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The Cartographer’s Curse

Photo by Eric Berry

National Theatre of Parramatta and Third Space Productions present THE CARTOGRAPHER’S CURSE, in the Lennox Theatre at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 5 – 8 October.

Paula Abood the Director of this project says in her note in the program:

THE CARTOGRAPHER’S CURSE clears a space for Arab Australians artists, thinkers and performers to create a show that means to decolonise time through a dynamic re-imagining of a subjugated past that has powerfully shaped our shackled presence. As Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi affirms, ‘History is not merely a search for knowledge. It is also a search for understanding;and the house of understanding has many mansions’ (1989).

Unfortunately, this work as revealed to the audience last evening, whilst sounding academically interesting (with elegant design of program cover image) – did not succeed in the struggle from the page to the stage in the theatre, to give the audience much, or any, ‘understanding’. The writing attempts poetry and history, and seems to be trying to reveal the poetics of a culture alongside a history lesson with some sardonic post-modernist asides. The result is a confusion of communication, with the inexpert performances of the actors, a further (enormous) obstacle to clarity.

This script frames a familiar Spielberg/Disney-like soap opera story of a family  – father, daughter, son – that becomes divided by politics and war, within the big-picture of the infamous secret Great Game of the Cartographical division of the Middle East during World War I between Britain and France, that became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

That is, I am supposing, the substance of THE CARTOGRAPHER’S CURSE. That that is not evidently clear in this performance has defeated the whole purpose of this opportunity of showing us ‘the subjugated past’ that has led to the ‘shackled presence’ of Arab history, that is carried as part of the heritage of some of the immigrant families that have come to Australia. Fellow Australians of today.

It is interesting to note that there is no Writer named for this project – a Director, a Dramaturg (Barry Gamba), but no Writer!

Peter Frankcopan, a British historian in his recent book THE SILK ROADS (2015) writes:

In a series of meetings in the second half of 1915 and at the start of 1916, Sir Mark Sykes, an over-confident (British) MP who had the ear of Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, and Francois Georges-Picot, an uppity French diplomat, divvied up the region. A line was agreed by the two men, which stretched from Acre (in the far north that is now Israel) north-eastwards as far as the frontier with Persia. The French would be left to their own devices in Syria and Lebanon, the British to theirs – in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Suez.

Dividing up the spoils in this way was dangerous, especially as the public assurances to the leaders and people of Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, from these European powers, had promised sovereignty and independence – a recognition of their separate national conditions. “It was all bad”, wrote Edward House, President Wilson’s foreign policy adviser, the French and the British are making the Middle East “a breeding place for future war.” The natural assets of these countries were too necessary for the continuation of the European nations ambitions/power, not to want. In 2016, a century later, we are all still enduring the catastrophes set in motion by those politicians/buisness men in the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement was where the “Curse” becomes, in hindsight, indelibly vivid.

Historian, John Man, writes in his book, SALADIN:

During the First World War European powers fought across Muslim lands, and then imposed themselves in a final burst of imperialism – no crusade, but comparable in the exercise of power and influence. From Lawrence of Arabia’s dream of Arab independence sprang kingdoms that were new colonies, under the thumbs of Britain and France and Britain’s protege, Palestine. Islam remained divided, theologically by its sects, strategically by its new borders. No wonder that Arabs hoped for a new resurrection, a new Saladin who would unite all Arabs, perhaps even all Muslims.

All of this is a great and inspiring resource for theatrical resolution. Unfortunately, none of the intelligence or passion of the concept is imparted in this production. The best part of it is the live music played by Mohammd Lelo, on his Qanan, and the supporting historical news film clips that are projected onto the back walls. The performances are all inadequate in terms of the vocal storytelling skills required here – although the Parkour skills of Ali Kadhim are relievedly distracting, if not entirely integrated to the storytelling. The Director, Ms Abood, whilst appearing to be a skilled academic in her Directorial ambitions (quoting Kafka in the program!)  does not appear to have mastered the pragmatically basic staging skills required for the task – beyond that of a novice.

The Directorial choices of the Directorate of the National Theatre of Parramatta, (Paula Abood, Wayne Harrison AM, S. Shakthidharan, Annettte Shun Wah) have been the weak link in all their projects in this inaugural year of the company – SWALLOW, STOLEN. This work, for instance, has been hardly developed beyond that of a first draft workshop state – certainly, it is not ready for an audience, and beyond the natural respect for the concept, effort and courage of this company – the seeds of their ambition – can one give much else to the performers and the performance. One did not leave the theatre enlightened, enhanced, or even entertained. (Has there been a professional mentor, overseeing this project?) There is a germ of an idea here and one that I was excited to see examined by artists from the Arabic-Australian community. It was all, sadly, a tremendous disappointment.


Coincidently, I have had a recent engagement with the circumstances of this history, hence my excitement and my disappointment with THE CARTOGRAPHER’S CURSE.

Might I recommend a good read:

1. Scott Anderson. LAWRENCE IN ARABIA – 2013. Doubleday.

2. Peter Frankopan. THE SILK ROADS – 2015. Bloomsbury.

3. John Man. SALADIN. The Life,The Legend and The Islamic Empire – 2015. Corgi Books.