Saturday, May 18, 2013


In 2011, I set off on a hunt that would take me around the world to work with ex-soldiers and ex-combatants on theatre projects dealing with homecoming and the return to civilian life after war. For months, I sat in rehearsals listening to the stories of these wounded men, without a clear picture of what it was I was looking for. Most of their tales were trauma narratives, set on an ever-softening loop, like a stuck record fading slowly towards the eventual peace of death. ‘The pit I dug to bury my enemy in cement.’ ‘The day I lost my limbs and sight.’ ‘The cell where they tortured me.’ Hearing these stories again and again, I got the sense that the men telling them were shedding a small piece of their past with each retelling. Change was occurring, but it was the slow and limping healing of a lifelong injury, and not the total transformation of a poetic rebirth.

Between each project I would come back to Britain to sit down with playwright Julia Pascal and unpack the dense months of material collected. Julia had the difficult task of synthesizing my fractured year into a new play; a play that I was beginning to fear would be as grinding and nonsensical as the painful memories that were quickly becoming a discordant stream of world-weary Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu and Kashmiri voices.

Then I went to the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission’s Child Rehabilitation Centre in Musanze, where a recently demobilized child soldier told me this story:

Once upon a time there was a boy named Chance. As a child he was made to fight, and lost his hands and his arms in the war. When Chance returned to his family, they saw he had no arms, and that he could not work, and so they threw him in the river, where he was swallowed by an enormous fish. When the fish spat him up, Chance had grown both of his arms back. He met a boss-man who taught him to fly a plane. He returned to his family who saw he was rich and able-bodied. They begged to have him back, but he rejected them, and set off into the world in his airplane.

Somehow, intuitively, this 16-year-old boy – placed precariously between a tumultuous past of fighting in the Congolese jungle, and an uncertain future in a civilian society which may or may not accept him – had managed to hit upon my own unarticulated question and its answer: what is the moment of total healing, of hope, in all of these painful histories?

‘Chance’ was reminding me that hope must be sought in the poetic realm of myth and magic, where severed arms can regrow, and salvation can be found by riding in the intestines of a leviathan.

Julia Pascal was as moved by the boy’s fairy tale as I had been. ‘It’s Jonah,’ she said. ‘Jonah and the whale.’ We breathed a shared sigh of relief as we realized we had finally hit upon a theatrical context that could actually unite our multi-lingual cacophony into a single coherent voice and vision.

Lights up (fade). Three soldiers from three countries are sitting in the belly of a whale…


London-based physical theatre company Theatre Témoin presented Julia Pascal’s ‘Nineveh’, an exploration of the trauma of combat and the hope that comes afterwards. Inspired by true stories told by ex-combatants from across the world; collected during a year of creative work in Kashmir, Israel, Lebanon, and Rwanda, ‘Nineveh’ ran at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London from 16 April to 12 May, 2013.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Touchdown, London.  4 months and 2 theatre projects since leaving this year of travel behind me, and I’m once again sat in front of a blank screen trying to tie the past to the future and understand how they relate.

The honest truth is, I’m waiting for time to firm a few things up before I tinker around in my memories from this year.  It’s all still too raw to look at very closely.

Running in silent parallel to so many of these entries was a somewhat protracted personal trauma in the form of an unexpected heartbreak that shaped and affected much of my experience of the year.  I don’t know where that fits in with all of this, I still don’t know if it’s perfectly appropriate or utterly inappropriate to even mention it here.   Coming back to London after Rwanda, I sobbed for myself and the enormity of the pain I felt, as well for the CRC boys and the unfathomable intensity of their pain which I would never fully understand.  When my own relatively insignificant tragedy was already so unbearable, what could my friend Peter and the boys have possibly been through?  I found myself on my hands and knees, vomiting grief in uncontrollable sonorous waves of tears, accompanied by my illogical yet heartfelt plea – “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”  I had no idea what exactly I was sorry about, but all I could do was repeat those words.  Sorry for not being strong enough to bear my very small cross?  Sorry for Peter?  Sorry for not being Peter? Sorry for being part of a world where his level of suffering is possible?  Sorry for disappointing the people I loved, for inadvertently contributing to all of this, in my own way… The lines between who I was crying for and when and why became so blurred in the end that I finally stopped seeing “my pain” and “their pain” as separate things.

Pain is shared as joy is shared.  In some sense, some part of me sought out this years’ entire amazing and difficult experience when I headed off to “connect with ex-combatants”.  Connect with pain, connect with trauma, and connect, finally, with healing.  I’m not claiming to be any closer to understanding the experience of war.  Some things I will never understand unless I live them; perhaps the closest I’ve come to understanding is having learned enough to realize that I should be grateful that I don’t.  But I do think we are all intimately connected with humanity’s collective joy and grief in a way that we rarely allow ourselves to acknowledge.  A part of me worries that this blog (or any ‘professional’ face of this project) isn’t the right place to air these very personal and—let’s face it—self-involved musings.  Vivienne Franzmann has an interesting monologue which I think points to this fear (which is prevalent among artists who address difficult narratives outside of their own experience) in her play ‘The Witness’ in which the protagonist is Alex, a Rwandan-born woman raised in Britain after escaping the genocide as an infant:


The next day, I had this lecture and Dr. Kalmar put up a slide of Botticceli’s Madonna and Child and he made some connection with contemporary photojournalism and when he put up the next slide, it was yours.  One minute, I’m trying to find my mobile, because Dr. Kalmar goes ballistic if anyone’s phone rings and I’m cursing having such a big bloody bag and laughing with this boy Stuart and the next, I look up and there it is, filling the whole wall.  And I feel like I’m going to faint or puke.  And the whole time Dr. Kalmar’s talking, I’m worrying in case I do because it would be so embarrassing. And I’m trying to work out which would be more embarrassing, puking or fainting, and I’m trying not to look at the photo, but trying to look as if I am and trying not to look like I’m about to faint or puke and then Dr.  Kalmar stops talking.  It’s all quiet apart from this noise at the back of the lecture theatre.  Someone’s crying.  And it gets louder and louder and I look round and it’s this girl from Surrey who’s in my seminar group and she’s crying.  And by now the girl is hysterical, and one of her friends is helping her out of the hall.  And I stand up to leave, but I go all dizzy and fall onto Stuart.  Then Dr. Kalmar looks at me, turns the projector off, makes a joke about mass hysteria and cancels the lecture.  Afterwards, I’d arranged to meet Jen and I see the girl, the crying girl, in the bar and I go up and see if she’s okay, because I feel bad for her, you know, responsible.  I know it’s stupid but… And when I ask her if she feels better, she says she’s fine, that she’s having a bad day, that she’s split up with her boyfriend and is gutted because she loves him.  She says the photo made her feel awful, stirred something up and she says she’s embarrassed, but laughs and says it was cathartic. Cathartic.  That’s what she says. (Beat.)  She was crying because she’d split up with her boyfriend.  She looked at the photo and it made her think of what she’d lost.  In that photo, I’m screaming for my dead mother on a pile of bloody corpses and that bitch is crying about her fucking boyfriend.

There’s a lot to unpack in this monologue, and indeed in the whole play, which is about a British war journalist who made ethically questionable choices in order to capture the most dramatically compelling photos of the genocide.  What’s most interesting perhaps is that ‘Alex’ is Franzmaan’s creation, these are issues that Franzmann is grappling with, as a playwright from Walthamstow creating a dramatically compelling play about a Rwandan-British character. 

Like I said, I understand this concern, part of me shares it.  But a larger part of me thinks that once you get beyond the initial curiosity of the objectify-someone-for-their-intense-experiences stage, and you get to friendship, compassion, empathy, and love, then all of these perhaps more superficial questions melt into irrelevance.  If you love someone, you won’t question whether or not you’re objectifying their story or using their pain for catharsis.  Love and connection don’t work that way.  If you love someone, then their story becomes inexorably linked with yours, and you tell them and mourn them and celebrate them both together. 

A dear friend in London found out about the death of a family member during a rehearsal this summer, where 3 of her closest friends were with her.  We all chanted that day, we all cried, we all sat for hours holding one another.  Was it cathartic?  Surely.  Did we all cry for our own individual reasons?  Without a doubt.  But we cried for her too, and for one another, and for everyone we’ve ever loved.  We all understood all of this, there was a complicity that day, a permission.

Sometimes I think artists—especially western artists—should worry less about deserving this permission, and just strive to connect more with the people whose stories they are telling.