The Theatre of Everyday Events: Muhaned Al Hadi’s Theatre
von Rolf C. Hemke, Muhaned Al Hadi und Ahmed Sharghi Al Zaydi
Erschienen in: Recherchen 104: Theater im arabischen Sprachraum – Theatre in the Arab World (12/2013)
Over the past few years, no Iraqi theatre experience has attracted as much attention and stirred as much controversy as that of director Muhaned Al Hadi. His experience forms an important twist in the more recent journey of Iraqi theatre, which had been afflicted by flaccidity and repetition in its themes and methods of expression. What the wars had etched into the collective memory of the Iraqi individual meant that most theatre productions were characterised by blood in the realest sense of the word: memories of war, violent, harsh language and visuals. The soldier was a common element of most plays, the theme of war reflected in the linguistic discourse. And so it was that Muhaned Al Hadi became influenced by experiences he received outside Iraq. In 2002 he traveled to Beirut, still an actor at the time, where he grappled with Lebanese theatre. After attending several intense workshops, he started working as a director in Beirut and co-directed a play there with Lebanese director, Pauline Haddad. After the fall of the Ba‘ath regime, Muhaned returned to Iraq hoping for a change in terms of presentation within Iraqi theatre, but he was to be disappointed. Iraqi theatre-makers continued to glorify political symbols and had added, unfortunately, religious symbols on top.
“I became convinced during that period,” says Muhaned today, “that Iraqi theatre would not renew itself unless it gave expression to the opinion of ordinary Iraqis, the only losers amongst all the official bickering. But I was not able to implement my vision of a theatre of the marginalised Iraqi street whilst I was in that country, which was starting to show the first signs of a sectarian war.”
In 2004 he moved to Syria, where he worked as a screenwriter and director for a TV advertising agency. But theatre kept him awake at night, and he convinced his manager to produce a stage play for children. The play met with a positive response. Muhaned’s theatrical vision matured in Damascus. Muhaned arranged his first production in Syria, The Square by Marguerite Duras, which was produced by the French Cultural Center in Damascus. He continued to earn his life as an executive director for some TV dramas without yielding to the material temptations of TV work.
Muhaned Al Hadi’s next theatre experiment was The Curfew. He wrote the play himself in a colloquial Iraqi dialect, using it to convey the worries of the ordinary Iraqi represented by the two main characters — the shoe-shiner and the car-washer — whose lives were massively influenced by the American occupation. This play was seen by many theatre critics and other theatre makers as a renewal, since it came from the everyday life of Iraq, from its political, social, and economic circumstances. Thus you can call it ‘theatre of the everyday’. Al Hadi created a theatrical experiment that records reflections of political change in Iraq, compiles scattered scenes from the street / society and turns them into cultural and — in terms of dialect — linguistic symbols. Everything on stage is a symbol, as Jan Mukarřovský noted. For Muhaned Al Hadi, the sort of simple, everyday conversation circulating on pavements or in cafés becomes the topic of a play. In Camp, everyday conversations picked up from the streets of neighbouring countries about applying for asylum at the High Commission are placed on stage. An ordinary conversation that causes major unease amongst the audience as the stage design consists of various doors, behind which Iraqis are constantly seeking refuge, as if they were the doors to heaven that should be opened. Doors that offer false hope and lead into labyrinths, behind which the refugees become a number in a file that is kept inside a cabinet behind those doors.
In his productions, Al Hadi creates a body of diverse and thematically-unconventional work that, in terms of its deep penetration of the Iraqi personality and behaviour, takes on an almost ethnological character. In Hot Spot he was not very kind to his characters who, following a car bomb explosion, find themselves in the realm of the dead reading about their own deaths in the newspaper. Muhaned Al Hadi reveals to us his elevated sense of irony and sarcastic consideration of the wasted, banal deaths on Iraqi streets. This theatre of the everyday is a provocative experiment, both in terms of the text — Al Hadi is the author of all his plays — as well as in terms of staging. Of particular importance is his search for new possibilities in terms of stage design that enable him to maintain the dynamics of the performance despite large stage elements.
In all his theatre works, Muhaned works with large stage elements that completely dominate the stage: in The Curfew it is the wall, in Camp it is the doors, and in Hot Spot it is the black walls and backdrop. They are combined with a yellowish-white lighting that makes the props and actors look as if they’ve been hewn from stone.
Although these huge stage elements inevitably limit the flow of movement, they are nevertheless of great importance for getting the concept of the play across, and within the texture of the performance, they are in fact more important than the actors. These staging elements create a focus for the visual references of the play. There are mobile elements that can turn into various symbols according to the director’s intentions. The walls in Hot Spot, for example, represent the structure of Iraqi society — concrete walls in a post-2003 Iraq that first choke the city, then the citizens. They are the most versatile element of the production. In a highly-professional manner, Al Hadi uses the movement of the cinematic extracts to present an aesthetically-demanding and flowing transition from the modern world of the city to the netherworld of the realm of the dead, incorporating the actor into the scene. Once again this reveals the particular importance of these large stage elements in contrast to the role of the actor who lives amongst them.
In The Curfew, we find ourselves in front of a large wall with windows. Here too the director uses a cinematic style: we see the actor’s head through the top window and his feet through the bottom one, so that the dimensions of his body span the height of the wall and make him appear to be a being from another world — a character, whose body is as extended as its dreams. Sometimes the wall turns into a house with many windows, and sometimes into a wall separating the characters from their own lives, the end of which — by means of a car bomb — they await in a lively street. Thus, the large blocks function to convey meaning. They are political signs in a play that is aesthetically and intellectually provocative.
In the play Camp, the walls have turned into doors and in the middle is a large window that turns into a television screen on which we watch our heap of human detritus, our worries and our breathlessness as we flee the land of loss. The doors form the focal point for the characters in their repetitive positioning between movement and torpidity, as though we were standing before the monotonous inactive lives of different individuals in a society.
“I think that the personal circumstances I was confronted with had a direct influence on my theatre work,” says Muhaned Al Hadi today. “The conceptual movement between genres — from theatre to television and back — my constant back and forth between the war that Iraq experienced for all that time, and the peace I found in Syria, between the concerns for my theatre projects and the constant concern for my own personal safety and that of my family. This changes both man and artist.”
In all of his plays, what matters for Muhaned is the Iraqi as human being, or simply all human beings, regardless of where they come from. Muhaned’s theatre is not very different from the life he lives and his life is frequently like his theatre. It contains bitter irony and sarcasm, and it contains the hope of new beginnings in other places. In the words of Milan Kundera, ‘Life is Elsewhere.’
Death in Muhanned’s theatre is a result of the life he lives. At the time of writing, the latest of these events was the bombing of his home in Damascus. Muhaned Al Hadi has withdrawn to Baghdad, along with his books and his family, with whom he fled death. Maybe he is even now preoccupied with a new play that will tell the story of the destruction of his second homeland, Syria.
Translation from Arabic: David Kreuer