Photo courtesy of Ruvin de Silva , 2010
‘I feel that all of Gaza is sitting on moving sands. Any madness you can imagine can happen in a second in this place, and a lot of dreams may come true too. It’s a strange city with no logic.’
Ahmad, 1993, Al Wehda Street, Gaza
On certain occasions, one must excuse the ardour of overtly political theatre; it is after all a medium for exploring the redoubtable and there is that unfortunate and conspicuous sense of hopelessness in highly charged theatre that strives to speak on behalf of the oppressed, victimized and weak. One would have expected a one-sided narrative that disregarded the culpability of both sides for the instigation of conflict. The Gaza Monologues did not satisfy that expectation. In fact, the production avoided the zealous evocations and inevitable distortions of truth that are so innate to any political discourse on the matter of Israel and Palestine. Let’s not be facetious though – it was political and rightly so. Nevertheless, it was an emotional journey into the perspectives and experiences of children who were unfortunate enough to be affected by the Gaza war from December 2008 to January 2009. The actors from Wesley College and Ladies College were a passionate group that were already informed about the situation in Gaza and were eager to perform the Gaza Monologues as a sense of duty rather than an obligation. If the intention of the production was to impress upon the audience the impact of war on children, the psychological and physical victimisation of young people and the denial of their right to childhood, then the production succeeded on all these counts and more.
Notwithstanding the unavoidable political nuances of the monologues, the idea of providing space for children to bear witness to war seems so lamentable, but in this case each monologue militated against what has become the insipid politics of the conflict and instead resulted in a cri de cÅ“ur that supplicated the emotions of the audience. I believe the latter was the primary objective of both Jake Oorloff and Ruhanie Perera and they should take comfort in the fact that at least some individuals in the audience encountered the reality of war without demanding the need for the subterfuge of theatrical devices and adroit prose. One would hope that it also provoked the audience to consider the human cost of conflict, although that might be asking too much given the unpropitious local variety on offer. In the lead up to the production, there was specific mention and attribution of intimate theatre to the Gaza Monologues. It was most definitely not intimate theatre, which is an experimental form of theatre known for its more interactive approach and one-to-one ‘encounters’, where the audience assumes an active role in the production. It is certainly plausible that there are degrees of intimacy in theatre. That’s quite obvious. Rather than attempting to justify the Gaza Monologues as a form of intimate theatre, the directors would do well to examine the various productions of intimate theatre and adopt the idea of interacting with the audience as a new experimental venture. If you’re into experimentation and you want to produce intimate theatre, you might as well do it properly.
If many attended the production to witness a brilliant theatrical performance, they would have been disappointed; however, the acting was good enough for the children to communicate the essence of the monologues and assume the difficult position as interlocutors on the experiences of the children in Gaza. This was never a role that they could have been expected to do justice to due to the obvious issues of relativism and experience. The monologues were frightfully disparaging with detailed accounts of bombings, the death of siblings and the injured. One particular monologue detailed the extent of destruction,
“In the Shifaa hospital I saw a sight that I will never forget. Hundreds of corpses one on top of the other. Their flesh…their blood, and their bones all melting on each other. You wouldn’t know the woman from the man or even the child. Piles of flesh on the beds, and lots of people screaming and crying, not knowing where their kids are, their men or their women.”
The incorporation of disturbing accounts led to a great deal of frustration, for a few in the audience, in the attempt to grapple with the realities on the ground. It was also apparent that the overwhelming sense of despair was effectively transferred on to the audience. However, the lashings of humour provided some form of comic relief and the compelling sense of resilience on the part of the children demonstrated an impressive level of maturity. Moreover, it was clear that the children who wrote these monologues had lost their innocence to war, a detachment that was expressed in the consistent reflection of a relatively blithe past and its contrast with the acrimonious experiences of the present.
There were the familiar notions of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, ‘oppressor’ versus ‘oppressed’, ‘power’ versus ‘weakness’ that detracted from what could have been a stunning exposition on the turbulence of war through the eyes of children. When a few of the monologues mentioned ‘martyrs,’ it seemed improbable that children aged thirteen to eighteen would be so politically conscious in order to understand that those civilians that died during the Gaza war, adults and children alike, were not only innocent victims of brutal and disproportionate force, but that they also died as a result of what they believed in – Palestine. Perhaps, I’m underestimating the effect of a tempestuous political environment and the impact of war for the disposition of children. It was also interesting to note that a few of the monologues touched on the politics of the conflict and were expressively critical of the role of political leadership. This was a volte-face in an otherwise distressing account of children’s perspectives and experiences of war. One statement was particularly striking,
I’ve lost trust in all mottos… the biggest speech from the biggest leader is bullshit, all speeches in the world don’t warm up a cold person or someone sleeping in a tent after the war. The crisis is that the whole world is watching us, as though there’s nothing going on, and they’re still making speeches!
The fact that younger generations of Palestinians are able to consider the errors of political leaders on both sides speaks volumes for the anagnorisis of progressive politics and an end to the fundamentalist positions that have neither abated the conflict nor rendered each side submissive.
A positive aspect of the production was that it was effective in its ability communicate a very lucid message about children and conflict. The direction of the production was equally remarkable and quite intriguing was the use of children for sound effects, particularly at the start of the production where the children echoed the repetitive sound of gunshots while moving towards the stage. This was one of many points of the production that succeeded in capturing the undivided attention of the audience. However, what perhaps marked the most astounding and emotional scene was when all the lighting in the hall of the Goethe Institute was switched off and a single cast member emerged from behind the audience with a lit candle in hand and performed a rather melancholy refrain while bodies wrapped in white sheets were brought out and delicately placed around the audience. It was remarkably uncomfortable, emotional and spectacularly provocative.
Jake Oorloff and Ruhanie Perera had much to prove in this production, particularly after the critical reviews of their previous endeavour, the War Reporter, at the same venue. I believe that they have exculpated themselves from that particular blemish and with this production contributed to their exceptional run of theatre productions that have been compelling and brave in their quest to satisfy the need for experimentation. In an interview with Jake and Ruhanie, both of them expressed their desire for the conversation on the Gaza Monologues to continue in Sri Lanka. I would have to disappoint them by stressing that the conversation ended quite some time ago, but I would also have to reassure them that a few will remember and continue to relive the experience. Whether they would like to admit it or not; Jake, Ruhanie and the rest of their team were not only part of an initiative to raise awareness about the plight of children in conflict, but also about the necessity for peace between Israel and Palestine. We must applaud them for that.
Floating Space is back.
[Editors note: Also read and listen to the podcast The Gaza Monologues: An interview with Ruhanie Perera and Jake Oorloff.]