Theatre Review: Truth and Treason

 Truth and Treason by Rahul Varma, Directed by Ariana Bardesono, September 8-19, 2009, Studio Hydro Quebec, Monument National, Montreal.

Christine Khalifa and Abdel Ghafour Elaazir

Christine Khalifa and Abdel Ghafour Elaazir

There is no denying that Truth and Treason is politically compelling. The shooting of a ten year old Iraqi-Canadian girl at the start of the play is an echo of the horrible recent bombing of the two oil tankers in Afghanistan. The set design is perfect for the content and the direction of the ten compelling performers is very good. It is also very important to reconfirm outrage at the making of war for profit and to be horrified by the on-going corruption that is the war in Iraq. The play is a very cinematic work; moving rapidly from short scene to short scene to movement and then more very short scenes.

I am one of the converted. I read the international news and keep my outrage fresh Therein lies the problem. Unlike Rahul Varma’s Bhopal, this play had no emotional focus. It was really impossible to identify with or even sympathies with any of the characters. I understand that we are accomplices in this and any war fought in our name.

Yet theatre has its own internal rules. There could have been a great emotional moment when Ahmed the Iraqi finally decides to go to Canada, after a great deal of begging on the part of his wife and the U.N. soldier. After his monumental announcement, the others in this scene just walk off and it never gets the emotional punch it merits, or rather, the emotional catharsis for which the audience was holding its collective breath.

There was an opportunity for some kind of feeling in the scene between husband and wife, after all he had been imprisoned for eighteen months and they had just lost a child. It was very hard to buy a love story between the uber- capitalist organizer of a conference of international investors and the relatively sympathetic American captain who actually made some effort to save the child. We were expected to buy a complex relationship without any foundation. The captain is the one character in the play who has integrity and honour, yet his part was so underdeveloped that Alex Ivanovici, whom I usually love in performance had only two notes, intense and quiet or loud and over the top. David Francis, one of our best actors, an actual national treasure, played the Commander in a virtual monotone. His character was written more as a caricature than a persona. Sarah Garton Stanley was more varied in her role as a reporter, but she should have known as a director herself that the script was underdeveloped.

Christine Aubin Khalifah, showed promise but was not given a chance to act. The idea of a lost child is enough to make most people emote. Her performance was so reserved; one did not feel for her at all. Abdeighafour Eleaaziz was not only too understated, he was sometimes barely comprehensible. Ivan Smith was performing in presentational mode as the sheik and the Prime Minister, while the other actors were seemingly in a method acting representational style. I would like to see Warona Setshwaelo perform in something more manageable. She has a terrific presence and is always interesting to watch. Her dialogue seemed awfully repetitive and her persona one- dimensional.

It was apparent in the performance that some of the actors were struggling with their lines. In the program there was an accent consultant, well, in pronunciation accent is not nearly as important as tone rhythm and stress.

Brecht wrote about the alienation technique, but no one is unmoved by Mother Courage and her fate. The scenes in Truth and Treason are so short, that they become very similar and it is harder and harder to follow the story. There were many scenes which merited longer beats. Very often the tone of the sentences was so flat that one was guessing at the meaning. It requires a particular ear to understand the import of certain dialogue, especially when the dialogue is minimal.

There is a great play here; I believe that Rahul has a plot that can work and a number of fascinating sub-plots. What he needs is a lot more dramaturgy. It is difficult enough to arouse an audience that is not yet converted to a point of view as sharp and important as Rahul’s; exposition and exhortation are not enough to accomplish this. Instead of giving us a huge beautiful canvass, one felt that here was graffiti being sprayed on and erased as we watched. I only hope that this play gets the next draft that it so clearly deserves and that it will be re-mounted soon.

Born in a refugee camp outside Stuttgart Germany, Anna Fuerstenberg, is a noted Montreal Playwright and actress, whose works have been performed in Canada and abroad.