MIAF: Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées) ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

MIAF: Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)

Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées): Part One - Le Fleuve cruel (The Cruel River) and Part Two - Origines et Destins (Origins and Destinies), devised by the company, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, music by Jean-Jacques Lemêtre. Théâtre de Soleil, Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens.

17th October 2005

Dear Ariane

I hope you will forgive me for addressing you so familiarly, since I have never met you. Writing a letter seems, perhaps not so strangely, the only fit way to address Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées). I saw both parts in one long and dizzying Sunday and it makes me want to say many things that you must already know. Principally, I wish to say that I witnessed something beautiful, a work of theatre that left me moved and shaken.

But this is already inadequate. Beauty is so often taken to mean the anodyne, the conventional; to be moved suggests a surfeit of sentiment. The work of your company is so far from the anodyne and sentimental, the deadliness of the worthy, that in writing about it I fear misrepresenting the breathtaking honesty and directness of its aesthetic.

The Odyssées began with a letter from you to Nadereh, one of the asylum seekers whom you interviewed for the work. It was projected across the back of the stage, like much of the spoken text, in a cursive script. It was a powerful preface: not only because of the letter itself which, pregnant though it was with unspoken stories of loss, was like many other letters - how are you? how are our friends? have you heard? It was also because the lights dimmed so slowly across the empty stage, introducing the play with a gentle limpidity that was heightened by the vast and lonely poignancy of Jean-Jacques Lemêtre's introductory music.

When the second part finished, I found that for the previous three hours I had been sitting next to Nadereh herself. She had been watching, among other things, events that had happened in her own life. I would have loved to have asked her what she felt, but sadly, she speaks no English, and I do not speak her language. Her presence reinforced what your letter had already made clear: that your company was dealing with what we call so easily "real life".

Your letter to Nadereh signalled both an intention and a refusal. The intention was to expose the genesis of this work, the reality of the people whose stories were turned into this work of theatre by you and your company. The refusal was of the betrayal of art, which so easily exploits the suffering of others to make a beautiful object that is nothing more than a plaything of the privileged. There are many cheap criticisms that might be made of this - isn't it, for example, hypocritical to speak of the poor in this expensive artform? - but the achievement of Le Dernier Caravansérail is its own answer.

Yes, this artfulness, this beautiful illusion and play that is theatre, can serve without dishonour something as humble and profound as human longing. You do not have the hubris to think that your play will change the world. A little bit, perhaps; an illumination here, a heartening of courage there. Art's work is not the same as that of the politician's, and you understand very well the limits of its power. And you love those limitations, also, as its strengths and freedoms.

Your importation of the whole Théâtre du Soleil into the Royal Exhibition Building - not only the set, but the bleachers, the actor's changing room, the dining tables where people could sit down and eat the food prepared there, the intimate lighting - prepared me for the experience of the play. As I walked up the stairs to my seat, I could peer down at the actors as they prepared for their performance. In between the shows, I saw them eating together outside in the sunshine. I could stare at the instruments in the sound area next to the stage - the various drums, the huge string instrument made of a turtle shell, the gong, the sound decks, the lovely wooden violin shapes hanging from a rack at the back. Before the play even started, the barriers between the theatre and those who came to watch it were already unstable and permeable.

In a way, I don't know how to talk about the work. It is not enough to say it was beautiful, as I have said; I don't wish to speak of it as if it were merely some aesthetic object, although a superb aesthetic judgment informed its every aspect. As everyone knows, it is about the dispossessed, those driven out of their homelands by war or persecution or poverty to seek a decent life somewhere else, and how they are treated by the countries they ask for help.

It was the stories of these "voyagers" which you and your company collected and shaped into this work of art. They are the stories of human beings in exile - Kurds, Afghanis, Russians, Chechnyans, Bosnians, Africans... there are so many wars, after all, and so many famines of different kinds. And you know that as well as being full of grief and love and generosity, human beings can be murderous, cruel, weak, ignorant and stupid. That they might be cruel or stupid doesn't mean that they might not be also victims of forces beyond their control. We still hold an idea of victimhood as entitlement, which is linked to the "deserving poor", the dichotomies of good and evil. But a person might be wicked, and still suffer.

It seemed to me that you made a whole world, and invited me to be part of it. From the beginning, I was aware of the sky, of the weather, of the elements: earth, water, light. And the very first story you tell is of a river crossing. The river is invoked by huge lengths of blue-grey silk that actors by the side billow frantically, the way you make the sea on stage when you are at primary school. But I believed this terrifying river. I understood when the ferryman refused to take the people across, understood their desperation when they argued with him and tried to cross despite the danger; I gasped when the ferryman fell in the water and wished frantically for him to be rescued... It is the simplest magic, made with the greatest degree of sophistication imaginable.

All the performers, all the little sets, even the trees, were on platforms with wheels. They were pushed on and off the huge stage by the other performers, who watched the actors, as we did, as they crouched by the platforms. It meant, among other things, that the actors could be at once still and in motion. The stage was always live: between scenes, people ran from one side to another, or pushed the props in readiness for the next scene. And as story followed story, the constant movement created an increasing sense of ephemerality and transience; against the blankness of sky and earth, these stories left no trace, save their resonances in those who heard them.

Many scenes occurred in small interiors, illuminated boxes wheeled from behind the curtains at the back of the stage. We peered through the lighted windows like voyeurs. And what we overheard were fragments, said in many languages: a nurse upbraiding a man for not looking after his his leg, from which his foot had been amputated; an old woman remembering her grandchildren when they were little; the people smuggler speaking to his small son, who barely remembers him, on his mobile phone; an asylum seeker struggling violently and being brutally subdued as she is deported on a plane.

Some American critics - Robert Brustein, for example - claimed that this was theatre as martyrdom, intended to make you feel "not just emotionally responsible for man's universal inhumanity to man, but physically uncomfortable as well". And he castigated you for not working with a writer, as you have previously with Hélène Cixous, who would have shaped it into a proper "drama".

Mr Brustein is an intelligent man, but he seems to have grievously missed the point. You exposed the working of the theatre, to show that there were here no "tricks". And in the texts you used, you chose not to misrepresent the messiness and fragmentariness of the lives you portrayed by imposing upon them a false unity. The secret corners of life itself, its always unfinished stories, its fractures, its contradictions, its mundanities, its cruelties and beauties, opened up inside us their own truthfulness. I think that this is the reason for the work's overwhelming emotional impact.

Le Dernier Caravansérail makes you understand the profound importance of simplicities: things like shelter and food and love, the fragile stays that people make against the indifferences of the world they inhabit. As is very clear, it is not only the natural elements that are cruel. The voyagers have fled their homes - and who would leave their home voluntarily? - because they have lost hope of finding there the possibility of a decent life. Yet everywhere they go, they are non-citizens, people without a place, whose voices are not heard and not wanted. They are often, as here in Australia, herded into camps or prisons, deterritoralised places of exception, in which they exist outside the juridical space of legitimate citizenry. They are treated like criminals, and yet they have done nothing wrong except to ask for help.

With the new Terrorism Laws now all over the newspapers, it can't but occur to me that the space of the camp is growing all the time, that this state of exception is becoming the normal pulse of our times. Even in our democracies, for which we are sacrificing so much to protect, we could soon all potentially inhabit this space outside the law, where the State might do anything to us with impunity. If the natural justice of mercy can be withheld from any other human being, it can be withheld from us as well.

This is only to say the obvious, and to suggest that the work has a moralising effect that it does not, in fact, possess. Its politics exist outside the gross generalisations of power as understood, for example, in the public world of the mass media, reaching instead into the intimate and complex space of our own lives. It is here that we can understand longing and desire, love and hatred, hope and betrayal and despair. And it is from this place that we can begin to demand the freedoms that might make us whole, that allow us to live our lives to their potential fullness. For all of us must have this right.

You say that the theatre is part of the world, and that when it doesn't cut itself off from the world, it is "one of those places that can make the world better, like an orange grove makes the world better". You have no illusion about the importance of art: in the face of real loss, real grief, real atrocity, art can offer only its humility. It has no power against manifest injustice: it can express the intolerable, but it cannot solve it. This does not, however, make it a waste of time. As John Berger says, "The naming of the intolerable is itself the hope." But, perhaps most movingly, you do not only show what is intolerable: you also name the things that make life worth living. Companionship. Laughter. Wine. Beauty. Love.

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