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Photo by Heidrun Lohr


SCORCHED by Wajdi Mouawad translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau. This is a Company B production at Belvoir St Theatre.

I read this play maybe nine months ago. It is so beautiful to read (in this magnificent translation). I shall quote some excerpts…

“I have a baby in my belly. Wahab! My belly is full of you. My belly is full of you. You see? Isn’t it amazing? It’s magnificent and horrible, isn’t it? It’s an abyss. And it’s like freedom to wild birds, isn’t it? And there are no more words. Just the wind! I have a child in my belly. When I heard Elhame tell me, an ocean exploded in my head. Seared.”

Some more :

“I’m leaving, Nawal. It’s all over for me, soon I will reach the light, but for you, it’s just beginning….. We…. our family, the women in our family…… are caught in the web of anger. We have been for ages: I was angry at my mother, and your mother is angry with me, just as you are angry at your mother. And your legacy to your daughter will be anger too. We have to break the thread. So learn to read, learn to write, learn to count, learn to speak. Learn. Then leave. You will hear my voice telling you: ‘Leave Nawal, leave! Take your youth and any possible happiness and leave the village.’ You are the bloom of this valley, Nawal. You are its sensuality and its smell. Take them with you and tear yourself away from here, the way we tear ourselves from our mother’s womb. Learn to read, write, count, and speak. Learn to think. Nawal. Learn.”

And more:

“We are at the beginning of the hundred years war. At the beginning of the last war in the world. I’m telling you, Sawada, our generation is an ‘interesting’ generation. Seen from above, it must be very instructive to see us struggling to name what is barbarous and what isn’t. Yes. Very ‘interesting’. A generation raised on shame. Really. At the crossroads. We think, this war will only end with the end of time. But people don’t realise, if we don’t find a solution to these massacres immediately, we never will.”

The translation of this text is expressed in such simple but beautiful words. The language of these connected, sentenced words is so simply poetic that one longs to either feel the shape of those words in ones own mouth or to have ones ears caressed by them, because they evoke such rich imagery and deep remembered feelings, a viscerally sensuous experience is promised. The resonances of living are over powering in this text.

Then, when layered within the savage world of the play the tension between those two realities, the poetic text and the world of the play, is so exquisite that to experience it could be one of the great humbling human experiences, that makes you grateful to have been lucky enough to have read it or heard it. I had some expectation of this when attending the performance at Belvoir St.

Wajdi Mouawad is of Lebanese Christian Maronite origin but is now a French Canadian. The play was written in French and translated into English for the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. The Greeks, through there surviving dramatic literature (and much else) have been attempting to tell us humans how to live well, for thousands of years. We have ignored them. In this play the Oedipus Rex story and the great cycle of The Oresteia weave their way through my consciousness. Myth and Instruction threaded into our times and place.

The Design: Set by Stephen Curtis, Lighting by Nigel Levings combined with astonishingly appropriate and beautiful costumes (Anna Borghesi) (most beautiful because of their appropriateness) set the mood for Epic. It felt tremendous as we began and it conjured up the images of my quarry experience of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata in Adelaide years ago and led me to a vast and shimmering world of possibilities. (The Mahabharata with red carpets on a desert floor; Scorched with a ghost coloured sandy desert floor on top of a red and off white mosaic patterned floor) The actors entered as a company with gracious authority and sat down on one side of the walled space. And Brian Lipson playing our guide to the story, Alphonse Lebel, began.

The Director, Neil Armfield in his notes talks about the experience of rehearsing this play at day thirteen, with thirteen (working) days to go. “At times the intensity of the play’s emotional demands has the ability to overtake and overwhelm the actors. I assume we will move beyond that stage but I don’t really know, and maybe that liability is a crucial part of the play’s danger, it’s challenge.” How prophetic. On the performance I saw several of the actors were clearly overtaken and overwhelmed by the emotions of the story and failed the challenge relatively. Yael Stone as one of a set of twins, Janine, was in such a heightened state of nervous anxiety that physical tension prevented an audience sympathy. Vocally the telegraphed emotional states caused the sentences into generalised abstractions of sound instead of clear words and language. Emotional state, no clear storytelling. This was more profoundly clear as Ashley Lyons playing the other twin, Simon,played in almost every scene with her with such understated but clear physical and vocal expression that we were able to endow the fears, horror of the questors, on their Oedipal journey, on him. (The scene towards the end of the play when the origin of their paternity is revealed, is a case in point. Scene 35. The voice of ancient times. Ms Stone in full stretched demonstration of tension collapsed downwards with the horror of it as if she had been physically assaulted, melodramatically. In contrast Mr Jones in restrained but focused concentration heard the news and simply held his breath. (What a breath was held.) The imaginative sympathy that I could endow him with over took and overwhelmed me. I had a catharsis of grief and terror of the Old Testament type and was not simply asked to watch someone else have it. Gillian Jones (with microphoned assistance) also appeared to be overwhelmed by her material and the last beautifully written letters that reveal the climactic truths became a series of halting, hesitant gasps of thought that expressed a feeling of sentimentality instead of deeply felt clear headed expressions of love and forgiveness. The language should be the primary means of telling not emotions. The letters are gestures that should be reminiscent of the Mandela example in South Africa. Of such unbelievable modest human greatness that one must consider ones own behaviour. We are “at the crossroads. We think this war will only end with the end of time. But people don’t realise, if we don’t find a solution to these massacres immediately, we never will.” At the performance I attended sentimental mood not text is what I received with these vital letters.

On the other hand the crystalline accuracy of emotion, thought and articulation of the text by Paula Arundell delivered with laser like focus of detail at speed was breathtakingly magnificent. Moving to the point of petrification. Here was a craftsman honouring the possibilities and all the demands of this extraordinary play. Zindzi Okenyo was attempting to follow her example and did well. But even more remarkable was Ms Arundell’s attention to the play. As an observer on the side wall her empathetic concentration draws us to her when we are lost by the other actors sometimes bewildering offers, she through default became the principal source of energy in any scene and guided us back to the narrative. Special attention must be given to Brian Lipson’s performance. Playing our “guide”, Alphonse Lebel, his text was a necessary clown to the journey. Just as rich in it’s poetry but punctured with wit, malapropisms. “Between the devil and the Blue Danube.” “There is a train at the end of the tunnel.” Mr Lipson’s handling of the humour and the created character is mercurial, subtle, dignified and delightfully (relievedly) human. I also enjoyed the work of Adam Hatzimanolis, his quite dignity and understated sense of tragedy.

This is a wonderful attempt at what I think is a great contemporary play. Whether the company ran out of time or not, and there are problems that need more clarity, such as scene 31. The man who plays. (Plays at killing or at photography.) It is, on reading the play, both such a powerful metaphor for the human challenge of choice in the way we can live our lives (crudely: a pursuit of beauty versus pursuit of violence) and also an integral introduction to the horrors of the plays penultimate revelations, that the way it is performed or staged at the moment it seems to rushed to have the proper impact and set up. Neil Armfield says in his notes by the time we read the program “it (the production) will, hopefully, have reached some meaningful form.” It almost has.

In the final moments of the play Janine and Simon listen to their mother’s silence. A great classical scholar Richard Beacham says of The Oresteia. It is “a triumph of hope over despair, reason over superstition, and justice over brutality.” This could be said of SCORCHED. Today (July 31st, 2008) “The Bosnian Serb wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, will make his first appearance before the United Nations Yugoslav war crimes court to enter a plea on genocide charges at The Hague.” The final direction from the writer after listening to the silence of the mother is a cue for: Torrential rain. Sadly this did not happen in the Belvoir production.

Playing now until 7 September upstairs at Belvoir St Theatre.
Bookings online or call 02 9699 3444.

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