Photo credit: Simon Gosselin
Written and directed by Wajdi Mouawad. Performed during Festival TransAmériques, May 22-27, 2019
This year’s Festival TransAmériques opener, Tous des oiseaux, fulfills all the expectations that come with that weighty position. It’s a hugely ambitious spectacle from a contemporary theatre superstar, playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad. It’s also a bold, deeply humane (and, at four hours, very long) statement about the multiculturalism and internationalism on which the festival is built.
Yet, in other ways, it’s not so obvious a fit. It’s far more conventional in its dramatic strategy than we’re used to seeing here (though maybe last year’s Shakespeare epic Kings of War prepared us). Dancing Grandmothers it isn’t.
What it certainly is is a programming coup, a spectacular homecoming for Mouawad who made his name here in Montreal but is now artistic director of Paris’s La Colline, where this show debuted. It’s typical both of Mouawad’s theatrical audacity and commitment to crossing cultural borders that it contains not a word of French – there’s German, Hebrew, Arabic and English, with French surtitles which served La Colline audiences, as well as the FTA audience. There are no English surtitles, unfortunately, though Linda Gaboriau’s translation, published recently by Playwrights Canada Press, makes for helpful preparation for the francophonically challenged. And English audiences will be able to experience it when it plays at this year’s Stratford Festival as Birds of a Kind.
That Babel of voices is integral to the plot, which takes us — via some wonderful stage imagery involving projections and adaptable sections of a vast wall — to a New York library, a Berlin dinner party and on to both sides of the physical and psychological wall that divides Israelis and Palestinians.
It begins with Eitan, a young Jewish geneticist, imposing himself, with a certain manic presumption, on Wahida, a female Arabic student, in the reading room of that New York library. The book she is consulting, a biography on a 15th century Islamic diplomat forced to convert to Christianity, gives Eitan the pretext to pronounce lengthily on black holes, chance, fate, etc, not because of the book’s subject but because of the coincidence of its turning up on a table most times he visits the library. Now that he’s encountered the book’s reader, he marvels, something must be afoot in the universe.
We are already on notice that Mouawad’s dramatic strategy is not necessarily naturalistic, not least because nobody shushes Eitan. It also, initially at least, seems unlikely that Wahida wouldn’t just up and leave during his 15 minute spiel and head for the nearest security guard.
When Wahida finally gets to speak, it becomes gradually clear that she’s stepping out of the present and into a memory. It’s a fascinating dramatic device that runs throughout, with characters, say, crossing time and space to witness a dinner party to which they weren’t invited.
During Eitan’s unconventional introduction, Wahadi, it seems, has intuited that they’re fated to be together, as per Eitan’s theory that entwined matter split by the Big Bang is destined to reconfigure over the span of billions of years. So she stays. She listens. She accompanies him to a donut shop, they dance in a disco, they fall passionately, deliriously in love.
They are, in fact, a modern day Romeo and Juliet, though with potentially more devastating consequences. Later, we hear a story about a horrible trend of Israeli and Palestinian Romeo and Juliets protesting the impossibility of their star-cross’d love by blowing themselves up in public places.
Eitan’s father, David, is deeply, in fact, psychotically hostile towards the notion of his genetic line bifurcating over to the Arab side, as becomes clear in that brilliantly staged, and performed, dinner party.
When Eitan is hospitalized by a terrorist bomb on a visit with Wahida to Israel and beyond, all these family tensions rise to the surface in a series of twisting, sometimes hallucinatory confrontations between Wahida, Eitan’s mother and grandparents, a young female Israeli soldier and the ghost of that 15th century Islamic diplomat.
Greek tragedy, always a key influence on Mouawad, makes itself felt not just in the plot’s relentless progress towards a terrible reckoning, but also in the proliferation of long speeches enriched by heightened language and profound metaphors. There are many arresting ones here, for instance the one about the velocity of destructive news (which references Oedipus’s discovery of his true origins). That, though, is part of the problem. One lengthy speech follows another, all of them sticky with profundity, so that I began to dread a character saying to another things like: “Let me tell you about a mother’s love…” It often makes for magnificent and sagacious flights of beautiful writing, but it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama.
The fact that Mouawad directed as well as wrote the piece suggests there weren’t enough voices recommending cuts here and there. What would have been lost in the sense of its being an imposing theatrical monument might have been gained in a leaner, more gripping narrative. Something like the Greek tragedies on which Mouawad models his writing, in fact.
In the program notes, Mouawad mentions that, because of language barriers, this time he didn’t, as he usually does, shape the piece in the rehearsal rooms. Maybe there’s a less baggy version in the offing at Stratford. On the other hand, the mostly ecstatic reviews so far are most likely reassuring him that, if it ain’t broken…