[Trapped in a World of Opposites]
The great 13th century Persian and Muslim poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī said: ‘Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there’. While there is some dispute about the accuracy of these translated words, the sentiment nevertheless expresses the Sufi desire to transcend binaries, to move beyond the world of opposites, and to find unity within universal love. In the new play Rendered by Stuart Hoar, we meet six characters, all struggling with ideas of what is right and wrong, and all connected to events that unfold in an Arabian desert. Themes of faith, binary opposites and transcendent love are some of the important threads weaving through the work. Presented by Auckland Theatre Company and directed by Katie Wolfe, the dense and intelligently-written play offers a series of meditations on New Zealand’s ongoing involvement in the various conflicts in the Middle East and considers the philosophical and moral impacts that the conflict ‘over there’ might have on ‘us here’ – in Aotearoa.
The play opens on a beautiful but unknown desert somewhere in the geographical triangle between Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The remarkable set by John Verryt utilises numerous sections of what looked like cardboard pieced together to create a raked terraced stage the colour of sandstone. Resembling a desert floor, the set gestures to an endless desert landscape retreating into the distance. This is also reinforced through the soundscape (Sean Lynch) of wind-blown sand creating a subtle but slightly ominous sense of constantly shifting sand which eloquently encapsulates the relationship dynamics between the play’s characters.
In this unknown desert we meet the play’s first set of ‘opposites’: Major Aria (Nicola Kawana) and the mercenary Private Smith (Fasitua Amosa). Major Aria is a career soldier who is guided by her Christian faith and her desire to be the first female Chief of the Army. Smith is a former SAS soldier, chauvinist, and security contractor who is unashamedly motivated by the pay that private contracts brings him. The pair are on a clandestine mission, waiting for their ‘contact’ while discussing a range of topics that provide exposition and context for the play. This initial repartee involves discussions of the New Zealand SAS’s involvement in civilian casualties in Afghanistan as highlighted in the book Hit & Run (2017) by investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. Aria and Smith’s discussions of the role of women in the army takes place against a backdrop of liberal feminism and wider concerns about neoliberalism and the privatisation of military services for profit. The scenes in the desert are performed behind a scrim which give them a subtle ‘filter’ effect and a cinematic quality that potentially reminds the audience that our perceptions of the Middle East are most often mediated and mediatised through a visual economy that heightens distanciation rather than propinquity. The scrim also doubles as a projection backdrop in later scenes to allow for quick scene changes between distinctly opposite locations.
In the next scene the action takes place in a small section of forestage where the audience are transported to the cold, contained and marble-like Aotea Centre foyer of an Auckland Writer’s Festival event. Here we meet another set of opposites: Miranda (Anna Jullienne), a kindergarten teacher, and Travis (Simon London), a ‘policy analyst’ for the US government who is visiting Aotearoa to attend an event about his favourite poet. Here the witty repartee on issues of liberal feminism continue as the couple flirt and provoke one another. Travis suggests his wife went to college and their marriage couldn’t survive the feminist film theory. When he invites Miranda to his room and evening of poetry and love-making, she retorts with a quote from Julia Kristeva: ‘One cannot overemphasize the tremendous psychic, intellectual and affective effort a woman must make in order to find the other sex as an erotic object’.
The action of the play cuts back and forth between the new couple – intoxicated by their whirlwind romance – and the Kiwi operatives in the desert. Is in the latter that we finally meet the final set of opposites in the form of Taylor Grey (Edwin Wright), a Kiwi convert to Islam who travelled to Syria to join the Caliphate, and his wife Zuleikha Hlaif (Ban Abdul). Grey insists that he has made a deal with the New Zealand government and that he will provide information on his ‘brothers’ in the Caliphate in exchange for protection for him and his wife. Here the main conflict of the drama is revealed, when Major Aria insists that the ‘deal’ was brokered by the Americans and did not include Zuleikha. As the four characters wait in the desert for the extraction team in the form of an American helicopter, Grey insists that if he is ‘rendered’ to the Americans he will be tortured to death and if his wife is left behind she will be murdered as well. The writing of this conflict is superbly crafted as the tension of the situation begins to reveal the various oppositional stances in each of the characters. The Major’s Seventh Day Adventist faith is revealed for its bigotry and zeal, in contrast to Grey’s apparent religious extremism. The private contractor Smith – who begins as the most unlikable of characters – insists he is not willing to kill or render another kiwi without good reason. Unlike the Major, he insists that ‘orders’ are not good reason enough.
This developing conflict in the empty expanse of the desert is contrasted with scenes involving the romantic couple, located now in the opulence of Las Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace. There is a beautiful transition between these locations involving projections of Roman colonnades at diagonal angles as a backdrop to the scene in which Travis explains the importance of Caesar’s Palace as the appropriate symbol of the power of the United States. Unfortunately the writing of this romantic plot is not as effective and ultimately its plausibility is strained. It is difficult to believe that a kindergarten teacher has been so taken in by this mysterious and arrogant American that she has been willing to travel halfway around the world to Caesar’s Palace to spend a week with her lover. Unfortunately, the few lines of poetry we hear from Travis and the short time we see the couple together when they first meet, combine to give the sense that their new found love is a contrivance.
Similarly contrived is a scene involving Zuleikha who, shortly after being intimately man-handled by the security contractor Smith, reveals the traumatic events precipitating her request of asylum and protection from the New Zealand government. The directorial decision to make the character’s revelation an emotional climax contrasts with how most disclosures of post-traumatic experiences are communicated, in which asylum seeker accounts are often emotionless and subdued. The scene makes a spectacle out of her suffering for the audience to consume, all the while confident in the belief that this is a performance of liberal feminist ideals. Although compellingly performed by Ban Abdul, the scene would have been far more engaging and less problematic if the emotion was underplayed and subdued.
Rendered is a thoughtful meditation on connections in our globalised neo-liberal world, despite distance and seemingly oppositional constructs. Unlike Rumi, the play and production suggests that some oppositions are impossible to transcend. In this great liberal war on terror, we are all imbricated in the consequences, regardless of how distant the battlefield from our shores. Rendered is a risky and thought-provoking play that asks us to consider our relationships and responsibilities to others in fields both here and there.
Rendered plays the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 3rd October.