“Theater Should Examine the Impossible”
Fragments of a Sumerian text from around the year 2000 BC, which laments the destruction of the city, form the starting point for the new play "Ur" by Kuwaiti author and director Sulayman Al Bassam. A co-production between the Residenztheater, the SABAB Theater and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), Ur premieres in Munich today. Ur brings together an ensemble of Arabic-speaking actors and members of the Residenztheater ensemble including Hala Omran, Mohammad Al Rashi, Lara Ailo, Tim Werths, Dalia Naous, Marina Blanke, Bijan Zamani and others.
Rana Kobeissi conducted the below interview with Al Bassam.
1- Ur is a vivid performance familiar to the practice of Sulayman al Bassam, in its scope and the research that has informed its script. Where did you draw your inspiration from you this time? And where do you locate Ur in the span of your work, especially considering the work in progress you presented in 2015 titled, The Lamentation of the Destruction of Ur?
The play Ur is inspired by an ancient text. The ancient text is the Sumerian lamentation that is known as A lament for the destruction of the city of Ur. Experts deem it to be one of the founding texts of Sumerian literature that was written in the 3rd millenia BC. And this tablet – it is a clay tablet – came to my attention upon a visit to the Louvre in Paris. I then discovered that the lamentation for the destruction of cities was an important genre for the Sumerian literature.
The text consists of 900 verse of poetry, with a small element of dialogue that runs across a handful verses, between the nominal goddess of the city whose name is Nin-Gal and the people of the city, in which they accuse her of abandoning them to the destruction of the city. She replies and says “I did not abandon you, I tried to prevent this”. The dialogue ends there. I thought the dialogue very interesting and a powerful entry point to this text.
2- So that was your inspiration?
Yes, but it wasn’t until many years later, and the fallout of the popular uprisings across different countries in the Arab region, that I was reminded of the lamentation for the destruction of Ur, and I began to see the possibility of creating through this text a metaphor to address this present moment in time, that perhaps began around 2012, as several cities and urban centers across the region were being systematically razed to the ground. And so it was this conjuncture of texts and contemporary predicament that I began to work on the text of Ur. That was the outset or starting point for it.
3- Cities in the Arab world today are spaces under threat. The destruction of the city of Ur, and the allusion to Khaled Al Assaad in the play, attest to this. What was your intention in this regard?
From this ancient lamentation, I want to stage the possibility of a refraction and echo, to draw reflection on the contemporary landscapes of desertification and destruction. To that end, I needed to find a causality for the terrible destruction alluded to in the tablet of Ur, so I used a claim made by the female goddess Nin-Gal, as the starting point to thread a narrative of transgression. I wanted to put the female protagonist in the center of events, and give her sovereignty as well as destructive power, as it were; or let’s just say a will that ends up leading to destructive outcomes. And so, through this idea of revolutionary will, Nin-Gal, the protagonist, proposes a program that emancipates from the status-quo and the dominion of patriarchy over her society. Within the ensuing chaos, arises the resonance with the contemporary moment, that includes the voice of Khaled Al Assaad.
4- In fact, the audience is taken back and forth in time, within years or milestones you have chosen: 2004 BC, 1903, 2015, and 2035, with an occasional slippage of characters or interference of element, from one period to the next. Why have you chosen this temporal scheme?
The project that I imagined in 2015 consisted of a series of scenes set in 2004 BC with an explosion into a contemporary landscape, that was incarnated in the voice and ghost of Khaled Al Assaad. When the project developed and the possibility to make the production in Germany was becoming concrete, it seemed to me that there were other elements that these themes beckoned, and so I set about to create a bilingual and bi-cultural arena for a performance within the framework of these themes, in which there would be space for a significant actualization of voices from German actors and Arab actors. In a second chapter of research, I turned to the European Imperial project that focused on the Near East and aspects of European identity amongst the relics of ancient civilizations in our region. That led me to the scenes in Babylon that take place amongst members of the German Oriental Society’s expedition there that began in 1899. What I found fascinating about that episode in European history was the degree to which many of these missions, whether French or British or the later the German, were in fact seeking amongst the stones and artifacts and remnants of ancient Mesopotamian and Acadian and Assyrian cultures, for aspects of identity that were entirely European. A large part of their motivation was around the idea of the search for a confirmation of identity amongst the remains and the ruins of ancient civilizations. And this very orientalist need for the reaffirmation of a Euro-centric Judeo-Christian self, reminded me in a very indirect way –although the sequences of the play then didn’t explore this– of the need that ISIS displayed much later, to affirm their own notions of history, of self, and of their own masculinity through the destruction of these items.
The Daesh/ISIS scenes and the European scenes have an element in common, and in this they rejoin the Sumerian revolutionary scenes as well, that is the inability of male patriarchies to hear or understand the potentiality of Nin-Gal’s revolutionary song, and their reinterpretation and redirecting of its significance into a matrix of notions that only reaffirm their own status quo. And so the sliding timelines that move between 2000 BC, 1903, 2015, 2035 are all explorations of either the destruction of the revolutionary song, or its misinterpretation, or its re-appropriation into a matrix of meanings that defend a patriarchal status quo.
5- In Ur liberalism and poems transcend war and obscurantism. Nin-Gal, Goddess daughter and governess of Ur, says: “What Ur writes will not be erased”. Indeed, Ur fights back with scribes and poems instead of armies and weapons. Can you tell us more? What message are you conveying to the world?
Nin-Gal’s revolutionary song is a utopic project. Faced with barbarism, she doubles on the principles of her utopic project, that are at once civic, sexual and literary. Her song therefore is transcendental, it seeks to inscribe into poetry the impossible aspects of her reality.
I was also interested in the possibility that she is aware of the futility of this project, and in spite of that her persistent pursuit should be absolute, almost tyrannical. In fact, she does become tyrannical. And with this, I wanted the space of the text, and the space of the performance to maintain an aspect of radical alterity that might be something other than a forensic examination of causes or a self-reflexive examination of consequences.
6- Nin-Gal states in the play: “You don’t know the power of an open door”. Indeed, Ur keeps its doors open despite everything, and we could claim that this leads to its destruction. Could you give us your view on this open-door policy? How does it relate to our reality?
Theater, in my opinion, should primarily examine the impossible, not the possible. In that, theater has a more coherent function, at least in its ability to create an imaginary space.
There are other elements of context in this production that are significant. It’s not by accident that Ur should be birthed in Germany where, as we know the borders were, as it were, open for the victims of Syrian uprisings and civil wars. And so the questions on the nature of the city, the nature of consequences of the revolutionary song, or the consequences of contemporary history are being played out in Germany. And so, in its seeking of definitions for new cities, new shapes of meaning and reading and understanding and appropriating, Ur takes on a particular significance in the context of Germany and Munich in this instance and generally in Europe.
There are moments in Ur where the protagonist Nin-Gal resonates with Angela Merkel, and of course there are moments other moments in the play where Enlil’s text, Nin-Gal’s father, and Nanna, her husband, resonate with the far-right movements in Europe, in addition, they obviously echo authoritarian rulers in the Arab word.
So there are many levels at which the text is resonates with aspects of a performative context, which I find really to be a fascinating aspect of this particular emanation and movement in the production of this text.
7- What would you like the audience to take back with them from the play?
A sense of great richness and possibility. I’d also like them to experience the possibility of understanding through not understanding, which is a very physiological thing.
Audiences in this performance are listening to 3 languages, Arabic, English and German. And so at different moments, I would hope that they are able to hear German as Arabic and hear Arabic as German.
8- Ur will be performed with the audience seated in traverse, on two sides of a performance platform. Do you choose this seating style for enhanced involvement of the audience in the show?
The scenographer of Ur, Eric Soyer, proposed a traverse space for this in echo of the clay tablet that is actually rectangular. The performance space sits in the middle of the audience like a tablet. And the bodies of the actors are the markings of the writing on the tablet, as it were. There is one more thing about that space that I think is important, namely, that there is no single perception of this space concretely. There is no single point of perception. The multiplicity of perception points creates an openness both for the audience and for performers. Not everything can be seen by everyone in the same or even a similar way. If you imagine the performer facing one side, then she has her back to the other side. It means that not everything can be controlled.
9- Ur brings together a rich and dynamic cast of Arab and German actors. How do you rate this first collaboration with German talent, and the interaction with the Arab cast?
A lot of the European institutional initiatives which address the question of the Arab diaspora, have mostly been limited to enabling Arab or diaspora artists to convene and reflect and create, which is very laudable in itself, but it continually pits the Arab diaspora artists at one remove from the center. Whereas in this project, and I think that this is really a historical first in terms of the German cultural landscape, we are creating an ensemble piece between two groups of very distinct ethnicities and languages. And within the ensemble piece, the structural elements of the bilingualism and biculturalism are made into performative elements in themselves. This is very different from a lot of the, let’s stay, positive cultural action production endeavors. It presents a kind of significant mixity within the concept of creation, whereby the different parts all have equal resonance.
10- Ur is premiering in Munich in end-September. What are your plans for the rest of Europe and the Arab region?
Ur plays in the theater’s repertory until February in Munich. I would like very much for Ur to continue its life beyond that, and we are exploring the possibility of presenting it in Tunisia. The Arab premiere would be in Tunis in December.
11- We have been noticing a more widespread escape away from the text in theater in the region. What is your general view on Arab theater? How do you see its role in capturing pressing issues from the current reality?
Well, any discussion about theater has to be premised upon the fact that you are talking about a medium and a re-organization of reality that means that you’re talking about a battered, hungry, starved and beleaguered being. Arab theater is on the bottom-end of any institutional priority in almost all countries of the Arab world, with the exception of Tunisia. Text is, in my practice, the vehicle through which poetry is created. It is indelibly wrapped in the process of performance, but that’s my personal practice. In the practice of others, text has different levels in the hierarchy, which is valid. I don’t think that there’s one method more valid than another. But theater is a minority art and a beleaguered minority art in the Arab world; that’s for sure. And I think that the spaces opened in the European diaspora are interesting ones that I hope we will be able to feed back into those spaces in the Arab world.