Friday 20 September 2019

1,000 Splendid Suns is oppressive, difficult & smart  
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Religion. Taken apart, the word derives from the same Latin root as "ligature" -- namely  "a thing used for tying or binding tightly". Add the prefix "re" and that favourite Western funeral hymn "Blessed Be The Tie That Binds" takes on whole new meaning. Repeat-repeat-repeat the theme over the ages, ad nauseam.

Now add male domination and patriarchy coupled with repression and violence, still somehow all of this is meant to point to a future in Kabul of "1,000 splendid suns" that "hide behind her walls" and promise to shine on life's wreckages there. So the poet wishes.

As a stage production, Suns is as the above hed suggests : "difficult, oppressive & smart". And it is the last adjective that informs the ACT / Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre collaboration to render the show, to this eye, a triumph of nuance and sensitivity -- an elaborate tragic display of light, dark, colour, and haunting soundscape across the Stanley Theatre's 60-odd feet of proscenium stage.

Ken MacDonald's impressionistic set with multicoloured scrim sequences joined composer David Coulter's rich soundscape to imagine Afghanistan in a not-to-forget marriage of sight & sound.
Photo credit : David Cooper
The tale that is told is of the Sunni Talib in Afghanistan, the vindictive tribal "victors" in 1996 of what nearly 25 years later seems like perpetual civil war there. Luckily for us, Irish-Indian playwright Ursula Rani Sarma felt a compulsion to adapt Afghan-American Khaled Hossein's second novel of this sad time and place. Lucky, because regardless how desperate and oppressive this culture is, there is always hope in the shadows.

Rasheed is the neighbour of young Laila who is the only survivor when her family's home in Kabul is bombed just as they were planning their escape to Pakistan. Rasheed takes Laila in as a foster daughter. She grieves not only her dead family but also the loss of her childhood friend and teen-age love Tariq. 

Hearing from a friend of Rasheed that Tariq has been killed during his own flight to Pakistan, Laila succumbs to Rasheed's insistence she become his second wife. He does so in order that no shame befall his family by her continuing to live under his roof. Just 15, she has her own motives. But still she joins his other wife Mariam in bondage to Rasheed -- Mariam, meanwhile, old enough to be Laila's auntie.

Their ages are not their only contrast. While Laila has a jaunty intellect inspired by a university prof father who loved poetry, Mariam is untutored but instinctual. Laila knew love as a child, while Mariam was discarded and outcast by Dad after her illegitimate birth. Ultimately she in turn abandons her mother "for love", an arranged (paid-for) marriage to Rasheed the shoemaker. 

Laila's daughter Aziza is born shortly after her marriage to Rasheed, and at first childless Mariam is seethingly jealous. Her five or so miscarriages have, understandably, jaded her. The essence of Suns is how Mariam and Laila ultimately form a survival bond in response to Rasheed's abusive and violent temperament. They learn from Mariam's Nana that "There is only one skill, tahamul. Endure."

Indeed the endurance bond that grows between Mariam and Laila is the at heart of their struggles, despite the gaps in their age and psyches. The baby Aziza is a large catalyst here. But in this life in this place there can be no triumph, ultimately, only escape, whether alive or dead.

As Rasheed points out, rural Afghanistan villages have thrived on fundamentalist Islamic practices like Sharia revenge-laws for centuries.  And just this week The Economist declares "Violence against civilians in Afghanistan stands at near-record levels" -plus- 
"The Taliban are slowly gaining ground and control much of the countryside."

But back to the Stanley and "fiction". No question what perhaps compels the most -- straightaway -- is the unique blend of composer David Coulter's symphonic cacophony of strings and recorders and electro-pop drones-&-percussion. Add his audial brilliance to set designer Ken MacDonald's wizard backdrop of mountains and sun and rockery in every imaginable hue : red and orange and white and black and green and faint yellow. A better marriage of sight and sound I do not believe I have yet witnessed in eight years of doing BLR reviews.

Then there are the actors. Not a weak outing by any of the eleven who comprise the cast. But major major huzzah's are in order for Anita Majumdar as Laila : her facial modulation and delicacy and subtlety joined exquisite vocal projection and interpretation-of-role that simply stun.

Her foil, Deena Azia as Mariam, is nearly equal in power and punch, while Anousha Alamian as Rasheed betrays almost no redeeming human qualities as a culturally-bred and wholly conditioned male chauvinist bully. Which is what novelist Hosseini intended and playwright Sarma delivers compellingly. For her part, the hovering Nana, Arggy Jenati, is chilling as the ghost haunting her daughter Mariam.

With five minutes to go in Act 1 I was desperately hoping Intermission would rescue me from the weight and mass of the storyline. Act 2 didn't lighten up one iota overall -- though the playful scenes between teen Aziza (Aiyana Vasaya) and her spoiled but charming little brat of a brother Zalmai (Shaheem Fathhi) at least brought a wink or two of comic relief.

Men and religion are often a toxic match. 1,000 Splendid Suns does nothing to neutralize such a poisonous concoction. That Afghanistan and the Taliban are the chosen vehicles to propel this theme forward is as much coincidence as design -- the template has existed for centuries and continues cancerously across much of today's world. For a peek at what true courage looks like, by contrast, the women of Suns are a breathtaking and heartbreaking mix simply not to be missed.

Particulars :  Produced by Arts Club Theatre in partnership with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.  At Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.  On until October 13, 2019.  Run-time 130 minutes including intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  

Performers : Anousha Alamian (Rasheed), Abraham Asto (Tariq/Driver/Militiaman), Deena Aziz (Mariam), Shaheem Fathhi (Zalmai/Boy), Arggy Jenati (Nana/Fariba/Doctor), Anita Majumdar (Laila), Shekhar Paleja(Jalil/Abdul/Sharif/Wakil/Talib 1), Veenu Sandhu (Ensemble), Munish Sharma (Babi/Interrogator/Mullah/Faizullah), Parm Soor (Ensemble), Ziyana Vasaya (Aziza/Girl) 

Creative Team : Haysam Kadri (Director), Carey Perloff (Original Staging), Stephen Buescher (Choreographer), Marc R. Bondy (Assistant Director), Ken MacDonald (Set Designer), Linda Cho (Costume Designer), Alison Green (Costume Coordinator), Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer), Andrew Griffen (Associate Lighting Designer), David Coulter (Composer/Original Musician), Jake Rodriguez (Sound Designer), Verne Good (Associate Sound Designer), Caryn Fehr (Stage Manager), Geoff Jones (Assistant Stage Manager), Sharon Wu (Apprentice Stage Manager) Michael Paller (Original Dramaturg), Jonathan Rider (Original Fight Consultant), Humaira Ghilzai (Original Cultural Consultant)


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