The announcement of an 18-year sentence for Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba two weeks ago for complicity in mass rape in the Central African Republic hung thick in the air as I took in Butterfly Effect’s production of Yazmin Reza’s God of Carnage at the The Lab Space in Beitou last weekend.
Even for those who concern themselves with these things, the global events the play references can appear ephemeral, like the unsmoked cigars of the male protagonists. It is only through their quotidian parallels in Western society that they are given significance. I’m reading Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism at the moment, and the idea that events in the (former) colonies have no objective existence detached from the Western Metropolitan occurred to me more than once as I watched the play.
With Asian-American/Canadian (and one Malaysian-Chinese) actors portraying white American middle-class couples in a play translated from the original French, with Chinese surtitles flitting across a screen, culture and otherness took on even more resonance. Cobble Hill and Whitman Park became Zhongquan (中全) Park and Yucheng (玉成) Park and the hypocrisy and phoniness fit snugly into a Taipei setting.
Aside from some images of George Clooney, the average Westerner probably doesn’t remember much about Darfur anymore, yet as director Jaime Zuñiga points out, “The genocide in Darfur has ended, but Omar al Bashir is still in power; the conflict has moved to the Nuba mountains, and the crisis persists”.
This ignorance is only magnified by staging the play in Taiwan, where even well-educated worldly people often seem to have a shaky grasp of world affairs, and the media has engendered an insularity that is reinforced by gold-fish attention spans. Even the character of Veronica, who has made the internecine conflict in Africa her raison d’etre, does not want to be confronted with the brutal reality.
The itinerant Zuñiga, who had departed for Melbourne by the time I caught the performance, was struck by an anti-mimetic current from the onset. Referring to the character Alan’s broadside about atrocities in the Congo, Zuñiga says, “That is one of the things that gave me goosebumps. I’ve been working on the play since February, so a lot of things emerged in the process.”
Another eerie coincidence, he felt, was that the show’s closing number became an anti-violence fundraising theme for the recent Orlando massacre. Given that it was the Burt Bacharach standard What the World Needs Now is Love, I’m not so convinced about how fluky that was. The fact remains, though, that the child-adult savage dialectic as a microcosm of the world’s woes is evocative.
It was my first time at The Lab Space, and I was impressed. Firstly, it really is a space. The walk to the theatre is a surprisingly long one and there are offices and rooms along both sides, giving you an indication of how serious Butterfly Effect founder and artistic director Brook Hall takes his work.
The set itself is a revelation. In his program notes, Hall quotes playwright and director George C. Wolfe, who says “Film is about stories, television is about characters, and theatre is about ideas”. As politically charged as the dialogue is, the set is where this comes most viscerally into play for me.
Even if the image on the promo material and program hadn’t made it obvious, the boxing ring dimensions and feel (square circle as they call in the sweet science) of the living room set the stage for the pugilistic linguistics* that ensue. The sand is what immediately catches your attention. Post-performance, the audience had their own ideas about this.
The playground element was clear. “The parents meet to discuss an altercation in the playground and end up fighting like children in a playground’s sandbox,” says Zuñiga.
Sitting myself down ringside, I found the sand suggested a beach: both peaceful yet potentially dangerous (well, to mollycoddling parents in Taiwan). The sand on the top of a sumo ring was another image that occurred to me. Derek Kwan’s show-stealing portrayal of Michael, awkward, chittering, yet brimming with latent menace, reinforced the notion that dust was going to be kicked up.
In fact, Michael sweeps it up, revealing a picture beneath in the process. Tellingly, though the image begins to emerge, we never get to see the whole thing. Zuñiga explains, “The image below is a replica from an actual drawing by a 13 year old Darfuri refugee in a refugee camp in Chad on the border with Sudan. It depicts how his village was burned by the Janjaweed, the Arab militia in charge of the ethnic cleansing of black Sudanese”.
The sand then takes on another significance because “one of the reasons for this massacre has been the desertification of the arable land and the lost of crops.”
In terms of the dialogue, there are so many lines that get you thinking, but, as a struggling writer, it was an exchange between Veronica and Alan toward the end that caught my attention. When he accuses her of writing her book “to save herself”, she responds by saying he doesn’t even know what it’s about. “It makes no difference”, he tells her. Zuñiga told me he felt this extends the indictment of Western middle class hypocrisy (Veronica) and apathy (Alan). “That’s the arrogance and the ignorance, from my point of view, of our comfortable civilised lives”.
Personally, I see another layer to this one: the sense of frustration and uselessness that many – perhaps most – writers have, particularly on subjects that they feel are the most important. What Alan is saying here is that one book about Darfur is as worthwhile as any other. Any load of doggerel is up there with the greatest novel. Moral and aesthetic relativism are thus intertwined.
While such a world weariness informs the play (the closing line sums this existential angst up), it should not dissuade those looking for some straight-up entertainment and a bunch of belly laughs from going to see this God of Carnage.
When people in Taiwan ask me what I miss most about London, theatre is high on my list. I have such great memories of attending performances, mainstream and fringe, with Mother Writing Baron. It was great to see some decent live theatre here in Taiwan. Tomorrow’s your last chance to catch this thoroughly enjoyable show.
* Bitten from Jeru the Damaja, Mental Stamina, 1994.