

 

It’s the small successes in life that count.

 

 

Much like the other of Mouawad’s pieces I’ve seen recently, this one (other than the aforementioned character problem…which I’ll get to in a moment) suffers from a certain imbalance. More precisely, similarly to Notre Innocence in spring 2018, its first half is much stronger than its second.

 

 

 

The piece opens at the end of a concert given by the singer mentioned in the title. Alice (yes, that is his name; no, it’s not for “Alice Cooper”) is an aging former punk rocker who, like many others before him, is contending with the discrepancy between his past and his present reality as, well, a “sell-out”. No longer outside the system, he is now part of it. And he’s sick of it. Literally. I mean the first thing he does when he enters the backstage area (the set design is such that the concert that opens the film sees Alice upstage, facing away from the audience, with the backstage area set up downstage) is shut himself in a toilet and take a very long, very vocal, shit. And then he complains about his stomach hurting and needing to shit more. And then eventually he shits himself during a photo session.

 

 

Clearly, something is rotten on his insides.

 

 

I should also mention that this first half is very clearly a satire, as based on not only the rapid-fire jokes and “second degree” humor flying around, but also because the characters themselves that are featured here can be reduced down to certain tropes:

 

-The aging, cranky rocker

 

-The overworked manager (who Alice always refers to by a nickname rather than her—yes her—actual name, at least until she has a breakdown over it in Act II)

 

-The critical journalist who, with one brutally honest article, sets our protagonist on a downward spiral that ultimately contributes to his decision to do something very stupid (though also very silly)

 

-The former manager with questionable judgement and a nostalgia for the “good old days”

 

-The girlfriend who is an established artist in her own right, but who is nevertheless still second to the whims of her partner.

 

-The newcomer who has travelled over from the other side of the world (in this case, Canada) and, though she may not know the other characters well, nevertheless becomes the key to them rebuilding their relationships (and themselves), after a crisis. Oh, and she also does this using a mysterious ritual (that, yes, is made-up, but it relies on tropes and stereotypes of First Nations culture).

 

 

And honestly, if the tone did not shift so drastically between Act I and II, this could have ended up being a decently entertaining piece. Alas.

 

 

Anyway, the short version of the story is that Alice, in a rather low point after being skewered in an article (worse still: he was replaced on the magazine’s cover by a new, up-and-coming musician), reconnects with his old manager with whom he had parted ways with after he started becoming successful. The two commiserate a bit about what their lives once were, what they used to stand for before money, marketing, and success got in the way, when the latter of the two comes up with a plan. A last “f**k you” to the system, if you will. Simply, Alice would fake his death. The moment was perfect. Yes, he was just taken down a notch in the press, but he was also in the middle of a successful tour, and there was no indication he would need to be slowing down any time soon. There would, of course, be a period of mourning. And then, after the initial grief had died down a bit, the manager would release a “recently-discovered” (in reality: recorded in his in-house studio while he was making the necessary press calls) album of unpublished recordings. People would go crazy for it: I mean, it would truly be the last new music they would ever get from Alice, and really, given how hot posthumous records sales have been in recent years following the loss of several high-profile artists, huge profits were almost a sure-thing.

 

 

In the meantime, Alice would go lie low in Ukraine (yes, Ukraine). For added security, a sham funeral/cremation ceremony would be organized so that there would be no doubt as to how really dead he was. After a year in hiding, he would return to France, triumphant, a middle finger in the face of all those who bought into the ruse, a true condemnation of our consumerist society.

 

 

So punk.

 

 

Of course, one thing that Alice and his manager did not count on was the former’s girlfriend. See, in order for the more essential part of their plan to work (read: the cremation and funeral), they would have to have had a closed-casket funeral. The girlfriend, on the other hand, insisted that the ceremony not only be open casket, but that she and those close to Alice be present up until the final closing of the casket and the final shove into the fire.

 

 

Oops.

 

 

Anyway, to get around this, some associates of Alice’s manager gave him some drugs that made him fall stone asleep as if dead. This worked to fool the doctor who came in to sign the death certificate (no autopsy though?), but the dosage needed to be upped if they wished to keep the illusion going through a full-on funeral (getting Alice out of the coffin in time would come later). As expected, however, the dosage wore off a bit early. More precisely, it was during the funeral when Alice’s girlfriend was in the middle of singing a song he loved to hear her sing.

 

 

Again, oops.

 

 

Anyway, it’s not like he got off easy. Other than terrifying literally everyone, Alice also ended up blinded by the drugs. Classic punishment.

 

 

So ends Act I.

 

 

Act II largely involves the fallout from all the above, with Alice’s girlfriend dumping him for the trauma he put her through (as well as for his general selfishness), his current manager standing up for herself and refusing to represent him any longer, the press eviscerating him even more than they had previously for his nonsense, and Alice having to attempt to navigate the world without the use of his sight (instead of going to see a doctor like literally everyone was telling him to).

 

 

It’s in this period of loneliness that Alice reconnects with a superfan of his who had come all the way from Canada to follow his tour, and who he had first met outside his stage door following the concert that opened the show. Her name was Nancy. He signed a condom wrapper for her because it was the only thing he had in his pocket.

 

 

Nancy had expressed to Alice during their first meeting how grateful she was to him for how much his music had helped her through some difficult times, and now, seeing him in this state, she decides to take it upon herself to give back some of the help he had given her. This is where this piece truly started to lose me. Nancy kind of helps Alice navigate around for a couple of days, but then she ultimately takes it upon herself to call all of Alice’s former friends together. She had a plan to help Alice rid himself of the demons, of the bad thoughts inside him, but she needed their help.

 

 

They, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it, and with good reason. This is where I want to go back to what I mentioned earlier about why the stories some people create still feature men like Alice getting a full redemption arc in which the burden of the work is not placed on them but on those they have wronged “getting over themselves” first before banding together to pull the asshole in question back “into the light”, so to speak.

 

 

And this could have played as a satire as well, except Mouawad had written and directed it with incredibly evident sincerity that it was impossible to interpret it otherwise.

 

 

Anyway, as Nancy points out as a means of convincing the others to put aside their anger, it wasn’t like Alice had done anything incredibly terrible like kill someone, or start a call for genocide. He just happened to put his friends through a short period of an incredibly stressful Hell, and that, plus the fact that he was an artist whose music had helped others like herself, meant that he deserved a second chance.

 

 

But what she doesn’t bring up—and conversely what the other two women in the room do—is the lasting damage his regular behavior has caused. His manager has sacrificed not only time with her daughter, but also ended up suffering a miscarriage because of the constant stress he put her under, what with his steadily bad humor, his erratic behavior, and his preferred manner of addressing others by yelling at them. His girlfriend, meanwhile, brings up her feelings of not just betrayal at what he did, but also her general frustrations at their relationship, at the imbalance felt when it became clear that one of them was investing in it slightly more than the other.

 

 

But we can put that aside now.

 

 

And in any case, as a sort of Hail-Mary, Nancy mentions that she is ill, that this trip to France was a sort of last hurrah for her before she begins treatment.

 

 

 

Ultimately, what Nancy’s plan consists of is her leading Alice out into the woods under the assumption that once there, he would encounter a shaman who would perform a ritual to cleanse him. Nancy—who mentions she is part First Nation, though the actress playing her is white-passing—will of course play the shaman. Alice’s friends, meanwhile, would dress up in bird costumes (there is literally no purpose for this other than the fact that this is happening in a theatre, as Alice wouldn’t be able to see them since he is still blind), and at the appropriate moment, swoop in and “peck” at him, thereby removing all the bad things inside his spirit.

 

 

There is a lot of sage. Nancy at one point starts banging a drum.

 

 

And ultimately it works. The final scene of the piece opens on a hospital waiting room in Quebec where Alice has come to visit Nancy, after having discovered she was ill via his friends…with whom he is back in contact with.

 

 

He mentions to her during their last conversation that her ritual managed to push him not only to see a doctor (miraculously, he can see again…because “clarity”…), but also to take the difficult step in reaching out and apologizing.

 

 

And you know what, yes, that isn’t really an easy thing to do. But it’s also something that 1) only happened as a result of an initial effort of forgiveness on the part of the hurt parties and 2) occurs offstage. His act of apology, of taking the necessary steps to interrogate himself and engage in a process of self-assessment are, to a degree, secondary to his friends momentarily ignoring his bullshit to see the goodness in him. There are times when, perhaps, such a stance could be justified, but one could argue that those moments generally follow events that are out of the person’s control. This situation, on the other hand, along with everything preceding it, is, on the other hand, a direct result of Alice’s conscious behaviors.

 

 

Yeah, it’s true that he didn’t kill anyone. But to minimize his past actions for the sake of advancing the question of his supposed “goodness” (that we have had little evidence of, other than Nancy’s comments on his music) is, for lack of a better word, lazy. We can do better. Our stories can do better. No one should have felt the need to forgive him. The choice to not forgive, to step away for the sake of one’s own mental/physical health is also a justified one, yet here the sacrifices are continually made by those who have performed that gesture time and time again.

 

 

But, then again, this also all fits in with Mouawad’s greater ethos on the spirituality of theatre. It goes back to his affinity for the classics (especially the Greeks). Maybe I’ll address it here in another post.

 

 

For now though, I have a dinner to get to.

 

 

Here’s to the end of fall (and hopefully a more inspiring winter theatre season).

Polyphony (and translation)

I find it funny (though not very surprising, to be honest) that even though I am technically done with the “researching live shows” part of my dissertation, I still feel a tiny hint of a panic when I haven’t managed to do a write-up almost immediately following a thing I have seen.

 

 

Then again, this could also have something to do with the fact that I saw three shows this weekend (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday).

 

 

As usual, I will likely devote a lot more time to one of these (hint: the third one) than the others, but that is only because that one involved not only a return to my favorite theatre in the city (one whose somewhat problematic aspects I also need to reckon with somewhere…here a bit first perhaps, then maybe my dissertation conclusion…there is something coming together in my head as to how I am going to attempt to tie everything I am doing together to form a semi-coherent piece of work, though its potential influence and contribution to the field will remain…unknown…uncertain…anyway) but also a collaboration between one of my favorite playwrights working today and a theatre troupe that I have also come to admire since moving back here.

 

 

But before I get to all that, a quick round-up of the other two things I saw this weekend.

 

 

 

Thursday, September 19: Farm Fatale, dir. Philippe Quesne, Nanterre-Amandiers

 

 

I’ve written a couple of times on the particularities of Quesne’s theatre here on this blog, on its diorama-esq esthetic, where clear narrative is more or less eschewed for observation of human (or non-human, see La Nuit des taupes) interactions in a set circumstance. His newest piece for the Amandiers largely keeps with the focus on the nature of communion/community-making, though here the thematic and narrative purposes are a bit more explicit.

 

 

 

In short, Farm Fatale is a play about ecology, its message summed up rather succinctly in a sign carried in by one of the characters (whose text has also been transformed into a hashtag for the show’s publicity campaign): No Nature, No Future.

 

 

The main characters here are a group of five scarecrows, four of whom run a sort of pirate radio out of what was once their farm, and the fifth who joins them after his farmers—who also used to transport him to protests—died by suicide.

 

 

Yes, that is a bit dark, but to be honest, the show as a whole was a lot more lighthearted than that—even if that lightness came with an obvious warning as to the fragility of it all.

 

 

As noted in the program—and as becomes incredibly evident very quickly—nothing on the stage is, materially-speaking, natural. The hay bales the fifth scarecrow carries in with him, and that the others use to set up a sound stage, are made of synthetic material, the birdsong that opens the show is pointedly noted as coming from a tape recorder, a bird flying in the studio is plastic, its wings fashioned out of delicate crepe paper, and the scarecrows themselves approach an almost terrifying (and yes, before they started speaking, it could have gone either way) medium between the Uncanny Valley and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the grotesque, exaggerated masks they wore over their faces and the lumpy bodysuits under their costumes suggesting being stuffed up with hay. It is, in brief, a notable separation from nature, with the synthetic there as a reminder, an image, a sign, of what once was, but that has become so removed from its own cycles and so reappropriated/modified into our own that it has lost the sense of what it was before we (humanity) started irreversibly messing with it. Funnily, the scarecrows, objects “not of nature” created by humans for the sake of protecting the crops from that which could harm them become, here, those same crops’ only visible advocates (the only “human” presence is an offstage character whose farm neighbors that of the scarecrows, and who the latter spot spraying chemicals on his crops. Their first solution: they should kill him…their second: they should scare him through the art of music, namely a very clean/could show up on a kids’ program but still vaguely intimidating rap song).

 

 

 

But the very evident social/political message aside (and yes, it is very obvious what the piece advocates for), what is touching here is how…not shitty these scarecrows were to each other. Everyone just kind of worked together and took to each other with an ease you don’t really see on stage anymore (or in too much media outside perhaps of child-centric programs). When the newcomer enters the stage and asks to join the group—he mentions he is a fan of their radio—the others let him in willingly, giving him something to do almost right away and teaching him how to get on in his new surroundings without being overly nasty. I’ll be honest, I’m not a very big proponent of the whole “kindness is the answer” schtick—and to go further, if something like this were  to try and be implemented in the real world, there are several intersecting issues that would have to be contended with first before this vision of equal understanding can even begin to be conceived of—but I think maybe it was something about the mix of childlike curiosity with the very adult subject (there were a couple of jokes involving bees mating that made it very clear that this might not be for children) that made this utopian vision almost, temporarily work. No nature means no future for all, when one gets down to it.

 

 

 

Saturday, September 21: Trust/Shakespeare/Alléluia dir. Dieudonné Niangouna, MC93

 

 

I am going to preface this one by saying that I spent my entire afternoon prior to heading out to see this show at a picnic, and because of that, I was a bit exhausted during the first half. Thankfully, I got some coffee in me during the short intermission before completely succumbing to sleep, and honestly, better to have been awake during the second half of this show (which was much stronger than the first).

 

 

In short, the piece is very loosely structured around seven “vignettes”, though each one flows into the other to the point that the clear distinction between where one starts and another begins can be a bit hard to spot. At the center of each vignette is a character taken from Shakespeare, though in name only, as the language they speak is decidedly modern. They have been transposed (and transformed in some cases…for instance, Hamlet is now a revenant admonishing over his failed relationships – and not just with Ophelia) into this ‘non-space’ to talk – or rather, exorcise their inner demons. There is a notable voodoo influence on the part of some of the staging, with chorus members who are not currently incarnating characters taking on the role of “witches” (as noted on the cast list), and a performer in the role of Puck acting as the conductor or master of ceremonies.

 

 

There is also a psychiatrist, a Dr. Serge. He, supposedly, is there to “cure” our characters, to make them “better”. He also has the personality and zeal of a cheesy gameshow host.

 

 

With the modern linguistic transposition, however, came also a situational one, as each character was also, to a degree, taken out of his (first half) or her (second half) original Shakespearean setting. This is perhaps where, for me, some of the divide between the first and second half started, as the women (whose narratives were largely centered after the first half) seemed to have more defined settings (as well as characteristics in general) to “carry” their pieces. The exception for the men, in my opinion, was director Niangouna himself playing King Lear as a wanderer in a metro station. Somehow the situational juxtaposition seemed very right in that case.

 

 

And again, who knows, maybe if I hadn’t been so tired, I would have been a bit more alert and my opinions would have been different. In any case, there is something to be said here about the act of (re)interpreting classic and/or “established” texts or characters, which will bring me to my final bit of show commentary for this post:

 

 

 

 

Sunday, September 22: The Way She Dies, written by Tiago Rodrigues in collaboration with TG Stan, Théâtre de la Bastille.

 

 

 

Oh, it was so good to come back here again.

 

 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to get tickets for this show, considering who was involved in it, and considering I had waited until August before buying my ticket (it sounds early, but for this collaboration, I was definitely pushing it). Thankfully, I managed to snag a place before the whole run sold out, and thank goodness I did because any chance I can get to see anything Tiago Rodrigues is doing I will 100% take it.

 

 

 

I mean, almost two years ago, a piece of his reminded me why it was that I loved theatre so much at a time when I was starting to doubt everything I was doing (this was right before I definitively wrote my prospectus and finalized the direction my project would take).

 

 

 

And him working in collaboration with TG Stan (a Belgian troupe who I also discovered at the Bastille) is almost as perfect a thing as one can get, as far as the current theatre scene is concerned.

 

 

 

The piece itself is an adaptation of sorts of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but not necessarily a direct book-to-stage one. The text itself (in the literal, physical form) figures quite prominently in the staging, and those who have read it (or are at all familiar with the plot) will recognize the parallels between its central plot and the intrigues happening on stage rather early on, yet as a whole, this is more a piece about language, communication, about the individual relationship one has (or can have) with a text—and consequently with a piece of theatre itself, what with the whole emancipation of the spectator thing to consider—than anything else. The Way She Dies refers not only to Anna’s final act of (spoiler?) throwing herself in front of a train, but the different possibilities of narrating, describing, or communicating the process leading up to and including this act, especially when taking into consideration the act of translation that has to happen first before the act of communicating can even begin.

 

 

 

I have read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and one of the things I distinctly remember about the process of acquiring the books themselves was how much time I spent researching translations. There is quite a vibrant conversation—at least in the English-speaking world, though I’m sure it’s also reflected elsewhere—around the history of translations of Tolstoy’s works, and especially the, we can call it, acceptance of Constance Garnett’s translations as definitive (which, look translation is incredibly difficult but omitting a word or phrase because you can’t quite understand it? Really?). It’s a conversation worth having, however, because the work of a translator (and indeed, their point of view/interpretive perspective) can have a significant impact on the way the work itself is read by this target audience. There is, as Rodrigues points out in his program notes, a difference between “the candle is put out” and “the lights go out” when confronted with a phrase that evokes a general idea of a removal of light.

 

 

And the question of translation is taken even further when one considers the differing origins of both Rodrigues (who is Portuguese) and the troupe (who hail from the Flanders region of Belgium). Given how Rodrigues often does not work on a script until after rehearsals have begun (though the germ of an idea can be there), as well as how TG Stan often works from a written text, the need for some common ground, linguistically, was needed. Both parties, however, spoke French (TG Stan often performs in French). As for why Anna Karenina was chosen as a central text from which to work, the idea, as summarized from the show program, came about when considering literary works that left a mark, so to speak, that lingered. Acknowledging the fact that Tolstoy’s novel came later, Rodrigues also referred back to his previous work adapting Madame Bovary (the resulting show, Bovary, is still one of my favorites I have seen since I’ve moved back), another work of literature (written by a man…and one who likes to moralize a bit) about a woman who attempts an existence beyond that which her station/her time period/etc. has doled out for her. Anna, he imagined, would be the kind of character that Emma Bovary would have loved to read about.

 

 

Of course, Anna Karenina was not originally written in French (even though French figures somewhat prominently in Tolstoy, given its status, at the time, as the language of the aristocracy), meaning that the text that centers in the staging is one that, as a translation, is already one degree removed from the “source” in terms of interpretation. The question of the potential and consequences of transforming text through language has begun even before the play has officially started. The Anna Karenina here is not the ‘original’, but a version that has been filtered through one interpretive lens (and will continue to be filtered through others).

 

 

 

Indeed, a majority of the intrigue—which centers around 2 couples, one in Portugal in the late 1960s, the other in Anvers, Belgium in the modern day—centers around the act of taking a text and reinterpreting it in a way that creates a map of signification decipherable almost exclusively to ourselves. Going further, there is also the question of use of a text that has been visibly previously read and interacted with by someone (so for those like me who often write in their books, your underlines and margin notes are now a maze leading into yourself…maybe…if anyone can decipher them) in order not to extract meaning from a text, but rather to extract the significance attributed to certain passages of a text in order to try and understand the former reader as well as current happenings in one’s own life. But even in this last instance, the text itself goes through a further transformation, becoming a container not of its own significance, but also a roadmap, a means of deciphering (or translating) someone outside of itself.

 

 

If that makes sense.

 

 
Essentially, what this piece does in its constant playing with the process of individual choices in appropriation of a text (whether it be, as above, in its use as a window into someone else, or, in another case, in its use as a means by which to improve one’s language skills, the act of underlining passages here equally speaking to the poetry of the words as they are read by the non-native speaker than the sense of the phrase itself) is demonstrate what the other two of Rodrigues’s pieces I’ve seen imply (or cause) through action: the fracturing, the multiplying of the very idea of ‘meaning’. There is no singular “way” of dying. How Anna “dies” depends on not just the language we read her in, but the context of the reading, our own “why” in why we engaged in the act. In other words, instead of the emancipation of the spectator (which Bovary and last year’s Sopro deal with more openly), here we have something more akin to the emancipation of the reader, a focus on the malleability of the text, of its ability to change (even in competing translations in a single language). There is a moment at the end when all four actors in the piece stand in a line downstage and one by one – first in French, then switching to Portuguese and Flemish with the French translation in surtitles—begin to recount the final passages of the novel, from Anna’s arrival at the train station to her decision to jump and the split moment right before impact when she wonders at what she’s done. The slight shifts and discrepancies in the various retellings are, of course, evident in French when one actor repeats almost the same thing as another, only changing one or two words that alter not so much the general sense of what is being said, but more the image or the metaphor behind the phrase (the candle vs light debate evoked earlier), but they still hold when the actors pass to their native languages, beginning also to more noticeably talk over each other, emphasizing the polyphonic quality of this final speech moment. There is no single voice, no definitive version. There are many.

 

 

 

 

And it is here that I want to come back briefly to something I said earlier about needing to eventually contend with something slightly problematic about this theatre. Again, I love this space. I love that it is independent and has a clear vision for the kinds of theatre it wants to produce. I love its emphasis on the plural, the multiple, the fractured when it comes to questions of meaning. It is something that is not, from my experience, easily or regularly found elsewhere. Yet, this access to a theatre that brings the focus back to the individual as an autonomous entity via the kinds of shows it programs comes at a price. Because it is independent, and thus does not benefit from full or significant State funding (though at the same time, its independence is the reason why its artistic director has been in place for thirty years and why it has the artistic identity that it has), the Bastille is not exactly accessible from a financial point of view. Tickets are still nowhere near as expensive as theatre tickets are in the States, nor are they quite at the levels of ticket prices for private venues, but the fact that the theatre does not have the kind of financial backing necessary in order to be able to offer a more inclusive subscription package (they have a decent one where one can order tickets for 5 shows at a reduced price, but one must pick the shows and dates in advance which, while this is something that I can do, is not necessarily feasible for everyone) means that it has, perhaps in spite of its artistic mission, become somewhat closed off and exclusive.

 

 

 

The other problem—and this goes back to the question of exclusion, but of another kind—is that the majority of things programmed here are from white artists. Now, granted the Bastille doesn’t program as much as, say, the MC93, but this is something of an oversight that merits being looked at (especially considering the venues own stance of the theatre being a place of dialogue—not necessarily a mirror—with the environment that is around it).

 

 

 

 

So, what does one do about this?

 

 

 

To be clear, I actually like the concept of significant State funding for the arts. But, like anything, it may need fixing. In a perfect world, I would say we should just throw money at (almost) all things artistic instead of spending it on enriching the military industrial complex, but…we are not in that world. A healthy State arts funding program would be, then, one that would allow for the contract-based public theatres to continue to exist while making it possible for the independent theatres to increase their spectator accessibility.

 

 

 

Because the kind of artistic expression that allows space for and validates the point of view, the intelligence, the approaches and experiences of each individual spectator is one that should be open to all.

First show of the season

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.