Reprise: Know No Cure ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Reprise: Know No Cure

Apropos of a discussion of Adam Broinwoski's Know No Cure in the review and comments of Hotel Obsino, Age writer Maher Mughrabi sent me a response to the Theatreworks production that he wrote at the time, and which remains unpublished. As it gives a very interesting slant on a controversial production that I didn't see, and picks up on some of the aspects of the play's language that most interested me, I think it's worth a splash here. Read on for Maher's take:

An appeal to me in this fiendish row – is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced. 1

IN THE car on our way to St Kilda to see this play, my wife and I listened to a news item about a corporation called Dia-B Tech which had “discovered” a treatment for diabetes and obesity. The source was a plant that grows in Tonga and “traditional knowledge”. The use of this plant for medicinal purposes by generations of islanders was acknowledged in Dia-B Tech’s press releases, but they weren’t willing to name it until they could complete the patent process.

An academic suggested that the company owed it to Tonga and its people to share some of the financial benefits from this “discovery”, that there should be a “re-negotiation” with the communities that had provided the knowledge.

Since we’re unlikely to be granted a seat at that meeting, if indeed it ever occurs, Adam Broinowski’s Know No Cure offers a compelling alternative view of such talks. Like most meetings, it is slow to get going, but by the end it has a rhythm, an inner life – and death – all of its own.

The play is a negotiation between two actors, each charged with a multitude of roles. Matt Crosby is by turns the Lonely Planet tourist in search of his own personal Shangri-La, the multinational boss on the make and the colonist mapping out an undiscovered world which he hopes might give his own wanderings meaning. At the same time he is drugged up, liquored up and ruptured, a wide-eyed doomsday merchant but still unable to take that last step into the unknown.

His counterpart, played by Majid Shokor, is the native agent, the local guide, passport control and the exotic temptress (veil or no veil, your choice). He is the one-time inhabitant of a jungle, a swamp or a desert in the land where Crosby’s jet-engined magic carpet touches down. He dreams of being a “lazy, lazy fisherman” and sitting in the river again, until he is rudely reminded by his new employer/customer/governor that he doesn’t even remember how his forefathers fished and anyway, that river has long since become a waste valve for some “vigorous, dynamic” enterprise.

How much of this and other exchanges you actually pick up over the course of an hour and a half will depend largely on your ability to absorb jargon of all kinds – medical and military, economic and advertising. This language is all around us, but Broinowski must be listening to and reading it very carefully, since he writes largely in its cadences and phrases. It is a language that, despite its blandishments and all the unpleasant things it tidies up for our viewing, most people find either offputting or bewildering in such concentrated doses, which is a shame because apart from the odd bum note here and there, which may be as much the pressure of delivery on the actors as the writing, there’s a hell of a lot of meaning squeezed into these lines.

“Where are you from?” the passport officer asks. “Remote,” replies our intrepid adventurer, suggesting at once distance and control. “I am a civil engineer,” he says later, defending himself against the charge of plundering resources. “Your civil is member-exclusive,” the native accuses. “My civil is legitimate,” the engineer parries, before snapping under the close questioning: “I COME WITH NO MALICE!”

To come without malice, however, is not the same as coming in peace, or with love. At various points in the play, Crosby and Shokor’s relationship – their episodes of contact – are those not of explorer and indigene but of lovers, or even husband and wife. Arguments, silences, billing and cooing in German and Arabic, the public and private faces of coupledom, all lead us back to the same point on the map: the terra incognita at the heart of our dealings with every other human being. “You’re holding out on me,” Crosby rails. “You’re holding on to me,” Shokor replies, shaking free.

It is this fabled hold-out that Crosby’s explorer, his businessman, his secret agent needs to penetrate. “Can you take me to the interior?” he asks again and again. “No visa,” Shokor’s insider, all sunglasses and slicked-back hair, assures him at first. “The jungle is air-conditioned, mosquito-free.”

But what will the explorer bring to that place? And what will that mean for his faithful Man Friday? Both men begin to wonder, and to doubt. In the first sequence of the play, we are asked the question from a surgical perspective: how can we be sure that the foreign body will accept or reject a transplant? For me, this segment, with Crosby and Shokor in white coats and hairnets, hung at a rather awkward angle to the rest of the play, though its meaning eventually became clearer.

Transplant procedures are governed by the codes and practicalities of medicine, but the codes that govern sojourns in foreign lands are altogether less predictable, as the Bali Nine or the three Australians held in the United Arab Emirates for their alleged drunken misbehaviour on board an international flight attest. “I pride myself on being universal,” Crosby proclaims. But we do not yet live in a “borderless Babylon”, and there are still boundaries one can cross – and transgress.

For Shokor’s tourist guide, it turns out that the opposite of malice is not love but . . . golf, a sport of the universal jet set, in which the grass is as green in the desert of Dubai as it is in St Andrews or Augusta, Georgia. “Hate is a four-letter word,” the guide insists. “So is golf,” the tourist reminds him.

It takes a lot of water to maintain a golf course in a desert, a lot of air conditioning to keep the superstars of the PGA tour in the comfort to which they’ve become accustomed. It is this cost that begins to erode the native’s certainty, to make him wonder if he can even find the interior anymore, and what will be left of it if he does. He has become a stranger in his own land, a half-man who reminds us of the African fireman on Marlow’s boat in Heart of Darkness as it steams down the Congo:

. . . upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat . . . A few months of training had done for that really fine chap . . . he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge . . . neither that fireman nor I had any time to peer into our creepy thoughts.2

Broinowski and his actors do plenty of peering, at footage of windswept refugees, rivers of rush-hour traffic, burned and blighted forests and endangered species. Shokor’s native, like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, begins to wonder if he is not already a “living fossil”, as Crosby dubs him, someone who can never connect with the prayers and daily life of his own father. Broinowski coins the word “endohistory”, which means internal history but also reminds us of the “end of history”, the universal triumph of free-market liberalism predicted by Francis Fukuyama in the 1990s. Has the latter been substituted for the former, or must the former “betray” the latter to survive?

These are questions which today have their pivot not in the scramble for Africa but the war for the Middle East. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, recently returned to office as the country’s defence minister, once warned his countrymen that they live in “a villa surrounded by a jungle”. But what does it mean to talk about a jungle here? And whose jungle is it, anyway?

Sitting in the theatre, my mind spun back to the time of the millennium, when I was in London to meet a fellow Palestinian. At one Tube station I caught sight of Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock. It was a poster of the Israeli Tourism Ministry. “In the land where the first millennium began . . .” it read, with a silhouette picture of fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, “. . . The dome has already been built.”

For a moment, the cheeky reference to London’s troubled Millennium Dome distracted me from the use of a sacred Muslim site in occupied territory to entice holidaymakers to the Jewish state. Then I felt it, all at once: anger, humiliation, the irretrievable loss of my own past, powerlessness to remove the advert and what it stood for in the present.

The publicity for Broinowski’s play mentions that it was written in “the countdown to September 11”, a countdown few indeed can claim to have heard. Yet I wondered if Broinowski, or anyone in his audience, knew the story of September 11 terrorist Mohammed Atta’s return to Cairo in 1995. Atta had won a German grant to study plans to convert the capital’s old “Islamic city” into a tourist complex:

The government planned to “restore” the area by removing many of the people who lived there . . . repairing the old buildings and bringing in troupes of actors to play the real people they would displace. Bodenstein (a fellow student) described what happened: “We had a very critical discussion with the municipality. They didn’t understand our concerns. They wanted to do their work, dress people in costumes. They thought it was a good idea and couldn’t imagine why we would object.”

It was Atta’s first professional contact with the Egyptian bureaucracy and it distressed him, Bodenstein said. 3

To say that this episode alone might explain what followed is absurd. Yet there is a series of encounters and power relations at work in this story, and that of Dia-B Tech and the Tongan healers, or those tourists taken to specially enclosed African reserves to hunt big game provided for the purpose, that Broinowski clearly has an ear for. Safari itself is a Swahili word that comes from the Arabic word for travel. The two players bring such journeys to life in startling, moving and amusing fashion, giving us a sense of what is at stake and the dangers into which we venture. As Shokor tells Crosby, with a smile fresh from a brochure: “Choose your clubs carefully.”

Maher Mughrabi
July 2007

1 Marlow floating down the Thames narrates his memories of floating down the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Penguin, 1995), p. 63.
2 Heart of Darkness, p. 64.
3 Terry McDermott, “A Perfect Soldier”, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2002, cited in Gilbert Achcar’s The Clash of Barbarisms: Sept 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (Monthly Review Press, 2002), p. 55.


Anonymous said...

this response, to something I haven't seen, makes me glad I didn't, and thankful there is a little arrow on my keyboard with which I can skip down and away from this mass of words which makes me glad there is I the only one who thinks that James Joyce novel 'Ulysses' is not in fact "the greatest novel of the 20th century"?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - human nature sure is fascinating. That little keyboard arrow does rather make me wonder why you feel obliged to make such an emptily narky comment, when it is so much easier just to skip to any of zillions of idea-free zones at your fingertips. I'm not sure what Joyce has to do with anything, but he needs no defending from me.

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