Humphrey Bower reviews text-based theatre from the Adelaide Festival (February 28-March 15, 2019):
Belvoir/Co-Curious’ ‘Counting and Cracking’
Young Vic/Isango Ensemble’s ‘A Man of Good Hope’
Verbatim Theatre Group’s ‘Manus’
Milo Rau’s ‘La Reprise’
As mentioned in my previous Postcard from Adelaide (on music, dance, physical and visual theatre), the big social and political themes that recurred for me at this year’s AF were masculinity, racism, tribalism and displacement – alongside the more familial, personal and artistic themes of loss, trauma, death, memory and the nature of performance.
Not surprisingly, the first group of themes were dealt with more extensively in the more large-scale or ‘epic’ productions, whereas the second group emerged more clearly in the more intimate works; but there was also a significant crossover.
Many of the large-scale productions hinged dramatically on intimate questions of loss, trauma and memory; several of the more intimate works raised ‘larger’ questions about masculinity, racism and tribalism; and many shows across both categories were also ‘epic’ in the Brechtian sense, in that they explicitly drew attention to their own artifice (or ‘foregrounded the device’) rather than being naturalistic or illusionistic – and did so in order to invite personal or artistic reflection and perhaps even social or political action.
To begin with the large-scale: Counting and Cracking (pictured above) was the most emotionally powerful work I saw at the Festival, and I believe the most significant event in Australian theatre in terms of redefining what ‘Australian theatre’ means since, perhaps, John Romeril’s Floating World (both the original Pram Factory production in 1974 and the Playbox remount in 1995 with an all–Japanese cast).
A collaboration almost six years in the making between Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack and Sri Lankan-Australian first-time playwright S. Shakthidharam (and his company Co-Curious), Counting and Cracking travelled to Adelaide straight after a season at Sydney Town Hall, and was staged in the Ridley Centre at the Adelaide Showgrounds – a big empty barn which was the venue for last year’s Human Requiem, and which was in this case filled by a spectacular but simple set (designed by Dale Ferguson).
It’s a three-hour show (with two intervals, during which Sri Linkan food is served), featuring a cast of sixteen actors (almost all of whom are South Asian) and a live band of three musicians (two of whom are also traditional Carnatic players of South Asian heritage), and tells the story of four generations of a Sri Lankan family, from Colombo in the 1980s to contemporary Sydney, based on Shaktidharan’s own family history.
I remember being hugely impressed hearing Eamon speak about his collaboration with Shakti a couple of years ago at the National Play Festival. I was struck by their mutual commitment to produce the work only when the conditions were right, and without compromising on their shared vision – including the scale of the work and the large multicultural cast. It’s a commitment that’s paid off handsomely, and a lesson to theatre companies and playwrights everywhere, when there’s such pressure for the former to program ‘safely’ and for the latter to get one’s play on at all costs.
The production (despite its scale) was an inspired piece of imaginative ‘poor theatre’.
None of this however would mean a thing if the writing, staging, direction and performances weren’t so effective and deeply affecting. The play shifts back and forth in time and place, with the present-day scenes set in a western suburb of Sydney, and the scenes from the past set in the courtyard of a wealthy family home in Colombo during the rise of populism that lead to the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983. The two dramatic arcs converge in a feat of writing that had me by the throat at the climax of Act One when the two main characters, Siddhartha (Shiv Palekar) and his mother Rhada (played in her younger incarnation by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) simultaneously both say ‘Yes’ to older and younger versions of the same man, Thirru (played respectively by Antonythasan Jesuthasan and Jay Emmanuel) in fateful decisions that will change their lives.
The production itself (despite its scale) was an inspired piece of imaginative ‘poor theatre’. Ferguson’s set comprised a huge thrust stage with a gate at the rear; the thrust was surrounded on three sides by a low wall with an open channel of flowing water. As such it more or less resembled a typical Sri Lankan inner courtyard; the water also represented the Georges River in Sydney’s south-west to which Rhada’s mother’s ashes were ritually returned, as well as more symbolically the river of death and the waters of life that unite us all. All this was in turn surrounded on three sides by a pop-up auditorium with high outer walls.
The entrance to the auditorium at the foot of the thrust also represented the inner doorway to the house in Colombo; so that one had the feeling of entering the world of the play and inhabiting it along with the characters. The rear gate was surmounted by raised platforms for the musicians, and for the actors to raise and lower barriers above the gate, with locations and dates written on detachable signs and hung on the barriers at the start of each scene. These made much expository dialogue superfluous, as well as reinforcing the sense of artificial borders being imposed between and within countries on the basis of race, religion, class and above all politics.
Much of the play’s power came not from its humanist sense of compassion and hope but from its dispassionate analysis of how the populist genie leads inexorably to intolerance and inhumanity.
Costumes (also designed by Ferguson with cultural consultant Anandavalli) were simple but beautiful, with exquisitely coloured cloths for the women; unfussy lighting (by Damien Cooper) was mostly a general wash to unify the action (which largely occupied the whole stage); and furniture and props minimal (handle-receivers of old-fashioned telephones for example being simply held up and passed around by the actors). Stefan Gregory’s unobtrusive score (based on traditional South Asian Carnatic music and played by the live band) sensitively accompanied the action without ever being overbearing or kitsch.
The most effective device of all was the spoken translation into English of all Sinhalese or Tamil dialogue (which comprised about a third of the play) by cast members who were not in the scene but were seated on the low inner wall around the stage. This effectively created a kind of ever-changing chorus of interpreters relaying the action to the audience. It also highlighted the politics of language itself, and in particular the use of English, Sinhalese and Tamil to colonise (and later polarise) Ceylon/Sri Lanka before and after independence.
The ensemble cast were uniformly strong, with outstanding performances from senior Indian actors Kalieaswari Srinivasan as the older Rhada – an embittered pragmatist and the emotional core of the play – and Prakash Belawadi as her father Apah, the defiant idealist who dreams of a united Sri Lanka but finally endorses Tamil violence in self-defence when the centre can no longer hold. Indeed, much of the power of the play came not from its humanist sense of compassion and hope but from its dispassionate analysis of how the populist genie once out of the bottle leads inexorably to intolerance and inhumanity; while the dramatic conflict between the opposing principles of predominantly male power politics and the traditionally female prioritisation of family harks back to Antigone.
To be sure, there are some dramaturgical weakness that could easily be addressed. The scenes in the present seemed more of a framing device than a parallel plot, and were somewhat sketchy in comparison with the more fully realised and unified scenes from the past, which seemed to be the real raison d’être of the play. In particular, subplots involving Siddhartha’s budding romance with a young Aboriginal woman (a confident performance by Rarriwuy Hick), and the older Rhada’s courtship by an ever-optimistic Lebanese handyman (an ebullient Arky Michael) seemed a little tacked-on and even tokenistic; the use of expository monologues to the audience in the final scenes was clunky and unnecessary; and the almost certain fate of indefinite detention for Apah under the current regime hung over the somewhat hastily contrived ending.
However these are minor quibbles in the context of an extraordinary artistic and logistical achievement, which is urgently timely in terms of domestic and international politics. In Australia 2016, as in Colombo 1983, we are not yet done with cracking heads.
The Young Vic/Isango Ensemble co-production of A Man of Good Hope told a similar story, using similar ‘poor theatre’ means. It’s based on white South African author Jonny Steinberg’s book about a Somali man’s decades-long odyssey across Africa to Cape Town as a refugee from post-colonial ethnic violence. Steinberg met Asad Abdullahi when the latter was working as a street-errand hustler, and paid him to meet and tell his story every day for a year. They met in Steinberg’s car because, as Asad says in the play, if they met in his shanty-town home the presence of a white man with an expensive car would attract men with guns.
The Isango Ensemble is a Cape Town-based company of singer-performers and marimba-players from townships similar to Asad’s (though not necessarily with his refugee background). It was co-founded by English-born director Mark Dornford-May with musical director and singer Pauline Melfane (who was also born in a poor part of Cape Town). The company has previously specialised in South African adaptations of European classics like Carmen and The Magic Flute. A Man of Good Hope is more like a musical, or perhaps even a play with songs (indeed much like The Magic Flute), as most of the action is in the form of spoken text, punctuated by outbursts of African popular music and (mostly ensemble) singing and dancing.
The play also resembles The Magic Flute in that it’s a young man’s journey or even pilgrimage from innocence to maturity. Like the Flute, it’s also a love story and includes more than one mother-figure and surrogate father, as well as a series of tests of integrity, faith and trust; and there’s a similar pantomime-like simplicity to the storytelling.
However, the terrain Asad must traverse is infinitely more perilous than Schikaneder’s allegorical fantasy-land; his wisdom and experience is acquired at considerable cost; and even though he finally makes it to South Africa, there’s no journey’s end there in terms of safety, security or sense of belonging.
In fact, I felt that the geographical irony of the title extended to the very notion of hope itself, at least in the context of Asad’s situation as a Somali refugee in South Africa – as demonstrated by his ongoing poverty and fear of being killed. He finally gets his visa to America, which he believes without apparent irony to be a land of plenty where there are no guns. To me this prospect of deliverance was cold comfort, in a play where Asad’s story becomes an allegory for an entire continent, and indeed the whole world.
I couldn’t help wondering about the ethics of the whole exercise.
The singing and musical skills of the performers are glorious, and the staging full of energy and inventiveness – including the deft use of portable door frames, movable sheets of corrugated iron and two-dimensional wooden toy guns. However the simplicity of the form toppled over at times into over-simplification, and the overall mood of ebullience sat uncomfortably for me with the realism and even pessimism of the content, in a way that didn’t seem to be ironic or satirical.
The acting was also uneven, the strongest and most complex performance being from Thandolwethu Mzembe as the young man Asad (the third of four incarnations); most of the other characterisations were somewhat two-dimensional. Again, this wouldn’t have mattered if the discordance had been deliberate, or even consistent, but once again I felt that the style of the work fell somewhat uneasily between community theatre and fully fledged music-drama.
Finally, I couldn’t help wondering about the ethics of the whole exercise. The image of the white man in his expensive car paying the black man to tell his story – while in doing so the latter was evidently exposed to mortal danger – in order to turn it into a book (and then a play) made me feel uncomfortable, and the word ‘exploitation’ came to mind.
This discomfort was amplified by the fact that the retelling of the story – first by Steinberg and then by the company (no playwright is acknowledged in the program) – seemed to oversimplify it in terms of its political and ethno-cultural complexities (quite apart from the limitations imposed by Asad’s own perspective or version of events); and this oversimplification seemed to reinforce generalised notions about ‘Africa’ or ‘tribalism’ for a white (and especially international) readership or audience.
In fact, Steinberg acknowledges apparently without irony in the program and the play that Asad refused to read the manuscript when it was finished because he declared that the story was ‘too sad’. Steinberg concludes: ‘The story is not for him; it is for others.’ One is tempted to ask: for whom, then? And to what end?
I found myself asking similar questions of Manus, an Iranian verbatim theatre work about Iranian asylum seekers held in indefinite detention on Manus Island and Nauru.
This is a complex work to describe in terms of its making, and even more difficult to judge as a work of theatre, reportage or political advocacy – let alone in terms of its ethics. (I should state at the outset that my own position on mandatory indefinite offshore detention is that it is morally indefensible – even as a deterrent that ostensibly ‘saves lives’ by preventing deaths at sea – because of the suffering, death, and trauma inflicted on people who have risked their lives but committed no crime.)
According to the program, the production was ‘researched and directed’ by Nazanin Sahamizadeh, and first performed in Tehran by Verbatim Theatre Group, a company she established in 2013. The ‘play’ – as it is described in the program, but perhaps ‘performance-text’ would be more accurate – was written by ‘verbatim playwrights’ Leila Hekmatnia and Kelvan Sarreshteh, and based on interviews with eight asylum seekers who have been on Manus and Nauru for over five years. According to the education resources kit that accompanied the production, another former detainee on Manus who ‘volunteered’ to return to Iran in 2013 ‘helped organise’ the interviews. I’m not sure exactly how or where this happened, but am guessing it was done via mobile phone.
This is stand-and-deliver protest theatre, with all the strengths and weaknesses that the form entails.
The text is spoken in Persian by eight Iranian actors who ‘play’ the eight detainees, with English surtitles projected onto a screen behind them. One of the detainees is Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has become something of a hero since his reports from Manus began being published by the Guardian and elsewhere, and whose book No Friend But The Mountains (which was tapped out on his mobile phone and sent as text messages) won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction in January 2019. Boochani was apparently a key collaborator in the creation of the work, which ends with a long and impassioned speech from him, delivered directly to the audience.
Basically this is stand-and-deliver protest theatre, with all the strengths and weaknesses that the form entails. The set consists of a pile of red petrol cans, which are disassembled, moved around the stage and then reassembled at the end. Video footage from Manus and Nauru (also presumably shot on mobile phones) is projected onto the screen and the rest of the stage, showing images of the camps and detainees (including women and children on Nauru), as well as riots and suicide attempts. The climax of the work is a detailed account of the riot on Manus in 2014 that led to the murder of Reza Barati, but there are also horrifying accounts of other acts of violence and self-harm.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the content of the work, at least on a certain level, and up to a certain point. However most of the performances remained on a sustained note of anguish, despair or rage. This was understandable, but had the effect of reducing the individuality of the detainees, much like the regime of detention itself. This effect was increased by the dramaturgy, which intercut the eight different stories in a way that made them seem indistinguishable from each other; and the repetition and accumulation of horror eventually led to outrage-fatigue.
Moreover (especially with some of the less skilled actors), it was not always easy to distinguish the emotions of the performers from those of the people they were representing. This (again, understandable) artistic and emotional confusion had the effect of sentimentalising the suffering of the detainees (as well as the cast) like characters and actors in a Hollywood movie and risking bathos instead of pathos.
Aristotle famously observed that tragedy arouses pity and terror. More precisely, he argued that we feel compassion towards someone who is distant (but not too distant) from us, but that compassion becomes fear if the person is closer to us (for example, in the case of a friend or child), most clearly in the case of fear for ourselves. Emotional and aesthetic distance is also politically important for Brecht, who famously criticised excessive emotion, identification or empathy with the character, on the part of the audience or the actor. Brecht regarded these as the hallmark of bourgeois, consumerist or ‘culinary’ theatre, which treats emotions as commodities, and ‘bathes’ in feelings, as opposed to critical reflection and political action.
As actors, audiences and indeed social beings we need to be ‘close but not too close’ to the character (and to other people).
One might argue that Brecht was not criticising emotion or identification as such (which are surely necessary conditions in theatre and life), but sentimentality and over-identification. The German word for empathy – Einfühling – literally means ‘feeling-as-one’, as opposed to Mitleid (sympathy or compassion), which means ‘suffering-with’.
Perhaps one might make a critical distinction between empathy and sympathy – a distinction based not merely on degrees of emotion, but (following Aristotle) degrees of proximity. As actors, audiences and indeed social beings we need to be ‘close but not too close’ to the character (and to other people); in other words, we need to see them and ourselves as ‘the same but different’. Some degree of separation is an emotional, aesthetic, ethical and political imperative.
Another problem emerged with the video footage, which succumbed to the fate of all such images in news reports on TV or online, which is that suffering becomes a spectacle, and our reactions pass from horror to indifference. The problem of sentimentality and bathos became acute in the final part of the work, which included stage-smoke, fake rain, and finally Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata as a soundtrack for Boochani’s final speech. I was reminded of my father’s refusal to see Schindler’s List because he didn’t want to see Spielberg reduce the Holocaust to Hollywood schmaltz.
In short: in terms of people, stories, acting, images and staging, less would have been more, at least in terms of emotional effect. The question remains, as with A Man of Good Hope, but even more uncomfortably: for whose benefit, and to what end?
I fear that such work has achieved nothing except preach to the choir, make the audience ‘feel’ things, and potentially re-traumatise refugees themselves.
To be sure, the work was originally performed in Tehran, for an audience who were presumably less familiar with the material; and theatrical conditions – including artistic and audience expectations, as well as the risk of censorship and repercussions – are presumably very different there too; though Tehran is apparently a more liberal and cosmopolitan city than elsewhere in Iran, and certainly boasts a highly sophisticated film culture, from Kiarostami to Asghar Farhadi.
Perhaps the original production was intended to move the audience or the Iranian government to action – though one wonders about the consequences of doing so, given that most of the refugees are fleeing political or ethnic persecution.
But the question needs to be asked even more urgently when it comes to presenting the work here: to what end? The stories themselves were sadly familiar; even more sadly, I learned nothing new from what I heard or saw. Having seen (and been involved with) what has become a sub-genre of ‘refugee theatre’ over the past 20 years, I fear that such work has achieved nothing except preach to the choir, make the audience ‘feel’ things, and potentially re-traumatise refugees themselves.
To write poetry after (or even about) Auschwitz may not necessarily be barbaric (to qualify Adorno’s famous provocation), as the poetry of Paul Celan and the novels of Primo Levi attest; but perhaps there is a risk of barbarism in this kind of theatre. For writers like Celan or Levi – or even Boochani – who are also victims and (at least temporary) survivors, writing may be the only option they have; certainly no-one (least of all Adorno) would take away their right to bear witness to what they have endured; but this should be at their own initiative, on their own behalf, and under their own creative control. I felt that none of these conditions obtained for these men and women (except to a limited degree Boochani himself), much like Asad in A Man of Good Hope.
For the rest of us well-meaning artists and citizens, with regard to the ongoing atrocity of offshore detention, perhaps it’s time for a different kind of action – and certainly a different kind of theatre.
This leads me to La Reprise, Swiss director Milo Rau’s documentary theatre production investigating a gay hate murder that took place in Liège in 2012. It’s worth noting however that the full title is La Reprise: Histoire(s) du theatre (1). The French term reprise means (among other things) to repeat or return to something, as in a musical ‘reprise’, or an actor ‘reprising’ a role; perhaps an appropriate English title might be ‘the re-enactment’.
The word histoire on the other hand means both ‘history’ and ‘story’; and the possessive de (‘of’) is also ambiguous, since it can be subjective or objective; so the subtitle might be translated as ‘a theatrical story/theatrical stories’ or even ‘the story/history of theatre (Part 1)’. This would seem to suggest that the subject matter is not so much the incident being investigated, or even gay hate crimes or violence in general, but the nature of theatre, history and truth.
Milo Rau is not afraid of controversy, and has stated that he has a particular interest in violence as a social phenomenon.
Recently appointed artistic director of NTGent, Rau trained in sociology and literary studies, and has worked as a journalist and filmmaker as well as a theatre director. He also runs a theatre and film production company called The International Institute of Political Murder. His documentary theatre productions include The Last Days of the Ceaucescus, The Congo Tribunal (which staged a mock trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate the complicity of mining companies in massacres) and Five Easy Pieces, about a Belgian paedophile and murderer, in which the actors were children. His inaugural production for NTGent was Lam Gods, which was based on Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, in which he cast the real-life mother of an Islamic State jihadi as the Virgin Mary.
Rau is obviously not afraid of controversy, and has stated that he has a particular interest in violence as a social phenomenon. Since he took over NTGent, he’s published a 10-point ‘Ghent Manifesto’ on the company website. Point One states: ‘It’s not just about portraying the world anymore. It’s about changing it. The aim is not to depict the real, but to make the representation itself real.’ Other points include: ‘The literal adaptation of classics on stage is forbidden’; ‘At least a quarter of the rehearsal time must take place outside a theatre’; ‘At least two different languages must be spoken on stage in each production’; ‘At least two of the actors on stage must not be professional actors’; ‘The total volume of the stage set must be able to be contained in a van that can be driven with a normal driving licence’; and ‘At least one production per season must be rehearsed or performed in a conflict or war zone’.
In short, the Manifesto is a declaration of political and artistic intent, and apart from the first philosophical point (which is obviously inspired by the last of Marx’s eleven Theses on Feuerbach) all the others are practical commitments about how work is to be made and shown.
La Reprise is the first production by Rau and the NTGent to follow the Manifesto. Like his previous work, it’s a new piece of documentary theatre that investigates violence; three languages are spoken onstage (French, Flemish and Arabic – all translated into English surtitles); two of the actors are non-professional; and the set (designed by Anton Lukas) is minimal (though the ‘props’ include a car).
The dramaturgy of La Reprise is highly sophisticated. The production is also flawlessly realised, and the performances (professional and amateur) are superbly understated.
A key element is a large video screen, on which the surtitles are projected, alongside titles for each of the play’s ‘Acts’, and close-up video footage of what happens onstage, which is filmed (or ostensibly filmed) by an onstage camera operator and projected simultaneously. I say ‘ostensibly’ because some of the footage appears to be live-feed, but some of it is obviously pre-recorded, as there are noticeable discrepancies between what happens onstage and onscreen, such as the presence onscreen of extra performers (including a dog).
The ‘story’ concerns the murder of a young gay Muslim man, Ihsane Jarfi, who got into a car with four other men outside a bar, and was subsequently beaten and left to die on the edge of a wood outside Liège; his naked body was found a week later. However, this is framed by a meta-narrative about the creation of the show itself, which involved the cast conducting their own investigation in Liège and interviewing people connected with the crime (some of whom they later play), as well as auditioning two local non-actors to be in the show.
This audition scene is re-enacted (or ‘reprised’), with the cast of actors and non-actors playing themselves. Suzy Cocco is an unemployed dog-sitter, who plays herself and Jarfi’s mother. Fabian Leenders is a warehouse worker and DJ, who plays himself and one of the killers, with whom it turns out in the audition he had several things in common, including suffering from the same back injury (which led to them both losing their jobs) and driving the same model and colour of car.
The rest of the cast are professional actors, who likewise play themselves as well as characters in the story. Tom Adjhibi (who also auditions) plays himself and Jarfi. During his audition he delivers a zinger about being typecast because of his race: ‘If you’re Black, either you play a Black character, or you act in a political play where you denounce this…or you dance.’
Sabri Saad El Hamus (who conducts the auditions) plays himself and Jarfi’s father. He opens the show with a droll monologue about acting – ‘An actor is like a pizza-deliverer: it’s about the pizza, not the deliverer!’ – which leads to a dramatic recital of the Ghost’s speech in Hamlet (cue stage-fog to roll across the set).
Sebastian Foucault plays himself and one of the killers; he also reveals during the audition scene that he became obsessed with the murder while studying in Liège. Finally, Kristien De Proost plays herself, a girl in the bar on the night Jarfi was killed, and another of the killers. She also delivers a monologue in the final ‘Act’ about an interview with Jarif’s grief-stricken boyfriend, before reciting the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Theatre Impressions’. The poem is about the ‘sixth Act’ of a tragedy, when all the actors who play dead characters ‘come back to life’ for the curtain call before preparing to ‘reprise’ their roles the next evening.
The key difference between La Reprise and either Brecht or The Laramie Project is not simply the use of video and non-actors but the interrogation of theatre itself in order to question history and truth.
The show ends with Adjhibi singing Purcell’s setting of Dryden’s ‘The Cold Song’ from King Arthur – a song made famous in alt-pop culture by ’80s gay icon Klaus Nomi shortly before he died of AIDS – in which the phrase ‘Let me freeze again to death’ is repeatedly ‘reprised’.
This leads to an anecdote about an actor who once put a noose around his neck, climbed on a chair and invited someone from the audience to help him down. A real noose then descends from the lighting grid, and Adhibi physically ‘reprises’ the content of the story (without appearing to wear a safety harness); the show ends in a blackout before anyone can intervene.
As this summary suggests, the dramaturgy of La Reprise is highly sophisticated. The production is also flawlessly realised, and the performances (professional and amateur) are superbly understated. Rau’s approach is obviously inspired by Brecht: the non-identification of the actors with their roles, the ‘baring of the device’ (especially in the use of video) and the emotional and aesthetic distance and coolness of the work are all very unlike Manus, and all promote critical thought and (at least potentially) action. A more specific (if unacknowledged) debt is to The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufmann’s 2000 play about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in a small town in Wyoming, which used interviews conducted by the actors with inhabitants of the town, news reports and the actor’s own journal entries, and in which the actors played themselves as well as the people they interviewed or saw on the news.
The key difference between La Reprise and either Brecht or Laramie is not simply the use of video and non-actors but the interrogation of theatre itself in order to question history and truth. Rau writes in the program that ‘a testimony, a memory or a plea does not express historical truth…they recollect it according to their respective – for the most part unconscious – intentions’. This in itself rather banal observation – which owes more to Nietzsche or Freud than Marx or Brecht – has broader implications in a ‘post-truth’ world saturated by images, opinions and ‘fake news’ disseminated via social media, and the aestheticization, exploitation and mobilisation of emotions and violence that proliferates globally as a result. In short, to paraphrase The Wizard of Oz (the original purveyor of fake news): we’re not in Laramie any more.
The problem for me lies in what might be called the social dramaturgy of the La Reprise – in other words, its ethics. The trouble begins after the audition-scene, with the subsequent ‘reprisal’ of events surrounding and including the murder at which the performers themselves weren’t present, as well as the use of video in those scenes.
Rau’s staging enacts the very violence, homophobia, racism, exploitation and aestheticisation it purports to investigate.
The first is a scene in which El Hamus and Cocco ‘reprise’ a conversation between Jarfi’s parents. The dialogue is possibly based on a joint interview with them, but they perform the scene naked, sitting on a bed, as if in a deeply private conversation.
In the course of the scene they disagree about how to talk about the crime: Jarfi’s father wants go public and make his son’s death meaningful in the cause of gay rights in order to deal with his anger and grief; his wife says she feels emotionally numb and wants to keep things private. The scene is also filmed by the onstage cameraman, and simultaneously ‘reprised’ on the screen as a live-feed.
The intention may be ironic, but to me the effect is deeply disrespectful and humiliating for everyone concerned – the actors (one of whom is a non-professional) as well as the people they are playing and Jarfi himself – and comes across as a power-trip on the part of Rau as director.
The next ‘re-enactment’ takes place in the bar on the night Jarfi was killed, and ‘reprises’ a friendly and possibly flirtatious conversation between Jarfi (played by Adjhibi) and one of the men (played by Foucault) who subsequently abducted and killed him. It’s hard to know what this is based on; possibly an interview with the man; possibly a witness; or possibly the imagination of the actors; but the effect is to perpetuate notions that victims of hate-crimes are somehow ‘responsible’.
Leenders acts as a DJ for this scene, as if he were present at the club on the night (which he wasn’t). The scene is also filmed and projected in close-up, but the footage is obviously pre-recorded, as there are ‘extras’ dancing in the club onscreen who aren’t onstage. Again, the intention may be to underline the ‘fakeness’ of the scenario, but this doesn’t detract from the implication that this is what led to Jarfi being killed.
The treatment of violence, homophobia and racism smacks of a lazy armchair-Marxist analysis of these phenomena.
Another scene in this sequence (also filmed and projected in close-up) involves one of the men in the car (this time played by Leeders) awkwardly kissing and attempting to have sex with a woman (De Proost) but being repeatedly rejected. Again, it’s hard to know what this scene is based on, or to what purpose, except to perpetuate sexist explanations of ‘incel’ violence; and again, the primary effect is to humiliate the actors (one of whom, again, is a non-professional).
The final ‘re-enactment’ is a prolonged and excruciating ‘reprisal’ of the murder itself, entitled ‘The Banality of Evil’ (a rather heavy-handed reference to Hannah Arendt’s coverage of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem). A real car is pushed onstage, four of the actors (Adjhibi, Foucault, Leenders and De Proost) get in, and Jarfi’s abduction, torture and killing is ‘reprised’, more or less in ‘real time’ (though again, it’s hard to know what this is based on, other than surmise, or witness accounts).
The other actors (El Hamus and Cocco) move around outside the car creating fake rain-effects and fake reflections on the windshield of passing streetlamps and headlights using torches. The onstage action inside the car (and finally outside it) is deliberately clumsy (including obvious stage-combat punching and kicking and the use of stage-blood); on the screen it looks ‘real’ (at least, according to the codes of ‘realism’ in cinema). Adjhibi/Jarfi is finally stripped naked and left lying ‘dead’ in the middle of the stage before the final ‘Act’ of theatrical ‘resurrection’ begins.
In Rau’s defence it might be claimed that the production draws attention to its own complicity with exploitation and aestheticisation, and that this is the most we can do as good postmodernist artists and citizens. This however feels a little like defending the use of racist, sexist or homophobic ‘memes’ on social media on the basis that they’re ‘just memes’, and that anyone ‘unsophisticated’ enough not to recognise this just needs to ‘deal with it’ – which ignores the fact that words and images have real consequences.
The problem is that in ‘making the representation real’ Rau’s staging enacts the very violence, homophobia, racism, exploitation and aestheticisation it purports to investigate. The murder sequence in particular aroused in me a mixture of fascination, horror and finally boredom that recalled Aristotle’s definition of horror as the loss of compassion that occurs when suffering (or its representation) becomes ‘too close’. Mind you, I was sitting in the front row.
However, I’ve also never been the victim of a hate-crime; and I wondered how someone who had been (even potentially) might feel. It made me think of the word ‘obscene’, and its origins in the Greek compound ob skene, literally meaning ‘offstage’. Perhaps, like all acts of unrepresentable obscenity, that was where this scene belonged.
The issue of exploitation also extends to the casting and content of the other scenes. The actors seem cast according to stereotype, or rather thin personal connections or coincidences with the people they play. Adjhibi jokes about being racially typecast, but is typecast by Rau in exactly the same way.
Leenders and Cocco identify as working-class unemployed in a post-industrial regional town, and Rau even has Leenders gratuitously driving a fork-lift around the set at one point, but the gesture seems sentimental and tokenistic, and the implied identification with the unemployed working-class status of the killers seems simplistic and far-fetched.
In general, the treatment of violence, homophobia and racism smacks of a lazy armchair-Marxist analysis of these phenomena (along with the contemporary rise of fascism around the world) purely in terms of social class (or the backlash against neo-liberalism), which ignores the fact that there are plenty of working-class people who don’t commit such crimes or harbour such feelings (or vote for Trump, Bolsanaro or Brexit), as well as plenty of non-working class people who do.
Like many postmodernist thinkers and artists Rau seems all-too-ready to be seduced by or capitulate to the power of the image, and in particular digital technology.
In fact, for a sociologist, Rau’s on-the-ground research (at least on the evidence of the script) and his theoretical analysis of violence, homophobia, racism, post-industrial capitalism and ‘the society of the spectacle’ are astonishingly shallow. In terms of research, there’s no evidence of any detailed investigation into the personality or background of Jarfi or his killers, or any significant immersion in or understanding of Liège as a place or community, beyond the sheltered sphere of the audition-process, a few other reported interviews, the re-imagined conversation between Jarfi’s parents, and the re-imagined scenes surrounding the murder.
The Laramie Project in contrast drew on hundreds of interviews, the eight actors portrayed more than 60 characters, and the production was rigorous in the fidelity of its representation to what was actually seen and heard by the actors. Of course, Rau does not believe in fidelity but only in the ‘reality’ of representation ‘itself’, but this is to unmoor representation from its ethical as well as epistemological responsibilities.
There’s also no attempt to analyse violence, homophobia or racism as social or psychological phenomena, beyond the limited class-analysis already outlined. And finally there’s no attempt to go beyond the ‘simulacrum’ of appearances in order to establish the truth. On the contrary, like many postmodernist thinkers and artists Rau seems all-too-ready to be seduced by or capitulate to the power of the image, and in particular digital technology.
In his opening and closing ‘Acts’ Rau provides a kind of apology for acting and theatre which made me feel ashamed as an actor and theatre maker.
Once again, Rau claims not to be interested in ‘historical truth’, ‘portraying the world’ or ‘depicting the real’, but simply in ‘making the representation itself real’. In itself this is a fine-sounding but ultimately meaningless phrase, unless it means ‘the truth is what I say it is’– which is either idealism, or fascism, pure and simple.
Finally, in his opening and closing ‘Acts’ Rau provides a kind of apology for acting and theatre which made me feel ashamed as an actor and theatre maker. In particular, the cheap invocation of Szymborska’s great poem about actors metaphorically ‘dying’ and ‘coming back to life’ (a poem which is surely about the survival of art under totalitarianism as much as it is about theatre) – and the final conceit of an actor pretending to risk their life and asking the audience to ‘save’ them – seemed incongruous and indeed tasteless, especially after the horror of Jarfi’s very literal torture and death.
Kant observed of taste as an aesthetic faculty that it has something to do with the fitness or congruency of sensations and judgments, from one mind to another, between art and nature, and ultimately between our minds and the cosmos. If so, how much more tasteful and fitting an end would have been Adjhibi’s haunting rendition of Purcell’s ‘The Cold Song’ – and how much wiser it would have been to heed Dryden’s final words:
What power art thou
Who from below
Hast made me rise
Unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow
See’st thou not how stiff
And wondrous old
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold
I can scarcely move
Or draw my breath
I can scarcely move
Or draw my breath
Let me, let me,
Let me freeze again
Let me, let me
Freeze again to death
Let me, let me, let me
Freeze again to death…’
Humph’s next Postcard will be an overview of the more intimate text-based theatre works in the Adelaide Festival