An Admission of Fact from a Western | Sunday Observer

An Admission of Fact from a Western

25 March, 2018

On March 8 this year, The Goethe Institute (The German Cultural Centre) in Colombo presented to theatregoers, on a free admission basis, the stage play ‘Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun’, by Swiss theatre director Milo Rau. This multilingual work came live at the main auditorium of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) as part of the play’s ongoing world tour. Looking at the elements and background information that compose this work I would say, this work of theatre is truly an ‘international production’.

There is a penchant in our parlance to label anything foreign as ‘international’. This goes without saying, especially, to what is identified as one from the West. That however is a misconception. The very word ‘international’ denotes the involvement of elements of more than one nation(nal). Just because something is foreign, or white, or at least of a ‘lighter shade’, doesn’t mean it’s automatically ‘international’ and thereby of a more elevated status than what is ‘local’.

Rau’s play is performed by two female actresses. One is a Belgian national of Burundi (African) origin, and the other a Swiss (European) national. They are Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi, respectively. Sipérius speaks in French and Lardi in German. English subtitles of their narratives are projected on a screen which is centrally placed on stage. There is ‘multilinguality’ in the text of the play and a fusion of ethno-cultural basis in respect of the performance. Two different languages, two different ethnicities or racial components, form the ‘human fabric’ of the performance.

It is also cross-continental to an extent, as African and European. I say ‘human fabric’ afore because the overall performance creates a visual fabric that includes a dimension of photographic visual materials being displayed on stage as part of the nonverbal dimension of the narrative. There is also webcam based projection on to the screen. Sipérius delivers her monologues entirely to a webcam. Her face speaks to the audience from the screen that occupies centre stage, while she sits in a corner on the stage, faced away from the audience.

Lardi’s monologues too are projected to the screen at most instances. Together, these elements create a noticeable mixed media basis of theatre and a fabric of performance that is outside theatre’s traditional frame of live human performance. In fact, one may even ask if Sipérius even performs to a live audience as she delivers her performance to a camera mounted atop a desktop computer screen. This dimension of the play has a political element that cannot be easily dismissed.

Rau could have conceived the role of Sipérius as one that is acted out more traditionally as monologues coming live, positioned on the foreground of the stage, as she looks the audience directly in the eye. But why wasn’t that so? While there can possibly be no singular answer, when looking at the ‘performance as a text’, I surmise the webcam projection is a method of removing or distancing her part of the ‘story’ to the audience by a further degree, to symbolically impress the idea that (the truth of) her (actual) story (or oral narrative) as a child survivor of the Burundi genocide (which occurred between Tutsis and Hutus in Burundi), is not something that audiences in western Europe, or for that matter anyone who is personally outside the scope of that horrific experience, can ‘tangibly’ relate to. Sipérius and her narrative thus gain a certain largeness by being given its ‘space’ on screen, positing her beyond what can be closer to ‘physical’ realness. It is also a reflection of how the ‘world’ saw the plight of the ravaged Burundi; via visual electronic media, via a camera, on a screen.

Lardi, who is also a prolific screen actress who appeared in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or award winning film, The White Ribbon (which carries its original German title as Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) is the more theatrically living component one encounters in ‘Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun’. Her narrative of a relief aid worker, an NGO activist, forms the bulk of the performance.

The course of the play projects her as the actress who addresses the audience directly, as a speaker from the podium, simultaneously enlarged on screen as a video projection, and at times a more dramatic narrator of events and ideas related to the West and its involvement with the tragedies of armed conflict around the world.

The two monologue based script is a symbolic meeting of cause and effect. The colossally profitable armaments industry of the West and their legacy of colonialism which applied the strategy of divide and rule in subjugated lands, are two principal causes for the effects symbolized by the character of Sipérius.

Sipérius’s monologue speaks of how she was socio-culturally displaced as a result of the rescue measure that found her a family in Belgium willing to adopt her, following the carnage in Burundi. Her experience in an all white community made her an oddity, and objectified her as something exotic and intriguing. Her original name which becomes problematic to the Belgian tongue is eroded in favour of a francophone renaming.

In essence, her identity is remoulded for her. She is psychologically scarred, and culturally redefined. How much of her original self actually survived the machine gun that killed her people? Listening to Sipérius’s monologue one cannot help but wonder what other such victims may narrate as their stories. The flow of stories of victims could be virtually endless.

Lardi who represents the guilt stricken conscience of the west brings out a narrative that contemplates and reassesses the moral foundations of what is called ‘humanitarian aid work’ in conflict zones. Hers is the voice of self reflection and self criticism, the voice that points the finger at western hypocrisy in the ‘global dialogue’ of human rights and humanitarianism. It is admission for the sake of conscience and not admission as an apology. That is what makes the voice of Lardi one that is worthy listening to. Because, the ‘apology’, is one of the greatest political farces the western culture of government adeptly demonstrates upon the postcolonial world.

The discourse by Lardi includes geopolitical facts, as well as narratives that bring out personal experiences and stories that blur the lines of fact and fiction. It is in my opinion a reflective voice of experience of a sincere humanitarian whose sense of idealism has been shattered. This is a voice that has reason to wake up now in the wake of the refugee crisis that beleaguers Western Europe and gives rise to tensions in countries like Germany.

Stagecraft in this production is minimalist, and the elaborate spread of debris that screams of carnage and atrocity that occupies centre stage on the boards serves more symbolically than as a functional assemblage of articles used to narrate the story. Pulling out an AK-47 like firearm from the rubble is one of the more dramatic moments in Lardi’s component of the performance. The rubble does not by any means seem a purely random placement of refuse as an unintentional mishmash. Observation shows, the placement has subtle meaning, though not utility function as in a work of traditional Chekhovian realist theatre. The central rubble is in some ways a visible complement to the content in the narrative and perhaps, also serves as ‘thematic ornamentation’, as ironic as the proposition may sound.

‘Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun’ is by no means the show for the average theatregoer in Sri Lanka. Had it been staged with an admission price I am certain there would be more than a few disgruntled viewers in the audience. ‘Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun’ is not theatre for entertainment.

This is a performance which has pretty much minimal drama and more statement of fact and idea as discourse. Genre wise, I feel it can be, and more so, should be, specified as ‘documentary theatre’ or ‘docu-theatre’, which as a genre is also called ‘Theatre of Fact’. For the Sri Lankan theatre enthusiast who seeks newness of experience Milo Rau’s ‘Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun’ will surely provide food for thought. It is a political statement that can be applauded. And indeed, I will say danke schön to the Goethe Institute in Colombo for bringing this experience to our shores.

Pix: Daniel Seiffert