Az Theatre’s War Stories at oh!art November 2004

Az Theatre’s season at oh!art  presented three short plays about war accompanied by a diverse and dynamic series of forum, readings, workshops, exhibitions and performances at Oxford House, Bethnal Green London.

Three short plays about war:

ATSUMORI by Motokiyo Zeami is a classic warrior Noh Theatre play. It tells the story of Rensho, a warrior who has become a monk as a consequence of his remorse at the killing of Atsumori, a young Taira clan warrior. He returns to the scene of the killing years later to find redemption and reconciliation in an encounter with the ghost of Atsumori.

STRIVE by Stephen Lowe tells the story of the return of a young soldier from the Falklands War and his meeting with his girlfriend who has become convinced in his absence that she must take action for peace. They are interrupted by a film maker from the United States. The whole scene is witnessed by the ghost of the filmmakers English born wife. Against the background of Thatcher’s war, Reagan’s Star Wars and the women’s protest camp outside the US cruise missile base at Greenham Common, the destinies of the various participants is decided.

WOMEN IN WAR by Jawad al-Asadi portrays the agony of three Iraqi women displaced by war in a refugee shelter in Germany before the recent invasion. From different parts of Iraq they fight for their survival, endangered by the violence of their dreadful exile.

What they said about WAR STORIES: Az Theatre &oh!art:

‘The plays’ shared spotlight on the psychological fallout from the organised violence of militarism is both important and, the case of the world English-language premiere ‘Women in War, directly relevant……A fertile piece (‘Strive’) asking profound questions, it’s exemplary of the whole ‘War Stories’ project.’

Gareth Evans in The Stage

‘Watching the play (Atsumori), we begin to understand the core of the relationship between enemies in war. War only creates death and death haunts both the killer and the killed……..The human isolation experienced in war is conveyed by the place of poetry in the text…… The tragedy of the play (‘Women in War’) overwhelmed and transformed the sense of the place we were in.’

Fatima Mohsen in Al Riyadh

War Stories, presented by Az Theatre and oh!art at Oxford House, 9th-27th November 2004.


War Stories, while the title of the three week Festival here, is also the title of the ongoing investigation, by Az Theatre, primarily conducted through means of theatre and performance activities, into how we are affected by war, and into possibilities of the abolition of war

The investigation is concerned to provoke and create a space for internal reflection, on an individual’s relationship both to war, as a phenomena, and to any specific war operation.

Evaluation considerations
Given this prime motivation, the investigation is not concerned (merely) to make theatre (per se), (but more than), nor is it here, simply ‘a trilogy of war dramas’ (as listed in the Guardian).

These maybe important distinctions, in evaluating, this partnership project, between Az and oh!art, as it embodied at Oxford House. For evaluation and any assessment, is likely to be more profitable made against real motivating impulse(s)
– to cause to question our perceptions of war
– to provoke advancement of the thinking about war beyond the stereotypical
– to broaden understanding of responsibility issues around victim and perpetrator

And given this, evaluation will also be informed by:
– the nature of ideas to have been explored (through the project)
– with whom
– through which forms (their appropriateness)
– any legacy as stepping stone to further the o Ïverall project investigation that is War Stories

The Festival
Following this, the centrepiece of the Festival may then be seen less as ‘the trilogy of war dramas’, presented in studio production, more the ideas, and interaction between plays and events, aired during forums and discussions. This was kernel to War Stories at Oxford House.

The Forums

In a first forum, Women and War, Nadje Al-Ali, spoke of ‘a continuum of violence’ – operating in war, in hot conflict situations, and in the aftermath of peace (in personal relationships); at its root, lies the construction (and adoption) of a militarised masculinity.

In war, women may be made victim, or are radicalised to attempt some deconstruction of militarised masculinity – the litmus test too often coming in the aftermath of war – ‘when the boys come home . . and would have women return to the kitchen . . .’

Nadje Al-Ali presentation showed remarkable rigour, clarity of analysis and lucidity of argument – offering perspectives which could be tracked through almost every event in the Festival

Francesca Cerletti, offered an overview of the situation in Colombia, where the ruling classes work to oppress the campesino, and again evidenced the continuum of violence – here, where women are displaced by the conflict – yet some of whom, through grass roots groups, do then find a voice to move toward real change.

Film footage, shown by Maysoon Pachachi, showed the reality of women’s lives in Iraq today – countering singular, media offered perceptions. Scenes in a hospital, a teachers workshop, a women’s group, and at a demonstration, effectively lift a curtain of ignorance and, indeed, prejudice.

Art Theatre and War, the second forum, offered presentations, from a personal perspective, of how different artists engage with war as it touches their lives.

Contributions from, amongst others, Jawad al-Alsadi, Stephen Lowe and Lisa Goldman, evoked kernel ideas which again could be mapped throughout the continuing conversation, which the Festival, effectively constituted. Among those ideas were:
– of the split between a government and the cultural body of a country
– the centre of the battleground (the war) between these two, being for the politics of the imagination: for domination of the imagination (how it is shaped; who is structuring the possibilities of ones imagination)
– notions of ‘the other’

The forums included contribution from the Peace Tax Seven, who have withheld that portion of their taxes, normally spent on military purposes, insisting instead that the money be spent on peaceful means. They posed a simple question – sobering amidst much debate on the ideas about war: while denying war, are you yet content to pay someone else to make war on your behalf?

Many of these ideas provided outline maps through much of the activity and material of the Festival.

The plays
And given that the function of the Festival was less to move, rather to cause to wonder, and to think, Jonathan Chadwick’s decision as director, to adapt a fairly, unadorned, ‘presentational’ performance style, for the plays, was exactly right – a similar thinking reflecting in the decision to turn the theatre around from its end on black box potential – to something more resembling a lecture theatre – albeit, on both these counts, the one-off event visitor, may well interpret ‘a serious earnestness . . .’

But by virtue not least of these decisions, Atsumori by Zeami, perfectly delivered its text. Written in the 15th century, here still was a text shining light on the creativity to be found in aspects of destruction (the flute as peace symbol in 1410), and daring to illuminate the eternal intertwining of killer and killed following any act of war. See images from Atsumori

Poetry reading
Zeami may well have interpreted this as karma; the poets, Dorfman and Al Azzawi, spoke (through readings by amongst others, Li Âane Aukin and Janet Henfrey) of ‘history watching’ – over current war operations: a perspective which changes ‘war’ as presented.

The simple sharing of poems by Dorfman and Pinter, poems book-ended with others by Owen, and the contemporary Iraqi poet, Fasdhil Al Azzawi, reaffirmed the validity of theatre culture to suggest that imaginative truth may be frequently more truthful than the facts (difficult as they so often are to come by anyway in a war situation).

A Soldier’s Tale
Questions of ‘one memory’, ‘one perspective’, and indeed issues around the ownership of stories, which had emerged in discussion of the poems, also arose in discussion of the work in progress read by Cardboard Citz.

A Soldiers Tale, scripted by Penny Cliff evolved from the Cardboard Citz writers group, and focussed the story of one man in that group – ‘an ordinary bloke’, who stumbles into war for no particular or passionate reason, and finds himself fighting in a volunteer army, assisting a faction of the Croatian right wing.

Penny Cliff cited how she wanted to explore: ‘. . what men were seeking when they went to war . . .’

Scripted with a narrator/chorus function interposing questions (drawn from hindsight) the answer to Cliff’s question could here be barely defined (by the character) – war as an abstract here contrasted with human confusion and downright mundane ness – made more poignant in the knowledge the story had emerged within a London based homeless peoples workshop. It would have been interesting to see the soldier from, A Soldiers Tale, confront arguments to have emerged against war through the Festival – to have ‘the mercenary’ (distinct from the peace activist) come face to face with the Festival.

Workshops in schools
Bridging the distance between abstract concepts of war, and how an individual is touched by war, is of course a key overall project aim, and these concerns were also taken into local schools.

Concepts of war, delivered through Year 6 school studies of the history of the Second War, were contrasted, through workshops with War Stories actors, with conflict at lower levels – in the home, in school – in our lives now.

Tableaux, discussions, and games were appreciated as rare opportunities for children to gain practical experience of issues of conflict and resolution.

Until he Hums Again
A child with first hand knowledge of such issues was evoked in, Until he Hums Again, by Eunice Wanjiro – a staged reading of a short play exploring absence – the absence here of a father (the disappeared) and the understanding of this which a mother might bestow in her child – and the wild imaginings a child might pursue around this scenario.

The focus, as on much of the material through the Festival, was on the human cost – how internal (in addition to external) lives are turned upside down; how creativity might still manifest in ‘ response to forces of destruction. Wanjiro’s complete lack of didactics, and any whiff of party politics, allows her cry to be heard here that much more powerfully.

A similar focus on the human cost, (albeit targets of army, religion and family are also raised), was reflected through a script in hand performance of an adaptation of Arrabal’s, Guernica, from the Anglo Brazilian, Dende Collective.

The action of a husband in conversation with his wife, who has become buried, as bombing continues all around them, is transposed from 30’s Spain, to current Iraq. That it works as it did, points to the universality of the human condition in war, Where action did not easily transpose, this merely served to illuminate the surreal qualities always present in Arrabal’s play.

Performances in Guernica reflected the expressionism, the direct, declamatory style of the writing – and it’s worth noting that little of the writing throughout the Festival was naturalistic – the perceptions (and theatrical traditions) of those writing, allowing for a more unfettered imagination than 50 years of British ‘new writing’ would impose.

Vaclav Havel’s short play, Mistake, played and presented in the foyer was an exception – naturalism here exploring ‘difference’, and mob-like reaction to ‘the other’ – concerns more than pertinent in Britain today . . .
This was an interesting ‘episode’, one whose form (actors and audience in one space), offers an engagement which might be profitably explored in future activities.

The Theatre of War
The Festival exhibition, curated by Az and oh!art, consisted of interactive installations – with the centre piece, The Theatre of War, in the main walkway to the theatre, where visitors were invited to offer a text of their own experience of war.

First hand accounts of those from Rwanda contrasted with small notes placed far from the centre of war (the end of the walkway) from Britain: ‘The aftermath of WW2 was forever on the kitchen table as I grew up . .

and from Rwanda: ‘My uterus fell out again today . . . but I’ve been advised not to have the operation to put it right because of testing positive . . .’

Giving visual distance to ‘war’, asking visitors to place themselves in context, inevitably forces questions on the individual’s relationship to war, and to the continuum of violence. This centrepiece of the exhibition worked extremely effectively.

And the continuum of violence was again evidenced in both Stephen Lowe’s, Strive, and in Al-Asadi’s, Women in War.

The former, written in the 80’s, is set against a background of the Falklands war and we see in it further exploration of that continuum. A soldier returns home. His woman has changed. Notions of masculinity must be questioned.

An oddly ‘unfinished’ play, yet its ‘unfinishedness’ working well in the context of raising questions (rather than moving hearts) – especially questions on US/British relationships – never more pertinent today. See images from Strive

Women and War
Jawad al-Asadi’s, play, Women and War, set in a Western refugee shelter, depicts the lives of three war damaged women: after the explosions, here there are the shattered pieces – women going mad, women fighting among themselves for survival. It is a shaming indictment of all who would make war. See images from Women and War.

Curiously here, a major concern of two of the women is to recreate (with ‘the Bosnian’) the very relationship which would pitch them headlong back into the continuum of violence. But it is a powerful play exploring what it is to be in exile; it is pitiless and it is sobering. And it is regrettable that it will not be seen elsewhere across the London theatre landscape.

Using the same actors, the productions achieve a remarkable cohesion, principally through intense focussing, and clear delivery of text and ideas – a con cern paramount over any ‘individual’ performance (and a rare performance feat that is for any actor). The Company was excellent.

A summary
War Stories, as offered here, might be conceived as a guerrilla provocation questioning the why of war, dealing as the investigation does, not with symptoms (as the UN’s alternative conflict resolution initiative), but with real causes. This might be further explored through longer (venue) residencies – and through shorter ‘Festival blasts’.

But to evaluate the real activity and legacy of the Festival, would be to gauge the movement, which might have taken place within any individual audience member or participant. While this is beyond the scope of the brief for this evaluation, it indicates the real focus of the overall project (through all its theatre and related activities): this is long term work – it is committed and it is relentless. During the Festival, and taken on bo ard, not least, was the concept, less of abolishing war, but of living in a permanent war . . .

If you are less concerned to deliver ‘a theatrical spectacle’, ‘success’ is barely measurable by audience numbers (it’s not going to happen); and nor necessarily by ‘artistic excellence, (although there was no question throughout the Festival, of form and content ever mis-matching; artistically it worked).

But the work of Az on this evidence, is close focussed, and it is infra-structural – its ideas, and the movements within individuals, emanate out, across the world – rarely have I witnessed such a plurality of nationalities at any theatre event.

When War Stories next ‘appears’, it will not be quite the same: the evolution of all those involved in its making is probably as Ñimportant as that of audience and participants.

And while there will perhaps always be a tension between experience of the continuum of War Stories itself, and experience of any one-off, single event – the latter appearing fragmentary, and even ‘non-theatrical’ – that too, will be difficult to accurately measure (even through audience questionnaires)

Outcomes for opportunity to further the overall project are already emerging:
– an embryonic initiative with LIFT
– future association with the Gilgamesh Centre in Baghdad
– further association with the writer Al-Asadi
– and already plans for work in Algeria next year

On the final day of the Festival, a thousand and more demonstrators (from East London Communities in Solidarity with Iraq), marched not 50 yards from the theatre. The call was to ‘Stop the war!’ In final evaluation, War Stories, may well prove the more effective.

Review in The Stage by Gareth Evans

War Stories: Short Plays about War
(Atsumori by Motokiyo Zeami; Strive by Stephen Lowe; Women in War by Jawad al-Asadi)
Oh! Art, Oxford House, Bethnal Green, London
From 9 to 27 November 2004
Company: Az Theatre
Director: Jonathan Chadwick
Cast: Ensemble, with Annabel Capper, Elsa Mollien, Tim Molyneux, Simon Muller, Frederique Nahmani.
Designer: Mamoru Iriguchi
2 hrs 30mins.

Staged in a mixed-media festival exploring creative responses to conflict, this triptych of short dramas could not, unfortunately, be more timely. Opening as US Occupation forces assaulted the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the plays’ shared spotlight on the psychological fallout from the organised violence of militarism is both important and, in the case of world English-language premiere ‘Women in War’, directly relevant. Realised, as its predecessors are, on a broad platform, suitably bare except for simple furniture – chairs, a table, everyday props – Iraqi al-Asadi’s moving work imagines three of his displaced countrywomen struggling to survive in a German refugee shelter. Played movingly and with conviction by Capper, Mollien and Nahmani, it tellingly portrays the often terminal pressures on such victims of the geopolitical chessboard, their very lives prey to the whims of distant bureaucrats. Written from the inside out, it h conjures truthful, often poetic insights into the reality of asylum.

‘Atsumori’ and ‘Strive’ also consider the less familiar legacies of war. The former is a Noh warrior play, examining the reconciliation between Rensho, now a remorseful monk, and the ghost of the titular warrior he killed. Molyneux and Muller deliver controlled performances that underscore the ritual in redemption, and both are prominent again in Lowe’s prescient one-acter, which weaves US / UK relations, the Falklands war, Greenham common women’s camp and ongoing media insensitivity into the charged encounter between a returning squaddie and his newly politicised girlfriend. A fertile piece asking profound questions, it’s exemplary of the whole ‘War Stories’ project.

Review in Al Riyadh by Fatima Al Mohsen

Three Plays About War
JAWAD AL ASADI Participates in an English Language Performance
Al Riyadh, 18th November 2004

For months now the British theatre has been busy producing plays about war, and in particular the present war in Iraq. David Hare, one of the country’s best known playwrights has written a play about the Iraq war which has received a great deal of media attention. Tim Robbins’ play ‘Embedded’ has been showing at the Riverside Studios.

On the 8th of this month, a small festival began in London, in which three short plays about war are being presented. Amongst them, is Iraqi director, Jawad Al Asadi’s ‘Women In War’. Asadi attended the performances. All three plays have been directed by UK director, Jonathan Chadwick.

The festival takes place at Oh! Art, Oxford House in London and runs from the 8th until the 27th of November. Aside from the plays, it includes workshops, poetry readings and exhibitions of painting. Helen Karam, a Lebanese artist, is exhibiting 3 paintings about women caught up in the Israeli massacre in Qana.

It is through the women in these plays that the tragedy reverberates which batters our emotions and overwhelms our values. The director has made use of the different ways in which word and thought connect and fuse in all three plays. The same actors appear in them all, in the same costumes and with a minimal set on a small stage.

The first play presented by Jonathan Chadwick is a classical Japanese work by Zeami, called Atsumori. It is performed in modern dress, but preserves the spiritual atmosphere and spirit of the classic Noh theatre, in a way that is original and untraditional. The characters are not dressed in traditional costumes, nor do they move according to the traditional gestures of the Noh theatre. The performance keeps close to the Noh theatre’s reliance on the voice and the word. The director has eschewed traditional visual means in order to reach right into the heart of attitudes to war and the traditions of the Samurai. Watching the play, we begin to understand the core of the relationship between enemies in war. War only creates death and death haunts both the killer and the killed.

The Samurai who has killed a man realises that this man was a remarkable hero and he feels guilt for having imposed this death on him. And so he becomes a monk and finally arrives at a point of love for and union with his former enemy, now his companion. The poetic speaking of the chorus helps us to explore the depth of the two characters. The victim is not only a noble warrior, but also a musician who plays the flute and a poet. The poetry and chanting and music unite the foes and purify their soul from the wounds of war. The human isolation experienced in war is conveyed by the place of poetry in the text. We understand that purification and healing happen, not from the outside, by external means, but from within.

The staging is a gamble. The stage is empty of any aesthetic distraction and this extreme simplicity and distillation makes a space for dialogue and human interaction, which the audience is free to accept or reject.

The atmosphere of the second play differs entirely from that of the first. It was written by Stephen Lowe about the Falklands War, fought and won by the British against Argentina. A returning soldier meets his girl, now changed by their separation and involved with women opposing war. During the opening scenes, an American film director arrives wanting to make a documentary about the couple and watches the dialogue between them and the end of their relationship. He decides this is not the reality he wants to show in his film. The war of words between the man and the woman reflects war in the outside world. The play discusses the relation between the US and the UK cemented in the Thatcher years. This is partly refracted through the character of the wife of the American director who watches the action of the play from afar and only enters it towards the end. The play depends on long dialogues and discusses political issues at a high level. Movement, visual elements and so on, therefore, are limited in this play.

The third play, ‘Women in WarÓ by Jawad Al Asadi was performed last month in Baghdad, directed by the writer and acted by Iraqi actresses. Here, in London, the play was presented in English for the first time. And Jonathan Chadwick did some editing of the text. The same actors as performed in the other two plays performed in this one.

The play is about three Iraqi women living in one room in an asylum shelter in Germany. The past haunts the present, haunts the new ‘home’. The first woman we see was an actress. She looks Nin the mirror and re-lives her life in the theatre. She tries to compensate for her losses and come to terms with her new circumstances by making her life into theatre. In the play this character provides a kind of balance between the two other conflicting and opposite characters. The first one of these has suffered from war, which has created an internal split, a rift in her very being, which cannot be healed. The second tries to live a new life, in spite of her isolation and alienation, her separation and her dislike of her new home. The two characters fight each other and their cruelty takes them to a point where one tries to kill the other, but on the other hand there is also tenderness between them.

They are connected with only a fine thread to their shelter – they expect and await deportation at any moment. One character œdies after a surgical operation, but only then does she receive her orders to leave the country, in an escalation of the curse of war, which seems to follow Iraqis everywhere. The tragedy of the play overwhelmed and transformed the sense of the place we were in. It seemed that the play was really about the tragedies of exile, but there was a great deal more that it is hard to explain in any explicit way. It was left open to the audience to find its own explanations. The play was well directed and the audience was attentive and held. There was a sense of the fluidity and changeability of character and identity. European actresses playing Iraqi women were ›able to bring their reality closer to this British audience, using eastern musicality, poetry and a richness of gesture accompanied by the raging emotion implicit in the text.

WAR STORIES: Az Theatre and oh!art
Production Credits

Director: Jonathan Chadwick
Producer: Rob Kouyoumdjian
Designer: Mamoru Iriguchi
Sound Design: Michael Kosmides
Lighting Design: Katharine Williams
Production Stage Manager: Luke Gledsdale
Marketing: Dan Pursey and Mobius Industries
Assistant Director: Jamie Harper
Actors: Annabel Capper, Frederique Nahmani, Elsa Mollien, Tim Molyneux, Simon Muller
Photography: Roy Cornwall, John Haynes
Original Flute: Lucy McIntyre

Production photographs by John Haynes 


Women in War