The call of the conscious in reality theatre
CULTURE SHOCK : The performers in 'Radio Muezzin' help dismantle the idea of the Islamic Other, while reflecting on human presence
By FINTAN O'TOOLE
10.10.2009 / Irish Times
SO-CALLED “reality theatre”, which has been one of the main strands of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, seems like a contradiction in terms. The point of theatre is that it is not real. It may (or may not) proceed “as if” what is happening on stage is unfolding in real life. But even so, the illusion simply reinforces the feeling of distance from reality. Language and action are so concentrated, so consciously shaped by the need for dramatic compression and development, that we are reminded of how messy and shapeless their mundane non-theatrical selves really are.
What “reality theatre” can do, however, is to make us even more conscious of both reality and theatre. One of the outstanding shows of the festival, Radio Muezzin (Samuel Beckett Theatre until tomorrow), provides a superb example of how this can work. Devised and directed by Stefan Kaegi for the German documentary theatre pioneers Rimini Protokoll, it is performed by the people it is about. The muezzin give the call to prayer from mosques. In the play, four Egyptian muezzin describe their lives and their reactions to the decision of the government to replace them with a centralised system of live radio broadcasts.
Radio Muezzin is one of those extraordinary pieces that manage to be simultaneously very simple and dizzyingly complex. The “reality” bit accounts for the simplicity. The men sit on chairs on a mosque carpet. They tell us about their lives, both in terms of past history and of daily routine. They sing the calls and Koranic verses. They make some comments about questions they have been asked in Dublin. With a disarming directness, they tell us that one of the cast members (a star Koranic reader) quit the show a month ago because of tensions with other members of the cast: he has been hired by the government as one of the performers for the new centralised broadcast service.
At this level, the show can be seen as more educational than artistic. It is a terrific introduction to the practice of Islam and its integration of ritual into everyday activities. There is a fascination for a western, culturally Christian audience, in the way these men are not “holy” in our sense, not a priestly caste set apart. They perform a crucial religious function. They also, as we see acted out, vacuum the carpets and change the light bulbs.
In itself, this educational side to the piece is extremely valuable, and if its only point was to dismantle the idea of an Islamic Other, it would be a very fine enterprise. What’s remarkable, however, is that it manages at the same time to be a complex and intriguing reflection on all the things that European avant-gardists are obsessed with – the nature of performance, the meaning of human presence in the age of electronic reproduction.
There’s an artfulness, of course, in the choice of the muezzins as a way in to the Islamic world, for while they may not be actors, they are performers. By putting the individual singers side by side as well as using them occasionally in harmony, Kaegi allows us to feel the interplay between tradition and individuality, between the set forms of prayer and the personal notes of tone and timbre that each one brings to bear.
At the same time, the show makes brilliant use of electric media as a counterpoint to the personal directness of the muezzin themselves. It would have been easy to make the show into a moral tale of modernity crushing tradition, of old ways being steamrolled by new-fangled gadgetry. Instead, Radio Muezzin begins by telling us that the call to prayer hasn’t been delivered from minarets since the 1950s: everybody works with Chinese-made microphones and speakers.
One of the muezzin is an electrician who gives us a demonstration of the effects of two currents meeting. The guy who builds the transmitters that will make the centralised system work is as charming and sincere as the muezzin. There’s a fascinating digression on the special electronic clocks (and mobile phone programmes) that Muslims use to gauge the correct time for prayers in different parts of the world. And the show itself makes stunning use of electronically-projected imagery, from the men’s own family photographs to brilliantly filmed videos of Cairo.
Instead of a simplistic story about the struggle between the human voice and technology, therefore, we get a multi-layered reflection on the whole relationship between past and present, faith and modernity, authenticity and mechanical reproduction, the local and the global. And at the heart of that relationship is the most theatrical issue of all: presence.
The fascination of the call to prayer is that, for religious reasons, it has to be performed live and cannot be recorded. Does it matter, the show asks, whether that live performance is delivered by an unseen man in the local mosque singing into a microphone or an unseen man singing into a microphone at a radio station? The strange answer is that it does matter. But to explain why that should be so, we have to fall back on something we experience most directly in the theatre: the individual human presence of the performer. In a crowded city such as Cairo, the calls to prayer come from every direction, forming a cacophony of often dissonant voices of varying quality. The idea of centralising the system is to clean up this mess.
Behind the cacophony, however, are the individual voices. What is present in the air is not just a set of well-known forms, but the kind of personal stories that we hear on Radio Muezzin . Quietly and movingly, the play draws out that idea of the irreducible human presence. As it does so, it becomes even more theatrical for being ever more real.
Projects Radio Muezzin