Northern Soul’s Rich Jevons talks to the writer and director of new play Hurr, Javaad Alipoor. During a wide-ranging interview, Alipoor discusses the Taziyeh (a form of Middle Eastern passion play), democratic rights at a time of ‘war on terror’, the representation of torture, and his collaboration with Ross Elliot (music) and Ayo Jones (choreography).
Northern Soul: Can you tell us what a Tatziyeh is?
Javaad Alipoor: Taziyeh is a traditional form of Middle Eastern theatre, roughly equivalent to the Christian Western tradition of the passion play, but set within the context of Shia Islam. It tells the story of the martyrdom of the third Imam (Hussein) by the army of the Caliph in Iraq.
It has been written about by European theatre directors since at least Peter Brook. I think like a lot of the theatre of Asia and Africa, it has been historically treated with kid gloves, as it were. It always struck me as sort of symptomatic of something that there is this big difference between how, say, a classical European play is adapted to how we think and talk about non-European traditions.
Our adaptation sets about taking the story head on and seeing how we can make the incredible emotional and politico-religious power come to life for a contemporary ethnically mixed audience in this country.
NS: Do you think our democratic rights have been suspended in the war on terror?
JA: I think this is an interesting question. I think that there is something in the notion of the ‘democratic rights’ of a society like ours, in that they are always suspended for some. Whether this is through things like emergency powers legislation or institutions like the CIA’s School of the Americas, or the British Secret Services in Northern Ireland that helped retain control of former parts of empires.
I think the thing that changed with the ‘war on terror’ was that various regimes, particularly the Americans, became bold enough to start talking openly about what we always secretly knew they were doing.
NS: Does the character Hurr actually believe in what he is doing for his country?
JA: Hurr does believe in what he is doing for his country. I think this is the real ethical challenge we are trying to explore. It’s like the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says about comparing the Nazi regime to the Soviet one. One is an instance of bad people saying they will do bad things, then going on to do those bad things, whereas the Soviet’s system can be seen as good people saying they will do good things, but going on to do bad things.
NS: How have you written and staged the torture scenes?
JA: I wrote the torture scenes by doing quite a lot of research into the transcripts that came out of the investigations into Abu Ghraib. They are quite brutal scenes, but after reading the transcripts you feel an immense pressure to confront audiences with what you have found.
In the direction we have tried to be as non-literal as possible, using visual and movement elements. Part of the artistic vision for the piece is to intervene into a certain style of showing violence on stage which I think is quietly dominant at the minute, where the actual brutality of the act is glossed over.
NS: How has your collaboration with Ross Elliot (music) and Ayo Jones (choreography) worked?
JA: Working with Ross and Ayo has been fantastic. I have a previous relationship with our designer Uzma and that has developed too. I think working with other artists brings a freshness and a new way of working to the rehearsal room.
It’s brilliant in Ross’s case to be able to work with an accomplished artist who is coming from a very different background, and is part of our strategy for bringing new people to theatre as artists and audiences. I come from quite a non-traditional route into theatre, and was active in house and techno music in my early 20s, so it’s brilliant to bring quite bold electronic music into the process.
Where: Theatre in the Mill, Bradford
When: July 17-18, 2014
More info: http://www.brad.ac.uk/theatre/whats-on/hurr/
To read Rich Jevons’ review of Hurr on Culture Vulture, follow this link: http://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/reviews/theatre/hurr/