From Mentos to Mustaches: Yonatan Levy and the Mystery of Saddam Hussein
By Joseph Pearson
24 March 2015
After the »Weapons of Mass Destruction« fiasco, after America went to war with Iraq, after Saddam Hussein’s scud missiles threatened Israel, in 2003, Yonatan Levy (1974), a Canadian-born Israeli, was haunted by an image of the dictator in his bunker. »The first image of Saddam, with his doubles, waiting for the Americans to come, was one that haunted me for ten years. But I didn’t have the capacity to write about it«. His work, »Saddam Hussein – a Mystery Play«, is a revisitation of that initial reflection.
It’s 10 am in Berlin, an hour later in a locality outside Haifa, and I’m chatting with Yonatan Levy via Skype. Israel is in the news. There are elections, Netanyahu’s playing hardball, Iran has replaced Iraq as Israel’s chief foreign concern. But we are reflecting on history. I’m asking Levy what it was in particular that interested him about Saddam Hussein.
Levy replies, »The initial image [of Saddam in the bunker] reflected a psychological stance: what does it mean to be basically alone? I think that artists have narcissistic tendencies to begin with, but the human condition as a whole also has this problem. Is there any ‹other’ in my world? Do I just use other people to reflect my own greatness, as in the case of Saddam Hussein? He is some kind of modern archetype. That is what haunted me for so long until I finally engaged in writing the play. It was a psycho-spiritual image. Then it went from the spiritual to the political. It is about psychic isolation. That was the starting point of the whole thing«.
Levy comes from a German-Jewish family, and is influenced by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) and his movement of Anthroposophy, which posits the existence of a spiritual world that can be reached through inner development. Although Levy does not speak German, he tells me, »I have a strong German influence in my family. My grandparents were Austrian and German, and on their bookshelves they had Goethe and Schiller. They were among the first Anthroposophists in Israel – we are now fourth generation. My grandmother escaped after the Anschluss, and my grandfather came a few years before, from Gießen. In Israel, they met in a Kibbutz. My Dad is also deeply immersed in German culture, and has done many translations of German drama, and his second marriage was with a German Anthroposophist. I heard a lot of German in my childhood. In a way, I am connected to it and German culture, through Anthroposophy«.
»How does this philosophy express itself in your play?« I ask him.
The Israeli director replies, »The reason this theatre piece is a ‹mystery play’ is that it intends to take the unmanifested and make it present in some way. Theatre initially was to bring the gods in – Dionysus, or later Jesus in the passion play – to manifest religious forces in the actor. ‹Saddam Hussein’ is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to take the more modern gods and make them present on stage. What is oil, what is this subterranean force that drives the world these days? What is the figure of Saddam Hussein, or George Bush, as a mythical force, not merely as a political one? My humble attempt is to try to give a historisophical interpretation to external events«.
How the play is »historisophical« – a term clearly coined from »Anthroposophical« – he says, is, »to see History as a text, but the writer of the text is unseen. A historisophical approach is opposed to a materialistic view of history. If you look at the book of Daniel, there is the concept that wars on Earth are reflections of wars in heaven. But what happens here on Earth is a reflection that is significant. It is not simply a reflection; it is a physical part of a cosmic war. Of course you can’t be too serious about it. I’d say the hypothesis behind ‹Saddam Hussein’ is similar, but in a more comic way – not to get dead serious about these things. There’s always the danger of being pompous and ridiculous. You have to be very careful«.
What kind of gods are these: Saddam Hussein and three body doubles, the Bushes Junior and Senior, Dick Cheney? Oil is the mythical force, and the Americans come »as parasites, drinking the juices of the Earth«. Levy’s sense of humour is not hard to observe in the comic juxtaposition of political figures on stage, and in details of the design, especially regarding costume and the art of facial hair.
»The play deals with a meeting of East and West: the carpets are red, and so are the Sufi skirts. If we look at how we designed Saddam Hussein, there are two parts. There is the upper torso, which is very male, and then you have the skirt. And, although the male Sufis used to wear skirts, the connotation is female. The male upper body is placed upon a red sea; the skirts merge with the carpets to create a floating effect. The middle point is a black belt. The same is reflected in the upper body: the belt is reflected in the mustache, which divides the face into two, with the lower part of the jaw connected with the lower parts of the body, the nose is connected to the chest, etc. I have this theory about people messing with their facial hair, which is some kind of expression of how they deal with their sexuality«. He then pauses, then offers, ‹I can really get into this – «
»Please continue! « I reply, puzzled and intrigued by what might come next.
»If someone has a strange beard, then you know there’s something kinky about his sexuality. If he’s a hippy, and there’s something loose, he lets his beard grow wild. But if he has a mustache, he is saying something about his masculinity. He says that he has facial hair, but he is in control of his animal sexual energy. There is something he holds up: the question of self-limitation, as an expression of self-control or power. This is central for the first scenes of ‹Saddam Hussein’. It expresses itself in the text, and the music, and in all kinds of stage tricks«.
I suggest to Levy, »The most famous political mustache of all time is of course Hitler’s. Is there a conscious comparison between dictators?«
»You have Saddam Hussein, Hitler and you have Stalin, this fabulous trio of mustached dictators. I was not thinking directly about Hitler, not in this play. It’s just that, living in the Middle East, you have all these mustaches around you. What is a mustache? What does it mean? It’s an interesting question, and this is the answer I had«.
»You don’t have a mustache do you?« I ask.
»For the past three or four years I’ve portrayed Saddam Hussein’s double, so our mustaches are real. I’ve gone through this cycle of letting all my facial hair grow, then for the shows I cut everything off except the mustache, and then I shave off the mustache, then it grows again«.
»Do you feel differently when you cut it off?«
»It’s a different experience than being with one. Have you ever had a mustache?«
Levy’s theory isn’t part of my world-view, but why not enter it? See where it takes me? I reply, »No, but, now that I think about it, there’s something about a mustache. It would make me feel like I’m showing part of my body that I might otherwise cover with my pants«.
»Yes, exactly! The whole mouth area shows something about your lower parts. We play with that. That’s part of the play’s design«.
»Saddam Hussein« not only plays visually, but also aurally. Levy is a poet, and the play is lyric. The challenge, of course, with poetry on stage is that of translation. I ask Levy if he is worried about losing the original. He replies that apparently the translation is excellent, when it comes to semantic elements. His only open question is regarding phonetics.
I suggest, »Perhaps if the sound of your poetry is so important, it’s better to have an audience who doesn’t understand the language, who will listen to the language as music, who have sufficient distance from the language’s cadence, as they read the surtitles«.
Levy replies, »Yes, In certain aspects, it’s more true to the spirit of the play«, and he goes on to say that because he was born in Canada, and spoke English as a child, he too has a sense of distance from Hebrew.
»Hebrew was my second language, and I approach the language as a foreigner. I see Hebrew as an entity: a living spiritual organism, it’s something alive. When I write, I’m conversing with Hebrew. It is like meeting a thing, an entity. My relationship with language is highly erotic. It is a conflict, sometimes a negotiation, a friendship, a relationship«.
»Does that mean you are constantly revising the play?«
»I add a line once a year: to make it fresh. It’s like eating a Mentos«.
»And what of your relationship to the actors? You’re known for giving them a lot of freedom«, and he replies that is because he is not only the director, but one of the actors as well. He actually never sees the play from outside when performing. This changes the dynamic.
»Since no one is leading the rehearsal, it is more democratic. This element of group work is interesting to me. It is opposite to dictatorship, which is the theme of the play. I met the other actors, by accident; I only knew one of them. We found the chemistry was very good, like molecules of carbon merging into a diamond«.
Our conversation is coming to a close – we have talked widely from questions of Anthroposophist philosophy, facial hair art, to the other visual and audible components of the performance. But my thoughts keep returning to that lonely man in the bunker, surrounded by his doubles – the dictator who gassed Kurds, terrorized his citizens and neighbours, and who, in retrospect, provided a degree of Ba’athist secular (authoritarian) stability in a region now torn by war and uncertainty.
For Israel, Levy tells me Saddam was »like Lex Luthor, a partly unreal figure, an unreal nemesis with whom we never engaged directly in fighting. The nostalgic element makes Saddam Hussein also a positive figure by the end of the play. He was not a Satan. He was a cruel Eastern dictator, but distant enough from Israel so that I can now make him a mythological figure, like a Prospero shedding off his powers. Or King Lear.«
Written and directed by Yonatan Levy
Performed and co-created by Amir Farjoun, Nir Shauloff, Saar Székely, Yonatan Levy
Premiered on 18 April 2015