Two Challenging Monologues by Wajdi Mouawad and Guy Cassiers/Dirk Roofthooft

Iante Gaia Roach  08.07.2013

The second day of the Venice Biennale’s International Theatre Festival was brought to a close by two challenging, diverse monologues. These were Seuls, written, directed and interpreted by Lebanese-Canadian director, playwright and actor Wajdi Mouawad, at the Piccolo Arsenale Theatre, and Sunken Red, directed by Belgian theatre director and playwright Guy Cassiers, and interpreted by Belgian actor, theatre director and artist Dirk Roofthooft, at the Teatro alle Tese. Cassiers and Roofthooft adapted the play from Belgian author Jeroen Browers’ novel of the same name, together with a third collaborator. Both one-man shows displayed brilliant acting, and both broached the theme of parents-children relationships, though in very different ways.

Mouawad, who was born in Lebanon in 1968 to then move to France and successively Canada at the outbreak of the civil war, is widely considered as one of the greatest living francophone authors. He is perhaps most famous for the trilogy Littoral, Incendies, Forêts, which toured the world, with Incendies also being adapted into a feature film by Denis Villeneuve. He created the monologue Seuls for the Festival d’Avignon, where he first performed it in 2008.

The simple, versatile scenography consists of a bed propped against a plywood wall, which becomes in turn a bedroom, a photo booth, a hospital room, a hotel room, and so forth. Mouawad enters the stage directly addressing the audience in French, eliding the fourth wall – which, however, soon sets in: the play is staged in a traditional manner, with the occasional use of multimedia, and some off-stage voices. It tells the story of Harwan, which includes a number of autobiographical elements. The protagonist is a Lebanese PhD student living in exile in Canada due to the civil war. He has an extremely fraught relationship with his father, as well as with his sister and, it would seem, with most others. No mention of the mother occurs throughout the two hour-long show. Harwan’s doctoral thesis verges on the absurd: the field is ‘psychology of the imaginary’, and the subject is the function of paintings in the monologues of Canadian playwright Robert Lepage.

We follow Harwan during a particularly complicated period of his life: the submission of his doctoral thesis is anticipated due to the sudden death of his supervisor, so he starts a mad quest to obtain a last-minute interview with Lepage, even traveling to St Petersburgh to meet him, only to discover that the playwright has been summoned suddenly to the other side of the globe. Meanwhile his father has entered a coma, and their last conversation before the event had ended badly. Harwan’s visits to the father’s bedside afford him the possibility to talk at length about their issues, with much animosity. The show ends with a coup-de-scène: we discover that Harwan is the one to have entered a coma, and thus wonder whether all we have seen previously ever took place outside the protagonist’s imagination. The very final part is entirely silent and sees Mouawad struggling to get out of his lonely coma and painting himself and much of the stage. He also blinds himself, clearly quoting Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, though the connection between characters such as Harwan and Oedipus is not a straightforward one.

The characterization of Harwan is excellent: Mouawad convincingly impersonates a complicated thirty-five year old, who is completely alone, struggles with issues of identity and exile, and does not comprehend his father and sister. Despite his successful studies, he is unhappy with his life. The difficulty of living in a cold climate such as that of Quebec, with minus 20 degrees and long snowy winters, is also raised a number of times. The difficulties experienced by Harwan are particularly cogent at this historical moment, with millions of exiles around the world, and the ongoing plight of Syrians; they are nonetheless universal and can equally apply to ‘non-exiles’. However, since we completely believe in Harwan, whose resentful and unsatisfied personality is difficult to bear, it becomes increasingly aggravating to follow his life on stage, perhaps as intended by the author. This thought-provoking, ironic performance would benefit from a briefer and clearer conclusion.

Mouawad, who gave a workshop in Venice on ‘The Creative Process’ as part of the Biennale College – Theatre for young playwrights, directors, actors, and choreographers, also inaugurated the series of Meetings, the public encounters held by theatre critic Pasquale Porcheddu with the directors of the Biennale’s plays at Ca’ Giustinian” (these are ongoing until Sunday 11th August). Mouawad expressed many fascinating insights on intuition, tragedy, and exile. In his view, all artists are exiles in the contemporary world, addressing unknown audiences, in a system too demanding to allow for artists to know their audiences: “All artists are Jewish, the Temple fell and we have all been in exile ever since”. He also spoke about the importance of narrating the Lebanese civil war for him on a personal level: “It is like oxygen for me, as an exile”, especially as he belongs to a generation of people who were aged 8-25 during the war and thus were deprived of their youth, either by growing up in a country at war, or in exile. “We found ourselves caught in between the generation above us, that of our parents, who only wished to forget the war by never speaking about it and reminding us that it was over, and the younger generations, who have no idea what we are talking about”.

Cassiers, who is widely perceived as one of the most important European theatre directors and playwrights and is currently the artistic director of Toneelhuis, Antwerp’s most prominent theatre, has previously collaborated a number of times with Roofthoft over the length of the last 30 years. The latter has acted in stages all over the world and collaborated with many among the most well-known European and international theatre and opera directors, ranging from Jan Fabre to Peter Sellars, and has often been deeply involved in the creative process of the plays.

Their joint effort Sunken Red is a long, mesmerizing monologue performed in impeccable English on a vast, beautiful stage furnished with a geometric composition of many rectangular water pools on the floor, on which open books are placed, and Venetian blinds at the back, on which live films of Roofthooft’s acting are projected from time to time, usually when he delivers his lines with his back to the stage, or facing the lateral sides of the stage. A smaller screen, at the front of the stage, covers an occasional flickering white light, creating an irritating effect.

The actor, who casually paced the stage while the audience took its seats, and began the show unglamorously, peeling the soles of his feet with a stone, takes the audience on a tour de force, recollecting his childhood memories from a Japanese prison camp in Indonesia during World War II and lamenting his dead mother, also leading us through the numerous unsuccessful love relationships of his adult life. It becomes apparent how the horrors he witnessed and experienced as a child have affected his adulthood, resulting in a very fragile individual. Some parts of the narration are incredibly strong and make use of rather crude descriptions, as when he recounts the punishment received by his mother for stealing some rice for him in the camp, or the trauma he experienced seeing his wife just after childbirth, which indelibly marred his tenderness for her.

Roofthooft’s acting is spellbinding, with his hypnotic voice and its rhythm – though the character is monotonous, his voice never is, as he falters, stammers, and mumbles, letting words and sentences hover in the air, as a similar person would in life. The actor truly manages to metamorphose into this wounded man, in way that happens very rarely in theatre. The monologue however feels rather long, certainly also due to the bleak nature of its subjects. Further text reduction would improve it notably.

Roofthooft, who performs regularly in many languages (Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish), also gave a workshop for actors, dancers and performers, by the title “Words Fluttering Away” as part of the Biennale College – Theatre. During his and Cassiers’ Meeting with Porcheddu, he explained that words can never express more than 15% of what you want to say, and that actors have to find “what it is that language cannot grab, or achieve”. In this sense, he believes that acting in a foreign language can help by providing a further stimulus to an actor’s expressive research, since foreign languages, unlike mother tongues, cannot be taken for granted.

Cassiers instead spoke of his two main reasons for working in theatre, namely to help others understand (a text, an idea), and to learn the process himself by endeavoring to understand the meaning of texts and the different angles from which they may be perceived. They both stressed the importance of their collaborators’ roles throughout the whole creative process, be these musicians, composers, or technicians.

Seul by Wajih Mouawad and Sunken Red by Guy Cassiers. Images courtesy of 42nd International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale and of Biennale College – Theatre.

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