Friday 20 March 2009

Don’t play the fucking Abulkasem!

Invasion!, Soho Theatre, London

Let’s first of all get the skeleton out of the closet and into the very centre of the room: Invasion!, 30-year-old Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s first play, now on at Soho Theatre after a two-season sell-out run in Stockholm, sounds a bit like Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life.

Not only is this obvious to the English audience (all the more so since the National re-staged Crimp’s fantastically experimental piece in 2007, ten years after its première, in a production directed by Katie Mitchell), but quite possibly also to the Swedish one, given that the play has been translated into more than 20 languages including Swedish, and produced at the Gothenburg City Theatre in 2004. Famously, Crimp’s ‘Seventeen scenarios for the theatre’, as he subtitled the play, each imagined and explored, at varying length, a character named Anne (or Annie, Anny, Annushka, and similar variations), who during the course of the play became, among other things, a famous star, a terrorist, a refugee’s dead child, and a new make of car. Originally appearing at the dawn of the Cool Britannia renaissance, Attempts on Her Life is an incredibly imaginative and ironic, visionary, avant-garde work, whose script does not assign speech to any named characters, but asks for the cast to ‘reflect the composition of the world beyond theatre’, and whose satirical tone lent itself, in 1997 and ever since, to the most varied critical interpretations.

Khemiri’s Invasion! is centred around a mysterious person called Abulkasem. When we first hear of him, he is a character in a play in the play, but he soon turns into many other things, too: a gay Lebanese man who loves to dance; an elusive terrorist who moves between Palestine and the United States and who writes pro-Israeli articles, but also takes part to anti-American demonstrations; a refugee apple-picker who hides from immigration control in the south of Sweden, and who barely speaks the local language; a word that comes to mean anything and that can be used as a verb or an adjective: ‘Don’t play the fucking Abulkasem!’. A boy picks up a girl in a bar and, in order not to have to explain the spelling of his foreign name, he makes up an even more impossible one: my name is Abulkasem. A little while later, the same girl is discussing the work of the woman who inspired her to study theatre to her university friends, and being unable to remember her actual name she uses the first one that comes to her mind: surely you are all familiar with the work of Abulkasem?

So much for the similarities. Invasion! is, however, also very different from Attempts on Her Life. To begin with, not only does it offers far fewer scenarios, but those scenarios are strictly connected to each other, to the point of being, in one instance, the same episode as remembered by two different characters. Secondly, Invasion! is more traditionally narrative, fundamentally naturalistic, and less experimental. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Invasion! can be described as an exploration of how language reinforces both identity and prejudices - an interpretation more forcefully suggested than any that could be imposed on Crimp’s play.

In the bar episode, the girl sees the boy coming towards her to chat her up, and dismissively describes him to the audience as some ‘Turk’; a few minutes later, she is annoyed and appalled at her friends’ assumptions over her Kurd identity, as they pity her for what they suppose must be the difficult condition of someone who chooses an independent, secular life when coming from a traditional Muslim society. Abulkasem then turns from the cheesy boy who asked for her number and about whom she was full of prejudices, to being her escape route when she herself suffers prejudice.

Later on, the apple-picker finally gets the interpreter he had been asking for, and he starts explaining his story in Arabic; initially, we feel for the apple-picker, for his confusion and anxiety and desperation. But then he starts expressing his hate for the United States, Israel and Jews, and we very quickly do not like him any longer. Except that after a few minutes it becomes clear that the interpreter is adding things and not being truthful to what our apple-picker is actually saying - while this is very obvious, given that he is quoting opera and Abba songs and she is ‘translating’ a hate speech, it is equally obvious that most of us, if not all of us, have no access to the original Arabic words, and thus are completely, helplessly and frustratingly cut out from the truth. And we immediately like him again, of course, which is a lesson in the arbitrariness of sympathy, but also, and perhaps most importantly, in how uninformed our interpretations of reality must be when we are unable to see and hear things for ourselves, without linguistic and cultural mediations.

How can we expect to discover Abulkasem’s identity when we have to get at him through someone else’s language? The apple-picker does not know who Abulkasem is; maybe, he suggests, he is the man himself. Or, maybe, ‘you Abulkasem’. The reason why ultimately we all are Abulkasem is not that we all have prejudices and we are all ready to believe that a person who speaks in Arabic could plausibly, why not, hate the Jewish people, but that we are ourselves part of this game of mirrors, taking the easy option but also being its victims. And language, far from being a way out, closes us even more safely in our mindsets.

All of this might sound like aggressive propaganda, or like Khemiri is out to teach us a lesson in multiculturalism, but the play is mercifully saved any such feeling by being very, very funny. In this respect, Frank Perry’s translation is excellent and elastic, moving from kids’ slang to talk-show chat and academia vocabulary without a moment of hesitation; and it helps that the cast of four is talented for comedy - particularly Chris Nayak and Raad Rawi. Not only does the audience laughs, and quite a lot, but it is also continuously involved in the play, directly or indirectly, nagged for attention and manipulated (the latter made easier, in fact, by the laughter, which makes us repeatedly surrender). Possibly the most brilliant instance of this manipulation occurs at the very beginning, which sets the roll of Abulkasem events in motion and which, without spoiling the surprise, is slightly reminiscent of both Pirandello and the Young Vic’s recent production of The Indian Wants the Bronx.

Lucy Kerbel directs Invasion! having won the Young Angels Theatremakers’ Award 2008, whose panel was chaired by the play’s author; very interestingly and perhaps more than a a bit ironically, she was also Katie Mitchell’s Assistant Director for the 2007 production of Attempts on Her Life at the National. One could speculate endlessly on whether Khemiri knew Crimp’s play in this specific production, and how much Kerbel was influenced (not necessarily in an imitating sense, perhaps in the opposite one) by her work with Mitchell. Nonetheless, and independently from this factor, Invasion! is an intelligent, entertaining play, presented in a fresh production - if lacking Crimp’s fast-forward originality - and with an unobvious way of discussing prejudice.

Till 28 March 2009

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