Sunday, February 27, 2011

PIAF: Aftermath

New York Theatre Workshop
Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Directed by Jessica Blank
Featuring Omar Koury as Fouad, Fajer Al-Kaisi as Shahid, Leila Buck as Basima, Maha Chehlaoui as Fadilah, Ramsey Faragallah as Rafiq, Rufio Lerma as Asad, Ryan Shams as Yassar, Ted Sod as Abdul-Aliyy and Rasha Zamamiri as Naimah.
Octagon Theatre
25 February – 1 March, 2011

An impressive thing happened at the end of Aftermath, Jessica Blank (who also directs) and Erik Jansen’s sombre recounting of the stories of Iraqis displaced by the 2003 invasion of their country and subsequent events.
The warm applause as the actors took their bows seemed to grow into an emotional display of fellow feeling that brought the audience to their feet. I think we were applauding the real people portrayed by the excellent cast and, for that moment at least, for us the actors had become the characters they portrayed. That’s a rare achievement for Blank, Jensen and their company.
The University of WA’s Octagon Theatre isn’t always a great drama venue, but in this case its other life as a lecture hall made the leap from performance to reality even more convincing.  
The other achievement that all verbatim theatre strives for is to make something that couldn’t be better created by documentary filmmakers, with all the resources they can bring to bear to the subject. In this Aftermath also succeeds impressively, in no small part because the spare design by David Lander (lighting), Richard Hoover (stage) and Gabriel Berry (costume) draws us into the reality of the characters and what they have to tell us. 
The actors, who sit or stand on stage throughout the performance, step into the light in couples or separately, sometimes with the translator, sometimes alone, to tell their stories. The effect is simple, stark, honest and convincingly untheatrical. Blank drives this home with the inspired decision to have the actors hold up actual photographs and maps to illustrate their stories. They are far too small for us to see any detail, but the tiny flash of a lost face, or the red slash of blood, is as heartbreaking, and more real, than a projected image on a screen.
There are four million Iraqis refugees worldwide, many living in neighbouring countries like Jordan, where Blank and Jansen recorded these stories. The people we meet – two couples; the cooks Fouad and Naimah; Asad, a theatre director and his wife Fadilah, an artist; Rafiq, a pharmacist; Basima, a wife and mother; Yassar, a dermatologist and Abdul-Aliyy, an imam – are introduced to us by their interpreter Shahid. Some ask if we would like coffee or tea; it is clear we are meeting people for whom ingrained courtesy contests with guarded caution as they greet their American interviewers.
They are of all religions and classes (though most are middle-class professionals), their memories of Saddam’s Iraq those of people who’d learned to successfully navigate the tricky, dangerous but ultimately manageable caprice of dictatorships.
Not all doom and gloom: Shahid (Fajer al Kaisi), Naimah (Rasha Zamamiri) and Fouad (Omar Koury) celebrate an Iraqi goal against the old enemy, Australia
Sometimes their picture of Ba’athist Iraq seemed rosier than we can accept, much like East German ostalgie. But, as Asad explains, it’s a symptom of a national post-traumatic shock: “If everyone has a problem, it’s not a problem – it’s life”.
Reality or not, it all ended when the American bombs began falling, when the streets turned to kill zones, when the police became militia death squads, when justice became a blindfold and a bundled trip to Abu Ghraib. The Saddam jokes Shahid tells become fantasies of a much darker cloth; even the glib, Westernised Yassar recoils when he hears George Bush declare that America will fight “the sons of Al-Qaeda on the soil of Iraq”.
Fear and disbelief soon turn to horror. The imam is imprisoned and tortured, a nephew is gruesomely executed in his home, an explosion wipes out a family and leaves the survivor disfigured and distraught.
Eventually they flee in the face of a simple equation: those who will kill you are your enemies, and in this new Iraq they have no friends. They leave their homes and businesses to looters and profiteers, their loved ones to the earth.

"I thank people for their feelings, but for 
some crimes, apologies are not enough"

Fortunately for our understanding of the enduring legacy of these terrible events, and the price we may yet have to pay for them, Blank and Jansen don’t leave Asad and Naimah, Fadilah and Yassar when they escape across the border. From their exile, they still have questions no one will answer, and a rage whose fires cannot be quenched by platitudes. Rafiq agonises over the murder of his nephew Akram, “I just want to understand. Who is the criminal? Who is the suspect? Who is the judge? Who is executing the case?” But Abdul-Aliyy goes an important, ominous stage further: “I thank people for their feelings, but for some crimes, apologies are not enough.”
Aftermath is unsettling and purposeful theatre, with messages we would be unwise to ignore. Other Perth festival shows will attract bigger audiences, but none are better crafted, or offer more rewards to those who visit. 

The West's Robin Pascoe was similarly impressed with Aftermath link here.  

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