Birds Of A Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster. The Berliner Ensemble.
Current Issue, Reviews, Volume 13

Performance Review: Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster

Birds Of A Kind. By Wajdi Mouawad. Directed by Robert Schuster. The Berliner Ensemble, Berlin. March 30, 2022.

Reviewed by Marvin Carlson, Graduate Center, CUNY

Birds Of A Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster. Berliner Ensemble.

Probably the most popular contemporary author on the German stage at this moment is the Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad.  His latest work, Birds of a Kind, was premiered in 2017 at the Theatre de la Colline in Paris, of which Mouawad is the director.  It received its German premiere in Stuttgart in November of 2018, the opening production of the new administration of Burkhart C. Kosminski, who has a special interest in contemporary playwrights. In 2019-2020 Birds was spoken of as the “play of the year” in the German theatre, simultaneously offered in fourteen different cities.  Obviously the pandemic interrupted this growth, but with the reopening of the German theatres, productions continue to multiply.  The first Berlin production took place January 29, 2022, at the Berliner Ensemble, where I had the good fortune to see it in late March.

Readers familiar with the Berliner Ensemble will doubtless recall the richly decorated interior, so seemingly unsuited to the spare, functional stage envisioned by Brecht. For decades the Berliner Ensemble, unlike most major German theatres, had no alternative stage, a situation changed as recently as the fall of 2019, when the Neues Haus (New House) was opened, a large black box far more suited to the kind of functional staging which Brecht did much to inspire.  This was the venue of the new Mouawad play and director Robert Schuster and designer Sascha Gross created in its flexible and open performance area a constantly shifting visual field, with minimal physical elements on a turntable and a large background screen which offered at various times newsreel type images of destruction and violence, abstract land and seascapes, and dissolving pixilated images only hinting at their content.  The video designer was Bahadir Hamdemir, a leading German visual artist who has worked for a number of leading theatres.

 Birds has many features in common with Mouawad’s best known work, the 2003 Scorched–immigrant children in the new world, unable to free themselves of the trauma of the endless Middle Eastern cycle of violence that follows them like the curse on a classic Greek family, internal and external tensions between generations and layers of the self, and, again suggesting Greek tragedy, a hidden family secret whose revelation drives the action of the play and which leads to the tragic resolution.

Rarely has a drama dealt with intercultural tensions and negotiations so successfully on so many levels at once.  This interculturalism is built into the very genesis of the play, which arose from conversations between the Lebanese-Canadian dramatist and the Jewish cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis, who wrote a book on the 15th century Persian historian Hassan Ibn Muhamed El Wazzan, who was captured by pirates and taken to the court of Pope Leo X who released him when he converted to Christianity.  From Hassan comes the Persian fable of the amphibious bird which concludes Mouawad’s play and resonates culturally in a manner that many German critics compared to the similarly central parable of the ring in Lessing’s Nathan the Wise.  The student of modern Arab drama might well also recall the utopian dream/fable surrounded by darkness that ends Jalila Baccar’s Trilogy of Future Memory.

One of the most challenging multicultural dimensions of Mouawad’s drama is in its use of language, since all of the characters speak the language they would employ in real life.  The story begins with an encounter in a New York library, a meeting between two modern secular university students.  One is of Jewish heritage, Eitan Zimmermann (played by Dennis Svensson), whose parents David and Norah live in Berlin with his grandfather Etgar, and whose grandmother Leah lives in Israel.  The other is Wahida, a girl of Palestinian descent (played by Philine Schmölzer), who is writing a thesis on the sixteenth century multicultural diplomat and author Hassan bin Muhammed El Wazzan.  Although they speak jokingly of Romeo and Juliet as they are attracted to each other, they are convinced that in the modern world the conflict of their cultural background can have no significant impact on themselves.  Eitan, a geneticist, seemingly clinches this attitude by insisting that we all share the same chromosomes, although of course we recognize the shadow of dramatic irony behind these confident words.  Moving through the communities of each of these characters involves the extensive use of Hebrew, Arabic, German and English, with a constant underlining of the negotiations involved and occasional pointed references to the slippery meaning of “mother tongue.” I found Mouawad’s use of this heteroglossia powerful and theatrical, although I must admit that even though the program specifically listed a “dialect coach for American,” the accents of Eitan and Wahida in the opening scenes were so far from American (or at least New York American) that I had enormous difficulty understanding them and had to join my German audience members in following the scene with the aid of the German supertitles.

As they become more closely bonded, Eitan and Wahida decide to go to Israel to investigate a family mystery—why Eitan’s grandmother remained in Israel when his grandfather and father left her to go to Germany.  The quest is somewhat similar to that in Mouawad’s previous Scorched, although much more specifically involved this time with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and at the same time even broader in its cultural implications.  Although Wahida originally goes to Israel to accompany Eitan on his quest and that quest remains the central structural element of the play, his project more and more draws her into a concern with her own background, in which she had little interest at the beginning of the play.  Her parallel self-discovery adds significantly to the implications of the work, not least because of the gender and sexual tensions it involves.

In Jerusalem, Eitan is badly hurt in a terrorist bombing, and the other characters in the drama gather around his bed in a Jerusalem hospital, where the simmering tensions between the past and the present, the two cultures locked in inescapable conflict, are played out among the family members assembled there and other figures summoned up by Eitan’s liminal condition, most notably Muhammed El Wazzan himself, who serves as a kind of guiding angel to the action and the embodiment of a seemingly unachievable reconciliation of conflicting cultures. On a more earthly level, a powerful group of actors surround Eitan and struggle over how to relate to his forbidden love and his dangerous quest.  Perhaps most powerful is Martin Rentzsch, as Eitan’s formidable and devotedly orthodox father, David, the actual tragic center of the action, but the other family members create a formidable ensemble.  Kathrin Wehlisch, Eitan’s mother, is a shrewd but coldly analytic psychiatrist, whose devotion to analytic rationalism can be clearly seen in her son.  Eitan’s separated grandparents are both complex and highly engaging—Leah, played by Znaomi Krauss, sharp-talking and cynical, made more so by carefully guarding the family’s devastating secret for decades and Etgar, played by Robert Spitz, a warmly engaging figure whose deep humanity seems out of place in the bloody realities of the world in which he finds himself.

The production, running three hours with a single intermission, is a taxing one, and I felt that some of the scenes could have been somewhat reduced, but the interplay of the actors is so powerful and tension-filled, the cultural stakes so high, and the development of the symbolic structure so impressive, that I could hardly have asked for any serious cutting.  The conclusion, like that of Scorched, is not an optimistic one, in keeping with the seemingly intractable political situation with which it deals, but the image of El Wazzan’s amphibious bird hovers over the dark world of the play and offers the hope and vision of a world in which somehow, miraculously, even the most inconceivable reconciliation of opposing forces is still possible to imagine, and indeed may be our only continuing source of hope.


Marvin Carlson is the founding editor of Arab Stages and Sidney E. Cohn Professor emeritus of theatre and performance, comparative literature and middle eastern studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He is the author of many essays and books in theatre studies, the most recent of which is Theatre and Islam (Bloomsbury, 2019).


Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

 

Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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