I’ve just seen Birds of a Kind, a recent play by Wajdi Mouawad that received its English language premiere this month at the Stratford Festival’s studio theatre space. I was drawn to it by Ken Gass’s strong recommendation, and recalling my previous experiences of Mouawad
- His direction of the Canadian Opera Company’s co-production (with Opéra de Lyon) of Abduction from the Seraglio in early 2018
- Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies adaptating Mouawad’s play
- A production of Mouawad’s play Scorched (Incendies translated into English) that I saw at University of Toronto
Currently director of Le Théâtre national de la Colline in Paris, Mouawad was previously Artistic Director of French theatre at the National Arts Centre, and appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.
I interrupt this lengthy preamble to mention that Birds of a Kind is the best production of a play I’ve seen in a long time, possibly the best I’ve ever seen at Stratford. It’s three hours and twenty minutes long with a 20 minute intermission, yet the time flies by, speaking as someone who regularly watches 3 and 4 hour operas. I’ll try to avoid giving away too much about this play, that delivers several breathtaking surprises.
As with the COC co-production mentioned above, there’s a trans-Atlantic connection involving different companies. Stratford Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino who directed Birds of a Kind, described the gradual gestation of the project (in this excerpt from the program note that I quote immediately below; you can explore them by clicking here), beginning back in 2006 from the inspiration of Natalie Zemon Davis’s book Trickster Travels concerning Leo Africanus,
“…a historical figure who many believe served as inspiration for the character of Othello.
A Moroccan diplomat who was born in Granada, Leo Africanus – or al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, as he was named at birth – was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean in 1518 on his way back from Mecca. Realizing they had no ordinary man in hand, the pirates made a gift of him to Pope Leo X. The Pope, a Medici prince, took a great liking to Wazzan and offered him liberty in exchange for his conversion to Christianity. Wazzan then wrote a series of brilliant books, including an introduction to Africa, a continent as yet largely unknown to Europeans. He is thought to have died in Tunis in 1554.”
The resulting play Tous des oiseaux won the critics award as the most outstanding piece of theatre in the Paris season for 2017/18.
Africanus aka Wazzan is at the heart of this story, whether in its French version or in the one seen here in Stratford, with the subtitle “English Translation by Linda Gaboriau.” I call attention to the problematic matter of language because it’s not just a play that was in French that’s now heard in English. Oh no. Indeed I don’t know for sure how many other languages we hear.
Just from the technical requirements of the cast, it’s a phenomenal tour de force when we observe that in addition to English, we hear German, Hebrew, at least one Arabic language, some of the cast functioning in multiple languages. I’m grateful for the titles projected onto surfaces around the stage, enabling us to follow some of what’s being said. I say “some” because I’m a bit of an agnostic in my experience with titles. I’m certain that the production takes this very seriously considering how much is projected, sometimes in Arabic characters, when the Arabic speaker begins to speak in English. It’s magical yet I know that nuances can be lost, especially when we’re hearing the kind of passionate ferocity we get in so many places of this show. I suspect that every outing with this remarkable script is an event in the lives of this cast, particularly the principals.
It’s a bit of déjà vu reading Cimolino’s essay about the theme of the season as “Breaking Boundaries”, not unlike Toronto Summer Music’s recent festival theme “Beyond Borders”. But Cimolino doesn’t have to remind us of the 21st century politics invoked in Tom Allen’s opening monologue earlier this summer (when he spoke of a certain American pre-occupied with walls & those who would cross them), not when they’re front & centre in this multi-generational play.
We begin with the young students, German-born Eitan who would reduce everything to chromosomes, denying anything transcendental, meeting the American Palestinian Wahida, who is doing her thesis on Africanus /Wazzan. The unlikely pairing is an affront to Eitan’s parents, David & Norah. But just when you think you see where the story might be going, we meet David’s parents Leah & Etgar. Where I thought I was to see a story reminding me of Romeo & Juliet, a pair of feuding cultures, Mouawad surprised me completely in the trajectories of the stories.
I found myself laughing often, wondering if I could comfortably call this piece a romantic comedy (recalling that for the first part of Shakespeare’s play we might mistake it for a romantic comedy: at least until the moment when Mercutio is surprised to notice that he’s been run through. Mouawad seems darker than Shakespeare offering us fewer places to hide). But maybe genre is as misleading as language or culture, another label to deceive or confound you. I found myself thinking of the ambivalence of someone like Gustav Mahler, whose music encompasses agony & comedy sometimes in the very same moment. As usual Stratford feels like a refuge from the world, a place to enact rarities and to ask the deep questions.
I wondered too about the title itself, which is a bit problematic. Did they mean “birds of a feather” but chose to avoid that over-used epithet? The metaphor for the title is unpacked by Cimolino in the program notes.
“The title comes from a story told by Wazzan/Leo Africanus about an amphibious bird. In order to avoid paying taxes to the Bird King, the bird dives into the water and lives among the fish. He does so until the Fish King asks that he pay taxes. The bird then returns to the air – for a time. It’s telling that Wazzan is intrigued by the bird’s ability to defy the conventional demands of identity. Birds are not bound by walls or borders. If you could ask a bird, “Where are you from?” it would likely answer, “From all over!” Birds’ migratory routes inform their sense of identity, but no single place defines them.”
Cimolino might want to remind us that, as if to illustrate the Festival’s theme, birds break boundaries. But I think we would hear a different explanation from Eitan –the reductive one obsessed with our chromosomes—who might argue that the birds are simply flying and that to them boundaries don’t exist. Political fictions are nonsense to them, and arguably to humans as well. Love or faith transcend the lines drawn on the map.
Birds of a Kind flies on the wings of some remarkable performances in several languages. There was so much going on, that I suspect my focus is a bit like telling you what I saw staring at an inkblot, saying more about my neuroses than an accurate report of this densely textured piece, one I need to see again. Wahida from Baraka Rahmani opposite Eitan by Jakob Ehman are our Palestinian-American Juliet & our European Romeo, quickly sucking us into a story that will morph several times. Alon Nashman’s David eventually becomes the central figure of the play, enormously energetic in multiple languages, poignant & heart-breaking, opposite Sarah Orenstein, as his overly rational & reductive wife Norah. And again just when I thought I knew where it might be going I was blind-sided by the older generation, Deb Filler as Leah bluntly setting us straight again & again, in contrast to the gentle wisdom of Harry Nelken’s Etgar. Sitting in the very back row I was still right on top of the action for this powerful piece; in other words there are no bad seats in this little theatre.
I found myself crying & laughing a great deal, and wanting to see it again.
As with Incendies I suspect Birds of a Kind / Tous des oiseaux will be filmed at some point. In the meantime if you have a chance to get to Stratford to see this play, do go see it.