Friday, November 25, 2011

Review: (Toronto) Hallaj

Beatriz Pizano, Stewart Arnott, Carlos González-Vio, Steven Bush, Bahareh Yaraghi (photo: John Lauener) 

The Truth of the Known
You may not agree with Hallaj
by Jessica Wei

Political plays, if done well, are never not tricky. They should have each audience member debating their way out of the theatre, either to each other or in their heads. There should be at least six (6) seconds of, “Hmmm, did I enjoy that? Do I agree with that?” before one makes up their mind about the show they just saw. By all counts, Hallaj is well done. 

His conviction is affective, believable, intimidating.

Centred around the 9th century poet and freedom fighter, Mansur al-Hallaj, this play brings to the stage the night before his execution. From his jail cell, Hallaj, played by the playwright Peter Farbridge, recollects memories of his wife, his religious education, as well as interactions with both his followers and those who wish for his death. He must make a decision to either spare his own life and the life of his family by signing a retraction of his controversial statements, or hold onto his ideals and make a martyr out of himself and his loved ones. As the play continues, the stakes get higher and higher, and we begin to see hints of the inner conflict between the powerful, brave religious leader and the tender family man. 

The staging is incredible. The set design is minimalistic but ingenious, and the sound effects are imposing enough but not overwhelming. Hallaj is well choreographed, tracing influences from all over the world, and all of the actors' movements are elegant and dance-like. It's all well-calculated and aesthetically powerful. As I've said, Hallaj is well done. Farbridge spends almost the entire play on stage, swinging from placid to raging. His conviction is affective, believable, intimidating. 

However, anyone who takes that much time to decide whether or not they want to prevent the brutal execution of his wife and son to make a point will probably come off as a bit of a pontificating asshole. Arguably. And this is where the problem of accessibility comes in. Hallaj can scream, “I am the Truth” (historical famous last words) over and over as his limbs are brutally severed off, but in our day and age, all we know is that Truth lies only in the unknown. He can weep over the bodies of those he led to execution and his family's fate, but there are no sympathy votes to be found there. One weeps when one is given no choice. They play up the politics in the story, and not the humanity, making it difficult to relate to (despite their “These are modern times in Modern Times' [Stage Company]” message in the programme). This is not a play suited to everyone's tastes or opinions. But at least you'll talk about it. 

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