By CH Loh
The Wall: Breaking point
Representing the concrete wall being built to fence off the West Bank from the rest of Israel are seven huge grey vertical panels on the stage at the Drama Centre, Singapore. These panels dwarf the seven characters whose lives revolve around the towering slabs. But just when their misery reaches breaking point, everyone disappears. And as Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” pours out onto the empty stage, these panels, which represent the conflict and the suffering, begin to dance. It’s brilliantly funny.
Good humour and plenty of sharp wit is what made the play by Ramallah-based company Al Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque entitled, simply, The Wall, one of the most compelling productions to grace the Singapore Arts Festival 2006.
The imposing monoliths that form the only backdrop represent the topic-du-jour in the ongoing drama of political follies that have plagued the Palestinian and Israeli people alike. Perhaps parallels with the wall that Hitler built to fence in the Jewish ghetto is lost on the Israeli government, but the impact of this structural monstrosity is not lost on the people whose lives are directly spliced by the imposing barrier into as many pieces as life’s troubles take, as illustrated by Palestinian director George Ibrahim in his latest satire.
Ibrahim, with his talented cast of seven actors, wages his artistic intifada on this surreal political development by weaving together a series of short, sharp witted tableaux around characters who run the gamut of ordinary folk, amongst them a father with secret dreams of a career in theatre, a self-taught teacher, a hardy entrepreneur with her own tailoring business, a stable hand tending to a winning horse, a young man experiencing his first taste of love, an old man pining for his wife who has ended up on the wrong side of the wall, and so on.
Each character has his or her own charm — and each endearingly played by the wonderful ensemble cast — but I felt most deeply for the resilient woman who sees her tailoring business space gradually shrinking, from shop to stall to hand basket. “I always figure it out somehow,” she declares confidently even as the world collapses around her. It was painfully funny and cleverly told, and a powerful sense of tragedy descended like a final curtain when her “never-say-die” attitude and iron will is eventually crushed, suffocated by the wall. “Take the stall, I hate the stall!” she cries bitterly, and Ibrahim’s sardonic tragicomedy hit harder at the gut than a sniper bullet.
The Wall is a wonderful tapestry of simple little sketches depicting the simple hopes and aspirations of its characters who have little sense of what is going on about them apart from their daily concerns — to spend time with a loved one, to eke a living, to live a dream — brilliantly told through folk-like play, song and dance and classic soliloquy, its sabre-sharp satire subtly colouring the deceptively modest material, sometimes rising to an uproarious pitch of absurdity as in the Little Red Riding Hood skit (Red is a young Palestinian girl who dodges the Big Bad Wolf, i.e. Israeli Solider, in attempt to visit her grandmother) then nose-diving into the sublime: a father who is killed in crossfire finds dilemma even in death — a sort of “nak hidup pun susah, nak mati pun susah,” that brilliantly ushers in the climactic recital of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” by his corpse.
I was expecting a lot of breast-beating about the topic but The Wall turned out to be filled with human dignity, and cried out for the same for its victims. And around the main theme Ibrahim also found time to question the role of women in Palestinian society, and pose the question that every aspiring suicide bomber should contemplate — is death really preferable to life?
Jeruselam Dreaming: Wounded soul
Clambering over the wall to the other side of the great divide, the Singapore Arts Festival cleverly brought in the other side of the story, where a deeply spiritual people also long for the very same things in life — love and a connection with God — told through the bizarre vocal antics of the stunning and wonderfully weird Victoria Hanna and her concept work Jerusalem Dreaming.
It’s the sort of perspective that we Malaysians badly need — but will sadly never get. Perhaps it’s too inconvenient to have to think of the people east of the wall as people, as human beings, rather than “the oppressor”, the mask of the bogeyman purposefully ensuring a common demon at whom to cast stones, rather than individuals of flesh and blood who love, desire, yearn, hope and feel. After all, it is far more difficult to hate a real person, one who loves music, like we do, one who plays cricket, like we do… One has to be carefully taught, and then systematically shielded from reality, to be able to perpetuate an irrational hatred of a community with whom we have never had any contact, and whom our passports explicitly ensure we never will.
Watching Victoria Hanna was certainly a liberating experience for me, and I would recommend it to every Malaysian before they spit at her national flag. First of all it was the language, which bears some textural similarity to Arabic, the latter sensual, the former more rhythmic. Then it was the music, which seemed to flow forth naturally from the depths of the wounded soul. And Hanna’s sense of humour, her wit, and above all, her reverence for her religion tempered by a total artistic freedom and liberty with the traditional scriptural material, which was most enlightening of all.
Hanna, more a vocal artist (acrobat?) than a “normal” singer, challenged audiences in ways they had never expected, at least nothing that the programme nor her opening songs, very austere spiritual compositions based on ancient Hebrew texts, let on.
Once everyone was comfortably lulled by the haunting beauty of her tangerine voice and the soulful Jewish mellismas of her accompanist Nori Jacoby on the viola, Hanna began cranking the gear up on her performance. When she delivered a reverent ode on a prayer that thanked God for a smooth time at the loo, the audience could smell trouble.
Hanna unleashed the full power and fury of her art, discarding her chaste shawl along the way to reveal herself as a provocative artist rather than the nice daughter of a Rabbi seen at the start, her voice rising from shy whispers to rap to howling screams as she interpreted various verses from the sensual scripture of Solomon’s Song of Songs in most stunning and imaginative ways.
By the time she reached “Apples,” sung as she precariously downed an entire basket of the fruit bite by crunchy bite, defying table manners by singing with her mouth full and not offering her guest any, her impudence amplified by the live-mixed video that played on the backdrop, there was no turning back. Was the apple chewing symbolic or simply rhythmic? Yahweh only knows. Even while looking serious and reverential, Hanna treats scripture as material for her wild artistry, and leaves interpretation to the audience, who was obviously not sure whether to laugh or not.
Hanna’ Jerusalem Dreaming was an unforgettable performance of stunning aural and visual art, completed by the brilliant harmonics of the all-girl Israeli Contemporary String Quartet, the honeyed voice of Palestinian oud player Sameer Makhoul that could make one fall in love, the mournful fiddle by composer Nori Jacoby that echoed centuries of his people’s longings, and even a German and a Mongolian throat singer thrown in for good measure (the throat singers were novel but was a little too much).
In the end Jerusalem Dreaming showed that on the other side of the great concrete barrier people spoke the same inner language and possessed the same sense of humour about human failings. Now if only we could do away with the politicians…
CH Loh is a Malaysian in Singapore. He just quit his day job to become a freelance writer.
First Published: 04.07.2006 on Kakiseni