Wajdi Mouawad really seems to not want to talk to Canadian journalists about the homecoming of his new hit play, Tous des oiseaux, which has its North American premiere this week in the coveted opening slot of the Festival TransAmériques (FTA) in Montreal.
It was impossible to arrange a phone interview with the celebrated Québecois theatre-maker now living in France through the FTA’s publicists, or through those at the Stratford Festival, which will premiere a translation (of sorts) of Mouawad’s play under the title Birds of a Kind in July.
Even when I showed up in December at the doorstep of Paris’s Théâtre national de la Colline, the French national theatre where Tous des oiseaux originates and where Mouawad was appointed artistic director in 2016, his team let me in to see this powerful play on a sold-out, return engagement, but wouldn’t grant me an audience with the man himself.
Martin Faucher, artistic director of the FTA, says not to take this personally, however.
Since Tous des oiseaux first premiered in the fall of 2017 in the gripping, four-hour production (no, not an oxymoron) now visiting Montreal, the playwright and director has declined to speak about the show, which won the prestigious Grand Prix de la critique in France.
“Wajdi wants audiences to have direct contact with this work, rather than come in between his work and the audience,” says Faucher.
While Mouawad is hardly the first playwright who’d rather let a play speak for itself, few plays speak in as unique a way as Tous des oiseaux
Though created at a French national theatre, there is not a word of French spoken in the play – which is as adamantly poetic, explosively emotional and full of unapologetic coincidence as any of Mouawad’s best work.
The tour-de-force tragedy’s characters instead speak in English, German, Hebrew and in (two different dialects of) Arabic depending on the context.
Tous des oiseaux’s francophone audiences in Montreal, like those in Paris, will have to read the play as it is performed through artfully projected translations that make it look like a graphic novel brought to life. (Due to this design, alas, there can be no English surtitles added in for the Hebrew, Arabic and German-language sections at the FTA, says Faucher.)
On the surface, Tous des oiseaux is a return to the sweeping style of drama Mouawad made his international reputation with, particularly Incendies, transformed into a 2010 Oscar-nominated movie by Denis Villeneuve (and produced under the title Scorched in a hit English-language production at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre).
Like Incendies, Tous des oiseaux involves a pair of young protagonists who discover family secrets hidden away from them by a history of war.
But unlike Incendies, which involved civil war in a never-specified Middle Eastern country, Tous des oiseaux is very precise about the real-world origins of its characters.
Wahida (Nelly Lawson), an American of Arab background studying history, and Eitan (Jérémie Galiana), a German-born Jew who studies genetics, meet in a New York library and fall in love.
After Eitan’s devout father David (Raphael Weinstock) reacts with intense fury at this relationship, the lovers head to Israel in search of understanding. There, a terrorist attack on the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank leads them to traumatic truths emanating from the Second World War and the Six-Day War.
The casting of Mouawad’s production reflects the diversity of the characters he has written. It features Israeli and German actors as well as the striking Syrian actor in exile, Jalal Altawil, as real-life 16th-century diplomat and geographer Hassan al-Wazzān a.k.a. Leo Africanus (who tells a moving parable about a bird that gives the play its title).
The careful selection of the artists involved in Mouawad’s production is an interesting contrast to fellow Quebec theatre-maker Robert Lepage’s Kanata: Episode 1 at Théâtre du Soleil, a show which aimed to explore the trauma of Indigenous peoples in Canada, but couldn’t find space for any Indigenous artists in the cast or creative team. (I saw these two shows by Canadians in Paris days apart in December.)
And yet, Tous des oiseaux is, ultimately, a play that challenges identity politics, at least their destructive side – though I won’t spoil how. As Faucher puts it, “It was necessary to name who is German, who is Israeli, who is Palestinian – to specify the identities, to better deconstruct them.”
Mouawad’s own identity as artist and human is complex. The graduate of Canada’s National Theatre School and former artistic director of the French theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre would land on any list of this country’s greatest playwrights – but, born in Lebanon, and now living again in France, a country his family passed through before settling in Quebec, he is claimed elsewhere, too.
Tous des oiseaux’s origin story is similarly complex: Mouawad first started writing the play when Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino sent him a book about Leo Africanus (possibly Shakespeare’s inspiration for Othello) called Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds by University of Toronto professor Natalie Zemon Davis back in 2007.
The script then ended up being workshopped at the Schaubuhne in Berlin in 2011 – but it took six more years to premiere as Mouawad’s first new production as artistic director of La Colline in Paris.
So while I called Tous des oiseaux’s presentation in Montreal this week a homecoming, it’s one that challenges that idea of homecomings in form as well as content.
Tous des oiseaux runs at the Festival TransAmériques (May 22-27) and the Carrefour international de théâtre in Quebec City (June 3). Birds of a Kind runs at the Stratford Festival (July 30 to Oct. 13).
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