Last week I was in Adelaide for the final week of the Festival and saw a series of works – both monumental and intimate – dealing with political, social and psychological crisis, conflict and catastrophe; loss and trauma; grief and mourning. There were glimmers of hope, healing or at least consolation, but all in all, it was grimmer fare than the works I saw at the Perth Festival in the preceding month. I left feeling that we are indeed living in an era of polarisation – religious, racial, ethnic, national, regional, gender, sexual, economic – and that it is currently the task of art (and politics) to bridge these polarities rather than subscribing to them.
Kings of War is a four-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI (Parts 1, 2 and 3) and Richard III directed by Ivo van Hove for the Toneelgroep Amsterdam. The production premiered at the Vienna Festwochen in June 2015 – a year before Brexit and a week before Trump announced he was running for president – and has since been performed in Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York; the New York season opened the weekend before Trump was elected.
Van Hove has always been interested in adapting classic plays (and screenplays) in order to take them apart and examine the inner mechanisms of politics, psychology and power. He does this using contemporary but heightened language (Shakespeare’s plays are here translated into Dutch by Rob Klinkeberg and adapted by Bart Van den Eynde and dramaturg Peter Van Kraaij), minimalist but spectacular staging (in collaboration with long-term lighting and set designer Jan Versweyveld and regular video designer Tal Yarden), contemporary but simple costumes (designed by An D’Huys) and underplayed ‘film-style’ acting, often augmented by the capture and amplification of onstage and off-stage action and dialogue using live and pre-recorded video and radio-mics. A fusion of minimalism and spectacle is the hallmark of his style, along with a contemporary resonance that doesn’t limit itself to any specific parallels.
Like van Hove and his creative team, Shakespeare freely adapted existing plays and other contemporary sources.
The van Hove theatrical machine is thus a perfect fit for Shakespeare’s history plays, which deal with the dynastic, civil and foreign wars and struggles that afflicted England (and by extension its neighbour France) two centuries before the plays themselves were written, but also reflected contemporary politics, society and personalities. Like van Hove and his creative team, Shakespeare freely adapted existing plays and other contemporary sources, and used contemporary language, costumes and staging; and like van Hove, Shakespeare had his own theatre company – a genuine theatre company of permanent actors, unlike most so-called theatre companies in Australia.
The history plays weren’t written as a single artistic cycle or in narrative chronological order, although they are often performed that way. Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V were written later in Shakespeare’s career than the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III (much like the Star Wars movies) and this is reflected in their respective dramaturgy, language and content. There’s a lot more onstage violence in the earlier tetralogy, while in the later cycle the language becomes more expressive and individuated, the characters more complex, and the dramatic conflict more internal rather than external (sadly more or less the opposite is the case for the Star Wars movies).
Performing the plays in narrative order thus has the effect of marking a kind of historical, psychological and (to some extent) artistic regression, partly offset by the fact that in the earlier cycle there’s a significant artistic leap from Henry VI to Richard III in terms of the central character, who is arguably Shakespeare’s first great leading role. Broadly speaking, Kings of War describes the decline from a golden age of more courageous and chivalrous but also more complex and conflicted heroes motivated primarily by concern for the state (but sometimes weighed down by their own conscience) to one of weaker or more ruthless anti-heroes driven by revenge, resentment, envy, fear and the naked desire for power. The parallels with the contemporary world are obvious.
Van Hove’s production makes a convincing case for this overarching narrative. The discrepancy in language between the earlier and later plays is largely overcome by the translation to Dutch (and back into English surtitles – but not into Shakespeare’s original text); and the dramaturgical difference between the two cycles is reduced by the adaptation and editing of the text and by the staging. Almost all the violence (and a good deal of the action, including key speeches) takes place offstage, where it is captured on video and projected on a screen above the stage and surtitles (which thus become like movie subtitles). The stage itself represents a kind of vast open-plan office or war-room (which at times becomes a family living-room), with a smaller upstage annex (as in a classic Elizabethan theatre) for dramatic entrances and exits; this also harbours a glass display-case containing the crown and various other symbolic props (including a syringe which is the chief murder weapon, referencing both state executions and extra-judicial assassinations today). Above the stage and to the right of the screen is a gallery for the musicians: four trombone players, one of whom doubles as a DJ; the trombone players also occasionally enter the acting space, as does a counter-tenor who also haunts the action. Whenever the actors exit the stage, they are tracked by a cameraman along what appears to be a long white passageway with with ninety-degree turns that resembles a hospital corridor. Of course, much of this footage is pre-shot and edited into the content that appears onscreen; an illusion of continuity is maintained by having the actors (and cameraman) occasionally pass a doorway in the upstage wall of the annex.
Not since van Hove’s versions of The Damned and The Crucible have I seen a production that speaks so directly to the political and psychological realities of our times.
The dialectic between what occurs onstage and offstage/onscreen (either live or pre-recorded) is the most fascinating aspect of this production. The screen is a portal granting access to the ‘corridors of power’; but this is not only a secret space for ‘backstage’ machinations (political scheming, sexual encounters, murders) but also a virtual space for public announcements and addresses (such as Henry V’s battle speeches) as well as an internal psychic space for images, dreams and hallucinations (parties, battles, corpses, ghosts, and an extraordinary vision of the pious and unworldly Henry VI trying to shepherd a flock of sheep). The action in this secret/virtual/inner space is staged and shot in an even more minimalist way; despite the illusion of continuity between stage and screen, there’s no attempt at realism but on the contrary a Brechtian ‘foregrounding of the device’ in the form of the roving cameraman and a (similarly Brechtian) use of stylised actions and images (in particular when it comes to death and killing).
The action onstage on the other hand is (for the most part) remarkably undramatic, subdued and even static (in fact more like the action one would expect to see on a TV screen). There are even some remarkable sequences when the stage is empty (but fully lit) while all the action and dialogue is taking place offstage/onscreen. This is facilitated by meticulous blocking, timing, scenography, videography and sound, but also by a superb ensemble cast who (for the most part) restrict themselves to a level of naturalism familiar to anyone who has watched the latest Scandi-noir on TV. Performances are uniformly excellent, with a quality of relaxed intimacy and a degree of familiarity with and trust in the work, the director and each other that I associate with European ensemble companies but rarely see on Australian stages (or screens) where actors often look as if they are acting in a bubble or auditioning for their next job. Standout performances include Hans Kesting as Richard III, and the women in the cast (Helene Devos as Katharina in Henry V and Lady Anne in Richard III, Janni Goslinga as Margaret in Henry VI and Richard III, Chris Kietvelt as Eleanor of Gloucester in Henry VI and Elizabeth in Henry VI and Richard III, and Mareike Heebink as the Duchess of York in Richard III) who all make a strong case for the women in the plays doing their best to survive and thrive in a patriarchal world.
Overall, I found the earlier scenes from Henry V less effective, perhaps because the original play depends more heavily on heightened language, with (ironically for a play that focuses so heavily on war) comparatively little dramatic conflict (except in the mind of Henry himself). This makes it in some respects Shakespeare’s most Marlovian play, and perhaps the one that speaks least to a contemporary audience, despite its exploration of the moral conundrums of war. An exception was the brilliant comedy of manners, misunderstandings, flirtation and power-play when Henry woos Katharina in French over a dinner table – a scene which only gained from being simultaneously translated via the surtitles.
However the production kicked into gear for me with Henry VI, which is less dependent on language, more plot-driven, and more closely resembles contemporary film and TV – and indeed the contemporary world, increasingly riven by non-state conflicts and actors, and populated by leaders increasingly devoid of ethics, competence or ‘character’.
The third and most significant gear-change came with Richard III. Hans Kesting invests Richard with a Keaton-like subtlety at the farthest remove from more typically extrovert performances. Physically his appearance and characterisation is highly restrained: one side of his pale melancholy mask-like face disfigured by a blood-stained birthmark; hair neatly shaved; dressed in a dark suit and tie like an undertaker; body held rigid with arms stiffly at his sides; and the merest suggestion of a hunchback. He walks, stands and sits mostly in profile, almost like a cartoon silhouette; his early soliloquies are delivered not to the audience but into a mirror leaning against a wall at the side of the stage, his face relayed in close-up on the video screen. When he finally turns and looks at the audience without speaking for the first time midway through the play the effect is shattering.
Shortly afterwards he briefly emerges from his physical and textual frame, making imaginary phone calls to Trump and Putin, trying on the crown, pulling a Persian rug around himself as a cloak, tentatively capering around the stage, and assuming the clichéd posture and expression of a cripple – before quickly replacing crown and carpet and resuming his former physicality when someone enters. The effect is to heighten his sense of isolation, and to render his entire trajectory in the imaginary dimension of an anticipatory fantasy. Even the coronation scene with Buckingham (played by Aus Griedanus Jnr as another outsider, as dishevelled and disingenuous as Steve Bannon) is performed as a mocking rehearsal for the actual event, which we never see. Richard’s climatic mental disintegration and death is a conceptual, videographic and staging coup, as he sits upstage with his back to the audience staring into the video screen, which projects his face morphing into those of his victims (the ‘ghosts’ of the original play). Then he rises and moves downstage in silhouette against the screen, which has now turned a saturated red, before finally fleeing upstage into the annex and offstage, where his image becoming visible for the last time onscreen running down the corridors towards the camera and finally disappearing off-screen, like a social-media-age celebrity politician finally consumed and absorbed into a black hole of virtual nothingness.
Not since van Hove’s versions of The Damned and The Crucible have I seen a production that speaks so directly to the political and psychological realities of our times; but his vision is bleaker than Shakespeare’s belief in political and spiritual restoration, Arthur Miller’s residual faith in personal redemption or even Visconti’s Marxist sense of justice finally being served. If Shakespeare’s history cycles (the second in particular) describe a (somewhat nostalgic) return to order, then van Hove’s is more like a single downward spiral into chaos and darkness.
A more consoling vision was offered the following night by Human Requiem, a staging of Brahms’s German Requiem (in the version for choir and piano duet rather than orchestra) performed by the Berlin Radio Choir (with soprano soloist Christina Gansch and baritone Konrad Jarnot) accompanied by pianists Philip Mayers and Angela Gassenhuber and directed by Jochen Standig with choreographer Sasha Waltz.
The work was staged in the Ridley Centre at the Adelaide Showground – a large featureless barn of a space (with a cork floor perhaps installed to dampen the acoustics) which was in many respects ideal for what took place. There was no designated stage, auditorium or seating for the choir or the audience; the former moved more or less freely through the space and the audience, while we moved, stood, sat or lay down (again more or less freely) ourselves. The performance thus became a kind of immersive, minimalist hybrid concert-performance-work – a low-church or non-denominational act of communion answering to our aesthetic and spiritual need for collective contemplation and participation in an increasingly secular, specialised, divided, atomised and technologically mediated world.
The work itself is something of a paradox in terms of its textual and musical content, reflecting the paradoxical qualities of Brahms himself as a classical-romantic composer with somewhat idiosyncratic humanist-religious views (in turn broadly reflective of the German Protestant sacred musical tradition epitomised by his precursor Bach). Written relatively early in his career, it features a German language libretto drawn from Luther’s translation of the Scripture (chiefly the Psalms, Gospels, Epistles and Revelations) which largely eschews any mention of Christ, his redemption or other distinguishing features of Christian dogma. Brahms himself was typically (and in this respect more classically than romantically) discrete about more personal motivations, but the work may have been inspired by the death of his mother in the year he began composing the work.
The effect of the work’s immersive staging is thus to reinforce this sense of a multiplicity of perspectives, of separation and dissolution, and above all of inclusion and participation.
Musically much of the material in the 7-movement score derives from a single rising three-note motif first announced by the 4-part choir; while each movement mingles choral and solo passages so that the latter seem to arise and then fall away and become reabsorbed into the choir again (unlike the more sharply defined arias and choruses of traditional requiems or other sacred works). This sense of rising and falling, and of ever-shifting contrapuntal perspective, is characteristic of Brahms and accounts for the physical sensation of rocking and the emotional feeling of longing and consolation that runs through his work, as well as the formal-intellectual objectivity that frames it (in poetry Keats springs to mind by way of comparison). More particularly, there’s a recurring pattern of the individual (voice, instrument, human soul) in relation to the trans-individual (choir, collective, world-spirit) that is not one of leading and following (Mozart) or struggle and resolution (Beethoven) but rather of separation followed by union, blending and dissolution (which as Schönberg recognised makes Brahms every bit as ‘modern’ as his ostensible rival Wagner).
The effect of the work’s immersive staging is thus to reinforce this sense of a multiplicity of perspectives, of separation and dissolution, and above all of inclusion and participation, in a work that Brahms himself described as ‘German’ only because of its use of language rather than any incipient nationalism, and which he therefore also described as ‘ein menschliches Requiem’.
The most thrilling moment for me was the opening of the work, when the opening chords on the piano began to softly resound from the centre of the space (surrounded by the milling crowd) and the choir (scattered through the audience and visually indistinguishable in casual clothes) began to move and sing. I found myself at times inclined to move and follow individual singers, or at other times content to stand still and contemplate them as they moved towards me and then passed me by or stopped in mutual contemplation for a moment before moving on.
I found myself lying back and closing my eyes, surrendering to the music itself and the delicious proximity and randomly ‘found’ perspective of their voices.
I found some of the later, more ‘staged’ moments less effective in comparison. These including some rather artificial groupings around the central piano or on a raised dais along one edge of the space; the isolation and raising of one (female) performer’s body above the heads of the others, carrying her through the crowd to the dais and then forming a mourning group around her supine, Christ-like (or perhaps maternal) form; and in the penultimate movement of the work (‘Den wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt’) the surprise entrance of children rolling out carpets along a central strip of the floor, followed by a slightly awkward herding of the audience to either side, after which the choir ran as if panic-stricken up and down the central carpet, until the baritone made dramatic Evangelical entry (‘Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis’) on a balcony above the space.
On the other hand, I found the untethering and use by the singers of rope-suspended wooden swings for the three-quarter-time lullaby of the central movement (‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’) followed by the glorious soprano solo that opens the fifth movement (‘Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit’) a lovely physical accompaniment to Brahms’s lilting rhythms and melodies. Such moments however seemed contrived, illustrative, sentimental or even excessively ‘performative’ (as well as being more of a challenge for the singers) in comparison with the more subtle, free-flowing, spontaneous and organic movement and interaction that opened and closed the work. Indeed, as the singers surrounded us for the final movement (‘Selig sind die Toten’) I found myself lying back and closing my eyes, surrendering to the music itself and the delicious proximity and randomly ‘found’ perspective of their voices: an experience that could never be captured in a conventional concert, let alone listening to a recording.
I found Human Requiem a thrilling musical journey and an appropriately messy, imperfect performance-work for a messy, imperfect world.
I haven’t seen Bangarra Dance Theatre’s work for many years, but Bennelong felt stylistically, emotionally and politically deeper, darker and more dangerous than I remembered.
Choreography and staging have all the hallmarks of the company’s house-style: in particular Steven Page’s smooth hybrid of traditional and contemporary dance; the bodies and physical idioms of individual dancers who have a history with the company; and a signature blend of sound, lighting, set and costume design that is undeniably beautiful but at times risks becoming ‘beautified’ and thus commodified for cross-cultural consumption.
Nevertheless this aesthetic is given a new twist by several new or recent collaborators – and perhaps by an artistic, personal and political evolution on the part of Page himself, who has now been artistic director of the company for over 20 years. Nick Schlieper’s increasingly incisive lighting, Jacob Nash’s iconic set design, and composer Steve Francis’s complex montage of original and found music and sound, including sung and spoken voice, all support and enrich a story that is if anything more tragic than the one described in Kings of War.
The work responds to a decisive moment in our shared history in terms of the possibilities and limits of collaboration and reconciliation.
Dramaturg and writer Alana Valentine previously collaborated with Page on Patyegarang, another narrative work which also focussed on a key figure of cross-cultural collaboration in the early years of settlement: the young Eora woman who befriended the soldier and linguist William Dawes and collaborated with him on the first Eora-English dictionary. Bennelong tells the story about a more divisive figure, and here Valentine’s contribution includes powerful spoken-word poems and verbal fragments which are incorporated into Steve Francis’ soundscape and effectively echo across history. One looped sequence repeatedly questions Bennelong’s status as a ‘realist’, ‘idealist’, ‘collaborator’, ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ – terms which could equally apply to any one of us today. Even more effective for me was a later poem about physical and spiritual dismemberment in the context of the stealing of Aboriginal body parts.
Page remarks in his program note that it’s now almost two years since his brother David died, and has also commented on his feeling of kinship with Bennelong as a pioneer who walked the often difficult path between two worlds. Beyond this, for me the work responds to a decisive moment in our shared history in terms of the possibilities and limits of collaboration and reconciliation: a moment defined by the recent Statement from the Heart at Uluru, the recommendation by the National Constitutional Council for the establishment of an indigenous voice to Parliament, and its out-of-hand rejection by the Turnbull government – a rejection resoundingly denounced by Noel Pearson (in some respects a contemporary Bennelong-figure) who thereby arguably regained some of the moral authority Turnbull had lost.
Bennelong remains an emblematic and enigmatic figure in white and Aboriginal Australian culture. I still remember my parents returning from the Sydney Opera House opening ceremony at Bennelong Point in 1973, and my father describing in awe-struck tones the staged appearance of Bennelong’s descendant Ben Blakeney atop one of the white-tiled sails to welcome the audience along with Queen Elizabeth II (who was in attendance) – much as his ancestor had appeared, been welcomed and granted royal audience at the court of her forefather George III. More specifically, Bennelong’s complex relationship with Governor Philip and the colonists – including the former’s initial capture and escape, the ambush and revenge-spearing of Philip by Bennelong’s fellow Eora warriors, the subsequent friendship between the two men, Bennelong’s learning of English and granting of an Aboriginal name to Philip (who in return built him a hut at Bennelong Point), his voyage to England and reception in London, his return to Sydney Cove and role as advisor to Governor Hunter, his physical and psychological deterioration and death (in part attributed to alcohol), and the subsequent decimation of his people by smallpox and later deliberate killings, along with the effects of land-clearing and dispossession – made him a contentious figure, even derogatively branded as a ‘collaborator’, especially when viewed in contrast with the more openly aggressive contemporary Eora warrior and resistance leader Pemulwuy (impressively embodied in this production by Luke Currie-Richardson).
These emblematic figures and stories from the early years of settlement remind me of the Old Testament.
Bennelong begins gently and wistfully with the birth and initiation of its titular hero (Beau Dean Riley Smith, a fine actor-dancer with a soft, almost feminine body, whose portrayal of Bennelong tends to present him as more of a hapless victim than a sophisticated negotiator). This scene takes places beneath the aegis of set designer Jacob Nash’s huge suspended totemic ring (which is later replaced by the more typically European shape of a rectangular doorway), and accompanied by composer Steve Francis’s evocative score, which includes the siren-like voice of a woman singing a melody derived (as Francis told me later) from the notation of an unknown Eora song Bennelong himself apparently sang in a London drawing-room.
Things becomes more playful and parodic with the arrival of Philip (Daniel Riley) and the colonists (despite the violence of Bennelong’s capture and the retaliatory attack on Philip), culminating in Bennelong’s departure by ship for Britain – the cast donning tricorns and military jackets and dancing a perverse pantomime version of a sailor’s hornpipe. This sense of picaresque becomes even more surreal when Bennelong and his companion Yemmerrawanne arrive in England and are feted by London society: a Hogarthian scene of revelry accompanied by a distorted treatment of Haydn’s contemporaneous ‘Surpise’ Symphony.
Things become more macabre with the death of Yemmarrawanne (Yolanda Lowatta) in London, the smallpox epidemic back at Sydney Cove, the massacres and requisition of Aboriginal body parts to scientific and cultural institutions back in Britain. Here Page’s choreography becomes more akin to contemporary post-Bauschian dance theatre, with a wrapped body (Tyrel Dulvaire) carried onstage by two dancers and revealed before beginning its own compelling dance of death, while harrowing words from Valentine’s poem cut through the soundscape. A haunting sequence follows in which Bennelong dances with a series of women before attempting to rape one of them (Yolanda Lowatta in another fierce performance) and being driven back by a woman elder (Elma Kris, a magnificent presence throughout the show) – a sequence which acknowledges the ongoing issue of domestic violence in Australian communities, black and white. Finally, the show ends on a grimly ironic note as a bewildered and befuddled Bennelong (damaged by alcohol and anomie) is slowly and systematically walled-in by dancers bringing on silver-painted building-slabs and immuring him in a kind of tomb: a grim image of his ongoing treatment at the hands of history.
There’s something about these emblematic figures and stories from the early years of settlement that reminds me of the Old Testament: their foundational impact, their ‘unfinished’ nature, their moral complexity, the fact that they’re about colonisation, and the way they go on resonating today.
Akram Khan’s Xenos is purportedly his last solo performance as a dancer. It was commissioned by 14–18 NOW, a UK arts program for the centenary of WW1, and commemorates the experience of 4 million non-white colonial – and in particular 1.5 million Indian – soldiers in the so-called Great War.
I didn’t read the event program or know anything about the show’s provenance before seeing it, and despite the copious amounts of mud onstage, a voiceover early in the piece (apparently quoting an Indian sepoy’s letter home) stating that ‘this is not a war, it’s the ending of the world’, and even a song from the trenches, somehow I didn’t immediately make the historical connection.
Instead, I saw a work about personal and collective trauma and the era we live in – one of renewed racism and nationalism (xenos of course is Greek for ‘foreigner’), militarism and the looming catastrophe of climate change. Conscious that it was Khan’s last solo performance, I also saw it as a very personal work, like Stephen Page’s Bennelong. In the case of Khan, this impression was also conveyed by the body, face and inner intensity of this extraordinary director-choreographer-performer.
Khan’s heritage, training and experience as a London-born British-Bangladeshi artist (who first came to world prominence as a teenager in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata) has equipped him with a unique inter-cultural artistic identity and understanding of performance traditions, including classical Indian kathak and contemporary dance (he also worked with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s X-Group Project). The influence of kathak is immediately evident as soon as Khan enters (backwards from the wings, hauling a length of thick rope behind him) in his costume, which includes traditional small bells tied to his ankles (he violently removes these during the show, along with other elements of clothing, as if they represent as much a form of cultural bondage as a sense of identity or belonging). Khan’s movement-language throughout the show also reflects his kathak training, with its emphasis on rapid footwork (heightened by the rattling bells), dazzling turns and spins, flowing arms and gestures, strong upper-body presentation and above all, intensely focused eyes – though this physicality, too, and the sense of identity that goes with it, begins to disintegrate in the course of the show. More broadly, kathak involves as much acting as dancing, and is a strongly narrative-based form, originally dedicated to stories from Indian mythology and epics (like the Mahabharata itself) – though here, too, there is a sense in which the ‘story’ of the work gradually becomes more and more incommunicable because of its traumatic nature.
This sense of disruption and dislocation – indeed of cataclysm and even apocalypse – continued throughout the show.
I found the show’s opening (perhaps intentionally) casual and even somewhat unfocussed, with two Indian musicians – a traditional singer (Aditya Prakash) and percussionist/konnakol vocalist (B.C. Manjunath)– sitting on the floor singing and playing while the audience filed in and continued talking loudly. The lack of focus wasn’t helped by the venue, Her Majesty’s, with its flat ground-floor seating obscuring a clear view of the raised stage-floor; nor by the initial stage set-up and design (by Mirella Weingarten) which included some randomly scattered furniture, rugs and objects, a swing, and then (more promisingly) behind them and extending across the stage a solid raised wave-like structure painted in streaks of dark-grey and rust-red like oxidised iron.
The entrance of Khan and his focussed energy immediately transformed the space; about ten minutes into the show, an ominous industrial sound-score (by Vincenzo Lamagna) began to invade it; the two musicians exited; the lighting (designed by Michael Hulls) began to dim; and all the moveable stage décor (which like Khan himself was tethered by ropes) was slowly and inexorably dragged upstage and disappeared over the crest of the wave into the maw of the abyss.
The visual and emotional journey of the work was supported bythe lighting and music: shortly after the initial set transformation, the stage went dark, and a lit aperture opened above it, revealing a balcony with the original musicians now part of an industrial jazz-rock band including an amplified violinist, double bass player vocalist and baritone saxophonist. Later, musical fragments in the sound-score included the WW1 song ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’ and an electronically treated version of the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem.
The work affected me at a visceral level – much like a Samuel Beckett play that borders on abstraction.
This sense of disruption and dislocation – indeed of cataclysm and even apocalypse – continued throughout the show, providing it with both form and theme. Not making the WW1 connection, I related to it variously to genocide, the refugee crisis and even climate change, partly because of the black dirt that Khan first smeared on his costume and later his face and body. Afterwards, I realised it represented mud from the trenches, but at the time it made me think overwhelmingly of carbon, especially when what looked like lumps of coal finally came rattling down the face of the wave and across the stage (on closer inspection after the show these turned out to be pine-cones – which of course have their own WW1 association for Australians because of the Battle of Lone Pine).
Beyond any specific historical, cultural or contemporary references however, the work affected me at a visceral level – much like a Samuel Beckett play that borders on abstraction. Perhaps this is one of the achievements of a post-colonial performance mode that finds a new trans-cultural, trans-disciplinary and even trans-narrative form.
The next morning I attended a ‘Breakfast with Papers’ discussion at the pop-up floating Palais venue on the Torrens, hosted by Tom Wright and featuring Palestinian director-playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi, Melbourne journalist-commentator Guy Rundle, South Australian Museum Head of Humanities John Carty and pianist-writer Anna Goldsworthy.
The conversation revolved around the theme of territorial conflict – Palestine, the South Australian and Darebin elections, and the issue of Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia. Tom Wright asked John Carty about the fate of the Museum’s collection of Aboriginal artefacts (the largest in Australia), and the difficult issue of repatriation was broached but not resolved. He then invited Guy Rundle to comment on the issue of indigenous constitutional recognition, and Rundle struggled to respond and eventually confessed that he didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to comment without having at least one Aboriginal person on the panel. It was a telling moment, and the first time I’ve ever seen Guy lost for words.
The final two performances I saw at the Festival were more intimate works at the Space Theatre. Both were from Palestine, and continued the themes of colonialism, land and inheritance, trauma and consolation.
Azza is a play about mourning and reparation. Writer-director Amir Nizar Zuabi wrote the play for his company ShiberHur (the Arabic words mean ‘an inch of freedom’) in order to understand the traditional Palestinian three-day mourning ritual of azza (performed separately by men and women) in preparation for the death of his own father (who in fact died before they started rehearsals).
Six male actors perform the work in simple contemporary clothes on a bare stage with a stack of green plastic chairs. These form the only set apart from a large awning of mesh fabric above the stage that looks like a sunshade. This diffuses the otherworldly green overhead wash that is virtually the only state apart from a few subtle shifts in side lighting (designed by Muaz Jubeh).
Using simple choreography (by Samar Haddad King) the actors rearrange the chairs and themselves between short scenes of dialogue or storytelling that slowly build up a picture of the deceased, his village and his two sons. The scenes are also interspersed and occasionally underscored by passages of a capella singing by the actors (composed by Faraj Suleiman).
The text is performed in Arabic (with English surtitles) but apart from this and the narrative setting, the costumes and set mean that the action onstage could be taking place almost anywhere. This sense of familiarity is heightened by the acting style, which is mostly naturalistic; the emotional behaviour of the men, which is mostly indirect to the point of avoidance; and the core of the story, which concerns two brothers (Amer Hlehel and Henry Andrawes) whose rivalry more or less repeats the story of the prodigal son and other Scriptural forebears. The exception in acting style and behaviour is that of Khalifa Natour, who as well as being one of the mourners also plays a kind of Death-figure who repeatedly emerges from the group and summons people to follow him.
I find myself thinking more and more about this work as time goes by, partly because of its imaginative simplicity. Like Kings of War, it’s an ensemble work about family, but featured at least one outstanding performance for me in Amer Hlehel as the older brother. Even more than Bennelong or Xenos, it’s also deeply personal work, which makes no apparent reference to Palestinian history or politics; but it has a lot to say about both (and much else besides) in its subtle treatment of masculinity, rivalry and what Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’.
Taha is an even more intimate work than Azza, but covers a broader historical and political canvas. A one-man show written and performed by Amer Hlehel (who played the older brother in Azza) – and again directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, it takes the form of a first-person monologue and tells the story of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who left his village for a Lebanese refugee camp with his family during the Israeli bombardment in 1948 when he was 17, but subsequently returned to Nazareth, where he lived until his death.
The set design (by Ashraf Hanna) is almost as minimal as Azza and consists of a yellow square on the floor, a wooden bench and a briefcase. The show is lit once again by Muez Jubeh: no green wash this time, just a subtle but intricate dance of side lighting that follows the actor’s movements up and down, inside and around the edges of the square. The tight staging enforces our sense of the poet’s essential solitude, but also evokes a larger sense of occupied territory and exile.
Unlike Azza, Hlehel delivers the text in English, except for the poems, which are recited in Arabic with English surtitles. This oscillation reflects Taha’s own linguistic sophistication (he taught himself English as part of his self-education), but also a poet’s heightened consciousness of language itself.
I found Hlehel’s performance all the more remarkable for having seen him in Azza the day before. Of necessity, his portrait of Taha is a little more demonstrative – his subtly aged appearance, his anxious body language, his voice a little more projected – as he connects with audience directly and embodies a man who is also a kind of a performer and whose story covers a broad gamut of emotions and moods from joy to sorrow and from comedy to tragedy. For me his great achievement was to have the audience connect with Taha as a vulnerable fellow human being: receiving a letter telling him that the girl he loves and left behind in the refugee camp has married someone else, or getting so nervous before going onstage for his first poetry reading in London that he gets his foot caught in the strap of his briefcase and then can’t find his poems inside it. And finally, there is the poem he reads, about revenge, which ends the show, and reveals so much about exile and solitude, and the difficulty of healing, and of forgiveness.
At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!
But if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set— then I would not kill him, even if I could.
Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school … asking about him
and sending him regards.
But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree— without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbours or friends, colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away. Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.