Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills
Wednesday July 23, 2008
Printed in the program for Scorched is a photograph of a Lebanese woman, sitting in the doorway of a burnt out old bus. She holds two photographs of young men who have been kidnapped – her sons. Her face is lined, her eyes fall downcast. She does not meet the gaze of the camera. Below the picture, an explanation of context:
“On 13 April 1975, Wajdi Mouawad [writer of Scorched] witnessed Christian militiamen machinegun this bus carrying Palestinians in Beirut’s eastern suburb of Ain al-Rummaneh, hours after the killing of a Christian outside a nearby church. He was a six-year-old bystander, no longer innocent. Twenty-seven passengers on board were killed and the civil war began.”
A young woman attempts to escape the horrors of war. A daughter searches for the truth about her mother. Family secrets are revealed. Character is tested in the worst possible circumstances. And as is the case with any war, living, breathing people become corpses before our eyes. Scorched unflinchingly explores suffering bought on by conflict, the courage in family, and both the valiant and the absurdly awful human condition.
Written by acclaimed Lebanese born playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Scorched was developed around the specificities of the original cast in France, which is just one of the difficult aspects any interpretation of this dense, powerful work will experience. At three hours long, it occasionally seems to stagger under its own weight: this is truly an epic undertaking even for one of Australia’s foremost theatre directors, Neil Armfield.
The beginning of the work is the weakest, if only for the red herrings it tosses the audience as far as subject matter and tone – it’s a farce, it’s a family drama, it’s absurd, it’s tragic. While the intention of such a multi-layered beginning taste tests all of these qualities for later development, the result is simply confusing, and there wasn’t a cohesive grasp on the journey of the play until the (admittedly incredibly powerful) climax leading into interval. Opening night may be the reason some of the text’s irony fails to create the meaning it intends, and why some of the younger cast peak too early emotionally. A seasoned pro such as Gillian Jones, however, has no trouble finding the balance.
The connection Mouawad has to this play transcends the personal. While Lebanon is never actually mentioned as a location, the work is clearly based on the civil war experienced by the writer at a young age. However it is no simple narrative explored here – timeframes shift between the past and the present and given the grand ideas, broad themes and powerful monologues, the overall feel leans towards the mythological. The horrors of war is not new territory as a theme, instead the creatives find the new in the unusual structure and unique point of view Mouawad has given them.
The bare bones set design (Stephen Curtis) offsets the meat of this production perfectly. With nowhere to hide, the cast must expose all, meeting our gaze to tell the stories of those who could not.