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Can a Greek Tragedy Help Heal a Scarred City?


MOSUL, Iraq — In this war-battered city, acting students picked their way to rehearsals over chunks of concrete late last month, avoiding stairs that might give way, circumnavigating puddles of fetid water and always keeping their distance from men with guns. No one could be trusted, not even those in uniform.

“We do not need to act a tragedy,” said Mustafa Dargham, 19, gesturing at the blasted shell of the former Fine Arts Institute as he took a break from rehearsals of “The Oresteia,” the ancient Greek trilogy by Aeschylus.

“This play is just talking about the reality of Mosul,” he added.

Mr. Dargham was appearing in a version of “The Oresteia” adapted by the Swiss theater director Milo Rau and his NTGent theater company based in Ghent, Belgium.

Greek tragedies may go back 2,500 years, but theater directors continue to find them extraordinarily resonant, sometimes staging them in contemporary settings or finding other ways to emphasize how pride and passion, ancient or modern, can bleed out and leave a society in ruins.

Mr. Rau takes it another step. In a provocative manifesto he issued when he took over the theater, he pledged to rehearse or present one show a year in a conflict zone. His overarching idea is to redefine theater, so that even classics are reconceived for a 21st century marked by war and terrorism.

In this case, he endeavored to fuse the tragedy of Mosul with that of the House of Atreus, the dynasty at the center of the trilogy. His version, “Orestes in Mosul,” focuses on an eternal theme: the cycle of revenge and the difficulty of exorcising it.

In Mr. Rau’s treatment, Mosul all but becomes a character, testimony to the devastation that revenge leaves in its wake and to the obstacles — physical and spiritual — to reclaiming civilization.

Iraqi actors cannot easily get visas to the West, so the full production will combine video clips of them discussing and rehearsing the play in Mosul with live performances by seven European actors, two of whom are of Iraqi origin.

“I wanted to do what tragedy means, where every decision is wrong, where there is no good choice,” said Mr. Rau.

In many ways, he could not have come to a better place to show that.

Here the Islamic State’s invasion, takeover and defeat resulted in a city of victims and perpetrators, and some who were both at once. It is a place where suspicion is rife, informers are everywhere, and daily life is painfully hard.

Yet a week spent with Mr. Rau and his European team as they worked with Iraqi performers also demonstrated how his assumptions were challenged on the ground, often putting in sharp relief how far apart Iraq and Europe are when it comes to attitudes toward homosexuality and the role of women.

Mr. Rau’s world of European theater — highly intellectual and restrained — and that of Mosul, where acting styles incline toward melodrama, often seemed far from each other, but then would unexpectedly click, finding an exhilarating synergy.

Actors like Mr. Dargham, who played a member of the chorus, saw Mr. Rau and his team arriving with preconceptions, focused on the Islamic State’s invasion but seemingly oblivious to other painful episodes.

Since the “Belgian group,” as he called them, did not ask, he never mentioned that his father, an Iraqi army colonel, was killed by Al Qaeda when Mr. Dargham was barely 10 years old.

Similarly, since Mr. Rau never inquired, he did not mention the daily difficulties that he said many of his classmates faced. “They did not ask about water, about electricity,” he said.

But Mr. Dargham ultimately chose to give the Europeans the benefit of the doubt. “I am sure they asked somebody else,” he said.

The first days of rehearsal began with the NTGent team dragging a large table into the bare courtyard of the building now being used for the institute’s theater program. Stefan Bläske, the dramaturge, and Mr. Rau set up their computers at one end of the table, working on the script.

Mr. Rau’s approach to scriptwriting is loose, and with “Orestes in Mosul,” as with many of his other works, he mixes sections of the original text (no more than 20 percent, in accordance with another tenet of his manifesto) with material gleaned from his team’s research and discussions with the actors. In this production there will also be music and documentary video clips of the Iraqi actors discussing the play.

With little electricity available, members of his team watched the power bars on their computers dwindle over the course of a morning. Plumbing was provisional as well. But at midday, spirits rallied a bit when someone brought a box of local baklava and plastic cups of dark, heavily sugared Iraqi tea and bottles of water.

Attempts to figure out the daily schedule were largely futile. And for the Iraqi actors it was hard just to show up on time.

Mosul is still a barely functioning city, where most residents fear they are about to tumble back into war. Getting from the west bank of the Tigris to the east, where rehearsals were taking place, could take hours, as only two bridges were functioning, and only in one direction at a time.

On subsequent days when the rehearsals moved to the former arts institute building, which was bombed during the war, students had to walk through a crowd of silent, grief-stricken families outside the city’s morgue. They were waiting for the bodies of daughters, sons, brothers and sisters who had drowned when a pleasure boat capsized.

For those who loved Mosul, one of the most cultured cities in Iraq, the Islamic State’s rule stole not just their way of life but their city’s soul. Books were burned, art banned, all pleasures prohibited.

At the former home of the arts institute, which had been occupied by the Islamic State, the scars are everywhere.

The sculpture teacher who now works in a small intact building nearby said he had broken his own works rather than watch Islamic State fighters smash them. The school’s custodian, who still lives on the grounds, hid some of the students’ paintings under the wreckage of a nearby bombed house to preserve them.

In the building where Mr. Rau filmed for three days, the costumes of productions past were all but buried in the wreckage, damp from holes in the roof and walls where the rain blows in.

Suleik Salim Al-Khabbaz, the director of the institute’s theater program, who plays the oud in the NTGent production, pointed at a long twist of beige hair that was almost camouflaged by the concrete dust.

“Ophelia’s hair,” he whispered, adding, “I was Hamlet.”

He pointed at something that looked unnervingly like snake skin. “My chain mail,” he said proudly.

“And that,” he added, as Mr. Rau stepped over a triangle of wires, “was the inside of a piano, a beautiful piano.”

He shook his head: “ISIS was the worst weapon that human beings created.”

“It was a weapon we created against ourselves, but Mosul is not ISIS,” he added. “This is my message to the world. Please, do not think of Mosul as ISIS.”

For the theater students, most of whom had never read “The Oresteia,” it took a whiteboard to diagram the plot, characters, and what was at stake.

In brief: Agamemnon, who has sacrificed his daughter to speed his journey to the Trojan Wars, returns after 10 years, only to be killed by his wife in the first play. In the second, their son Orestes and daughter Electra discover how their father died, and Orestes takes revenge on their mother and her lover.

In the final play, Orestes is pursued to the temple of Athena by the Furies, ancient goddesses who want him to pay for his mother’s murder. There, Athena presides over his trial; ultimately it is the citizens of her city, Athens, who pass judgment on him.

Johan Leysen, 69, a well-known Belgian screen and stage actor, was on site to play Agamemnon. But he also took on coaching the students. With help from the German-Iraqi actress Susana AbdulMajid, who played another character, Cassandra, and whose family is originally from Mosul, he tried to draw the complicated family trees and explain the role of the chorus in Greek drama.

He spent breaks with the young performers, herded them to rehearsals and worked to harmonize their theater training — which involved a great deal of stylized dance — with the movement and expressions more familiar to European audiences.

Mr. Leysen, who had a role in another of Mr. Rau’s productions, seemed to intuit what the director was looking for, but showed humility about the difficulties of working across cultures.

“I have no illusions that in the two weeks here, I will understand anything — I am a tourist, a foreigner,” he said softly.

Yet, he said, he respects Mr. Rau’s on-the-ground approach, which he attributed to the director’s early training as a sociologist.

“Milo does not go somewhere for confirmation of what he thinks,” said Mr. Leysen. “It’s a floating dramaturgy. The testimony of the people here and the process of asking questions, about codes, that creates it,” he said of the play.

Mr. Rau said he came away most struck by how “identity politics” shapes behavior among the Iraqis, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality.

“This is the first time I was really confronted with young, clever artists and what is possible for them and impossible within their culture,” he said.

One of the Iraqis who brought that home was Baraa Ali, a 19-year old theater student who was cast as Iphigenia. She was on the fence about being filmed because she feared that people she knew would eventually see her performance.

Khitam Idress, 59, a teacher and part-time actress here whose husband had been killed by Al Qaeda, was playing Athena. She was among those urging Ms. Ali to say yes, so that her participation could show the world that a young Iraqi woman could be a performing artist.

But Ms. Ali, who wore her hair completely covered, wasn’t sure: “My family will allow me to do it, but our society cannot accept it,” she said. “Boys are allowed to act by the society, but not girls.”

Finally she agreed to be filmed, but only if she could render herself invisible by wearing a niqab that only had slits for her eyes.

An aspect of the production that predictably caused a stir was Mr. Rau’s decision to have Orestes and Pylades, best friends in the third part of the trilogy, kiss each other on the mouth in his adaptation.

A western actor and an Iraqi actor based in the Netherlands played the two men. Some of the male Iraqi theater students, who played the Furies, were uncomfortable, even angry, when asked to be present for the scene.

All week, the Europeans and the Iraqis hashed out — or tried to — the difference between a stage kiss and a real kiss. But several young actors expressed worry that it was “against our religion” — or would be seen by their community as tolerating overt homosexuality, which many in Iraq view as aberrant.

Finally Mr. Rau agreed that there would be a kiss but it would be modified. However, the final version, captured on video, still struck many Iraqis watching it as too explicit.

The last scene of the play — the trial of Orestes — was one in which Mr. Rau and Mr. Bläske’s vision of theater spanning worlds proved especially gripping.

Aeschylus asks whether Orestes should suffer death for killing his mother, or be forgiven, with a jury of Athenians rendering a final decision. In the version of the last scene recorded on video, Mr. Dargham and seven of his schoolmates, playing the jury, came to a split decision on Orestes’ fate.

Ms. Idress, who played Athena, drew herself up to her full height of 5 feet as she stood in the wrecked fine arts building. She seemed to grow in stature as she announced, “My vote goes to peace. The chain of killing must come to an end.”

In that moment, it seemed a vote for life, for hope, for the city of Athens and for the city of Mosul.

But Mr. Rau does not shirk the tougher question: What happens when the vote is about something real and the jury knows the victims’ suffering personally?

In video clips with the same jury of theater students discussing the fate of ISIS killers, the anger and passion was real. “As they sentenced us to death,” one student insisted, “they should be sentenced to death.” Another countered that the decision should rest with the courts.

When it came time to vote, not one raised a hand for the death penalty, but not one could vote for forgiveness, either — explaining a little about why it is hard to stop the cycle of vengence.

Two days later, Mr. Rau and his team had packed and were heading home to Europe, where “Orestes in Mosul” is to open April 17 at NTGent.

Mr. Rau’s work is regularly performed at major theater festivals; the N.Y.U. Skirball presentation of “Five Easy Pieces,” about a notorious Belgian pedophile, marked his American stage debut in March. “Orestes in Mosul” has tour dates scheduled across Europe through the end of the year.

At the end of his 10 days with the NTGent group, Mr. Dargham, who joined the institute’s acting program by chance, said he now wants to be an actor. Still, he said, he thinks he would prefer comedy to tragedy.

“The experience was difficult at first,” he said, speaking for his classmates as well. “But we loved the Belgian group and loved working with them.

“When they finished and traveled away,” he added, “they had touched us, and we felt lonely.”



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