»Sœurs«: A correspondence with Wajdi Mouawad
by Joseph Pearson
17 April 2015
The Lebanese-Canadian playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad comes to the Schaubühne for the FIND Festival with his piece »Sœurs«, the story of a francophone woman trapped in an Ottawa hotel room, which is voice-automated in English. Annick Bergeron (best known for Mouawad’s international success »Incendies«) plays both the protagonist, an international conflict negotiator, whose exasperation drives her to trash the room, and the insurance claims agent, a refugee from the war in Lebanon, who later visits the ruins. Wajdi Mouawab is an eloquent commentator on questions of identity, family, language, and how these issues play out in the theatre space. What follows is the transcript of our correspondence (translated from French), exploring how »Sœurs« surveys the terrain of belonging, and how Mouawad expects it to speak to audiences here in Berlin.
Joseph Pearson: »Sœurs« is the second part of a cycle of plays entitled »Domestique«. How does it relate to »Seuls«, which preceded it, and to the pieces that will follow? Are they cut of the same fabric?
Wajdi Mouawad: After working on epic theatre (»Le Sang des promesses«), and tragedies (»Le Dernier Jour de sa vie«), I decided to turn my attention to a less ponderous concern that has always been with me: the singularity of everyday life. I realized that what might seem banal to me, was not for others and vice versa. The idea came to me when observing my own family. My sister lives with my father; it is traditional in the Middle East for the elderly to live with their children. I was visiting, and my sister was ironing. She does not have children of her own, and works for an insurance firm, and is the one who binds our broken family together: she takes care of my father’s dignity, she remembers birthdays, announces deaths, and preserves the photo albums. Watching her iron, I became aware that she smoothes away the wrinkles, in both a literal and figurative sense. I saw her then as an exceptional being whose story deserved to be told. From this, was born the idea of linking my previous solo work, »Seuls«, about the symbol of the son, to other members of the family: »Sisters«, »Brothers«, and then »Mother and Father«, in a cycle of performances called »Domestique«. The diversity of their respective experiences and feelings, through an intimate prism, will sketch out a domestic cartography into a more complex vision, a more universal understanding of a story. That said, the creative inspirations and the ideas deployed will not seek to create a logical or narrative continuity!
JP: You are quoted saying that along with Nayla, your sister, Annick Bergeron was also an inspiration for this play. How so? In what way are they both »Sœurs«?
MW: Annick is an actor whom I like a great deal, a »theatre sister« of sorts who played Nawal in »Incendies«. One evening, after having seen »Seuls«, she told me of the emotion she felt having heard a recording of the voice of my real sister, Nayla, during the performance. I already had the idea to create a piece about my sister––but I had found it difficult, almost a little shameless, actually to go forward. I asked Annick if she might act as a kind of filter, through which fiction might be extracted, depending on what she perceived. I then asked if they might meet and spend time together. Nayla and Annick have certain similarities: they are the same age, both the eldest in their families who take care of aging parents, they have the same perspectives regarding exile and the humiliation of their fathers. The father of Annick, Léandre Bergeron (author of a dictionary of the language of Québec), is originally from Manitoba, Canada, a province that legislated against the instruction of the French language [until 1985], which he left. Annick observed details about my sister, which I myself had never noticed. It’s finally, in this way, that »Sœur«, or »Sister«, became »Sœurs«, »Sisters«, inspired by the story of these two women.
JP: Could you speak more then about your collaboration with Annick Bergeron? How did you work together to prepare this challenging multiple role?
WM: I wanted Annick to try out the same method I used in »Seuls«: to work solo. In the same vein, the work consisted of four preliminary steps: Feeling, Listening, Waiting, Watching. It involved, at the beginning, the suspension of one’s will, not naming things, not presuming, not assuming what the story might be, to domesticate the space between the performance and the performer. To evoke a feeling of some sort, to then become dependent on that feeling. Apart from asking her to get to know my sister, I asked Annick to follow this process of personal research, with the only instruction to focus on the everyday, to reflect on the question of autofiction, and the question of private space. During the period of maturation, she noted her own feelings, her field observations, and collated disparate findings, before entering a first period of three weeks of solitary work, to test gestures, to generate images and sounds, to collect objects, and passages of text, which she then proposed to the creative team. The mechanism of polyphonic writing––initiated with »Seuls«––was there even before the creation of what one might call the »actual« performance. In fact, the story is not simply composed of words, but also of diverse materials considered just as important as the lines of the play. It is from this magma that the creation then took its course: the exploration of dramaturgical trajectories, writing which occurred during rehearsals, confrontations on stage, discussion with the designers. The idea of multiple characters offered Annick––given this is her first solo piece––both the pleasure of playing many supporting roles, and the opportunity to do so without feeling like she was taking up too much of the spotlight.
JP: The play discusses the question of bilingualism in Canada (with, e.g., voice-operated machines that are not fully bilingual) and the importance of the »mother language«. Could you elaborate on the collision of language in the piece?
WM: A woman, a lawyer specialized in the mediation of international conflicts, is a prisoner in her hotel room. All of a sudden, the objects in the room speak in English. Although she is perfectly bilingual, and she accords little importance to the choice of speaking French or English, she is confronted by her own native language’s »soft spot«. She realises that language no longer simply has a utilitarian function, that of communication, but also constitutes us emotionally, starting with the first words we hear as a child in the cradle. One realises, in addition, that this question does not simply concern those who leave a country, but it is posed also in other histories and contexts. As Annick says, »If language is a territory, how many of us are linguistic exiles in Québec? Geneviève will go through a terrible crisis, as if she were the carrier of an interior exile of which she was not aware«. But the matter is denser than this ball of yarn, which is language: it tangles with what is intimate to us, what constitutes our being!
JP: Another question of identity appears in this piece, as it does in most of your work, which is Lebanon (in the guise, for example, of the insurance investigator examining the trashed hotel room). How does this identity then collide with the linguistic and territorial conflicts that have already been set up in the play?
MW: This question is something of a continuation of the one you asked regarding language. In addition to the lives of these two women, what interested me in »Sœurs« was the parallel of their personal dramas to bring the project to a more poetic level. Indeed, through the prism of their histories, I wanted to throw myself into the troubled feelings that mark our époque: these two beings, who could be so different (regarding what links them to this earth: language, cuisine, climate), have both experience exile and injustice that have created the geopolitical conditions to allow them to meet. It is that which at the heart of the storm––their storm––which is clarifying, and brings them together: that which is related to the body (their age, marital status, position as eldest child, relationship to their parents). Between the lawyer, moderating international conflicts, who has ignored all those words she carries inside her, and the disaster expert for an insurance company, neither had the space sufficiently to express themselves: they are two women of our world, not vain, but fighters, in their case fatigued in the middle of their life’s journey, revealing so much grief and denial, loneliness, and need of comfort.
JP: The nexus of identities in your piece are grounded in a Canadian/Québecois linguistic and political reality. How do these conflicts then translate to the European stage? How does its concerns cross contexts?
MW: In the same way, the issues involved in »Sœurs« are more universal than those directly related to the North American or Middle Eastern context. Here, the frontal collision between these two particular destinies make these women subject to History’s violence, but they also represent the way in which the private space of beings manages to stand up to the brutality of their times. As well, apart from questions of identity that are often examined in my work, I believe that the piece also treats other complex, also personal and societal, concerns whose stakes are universal. For example, the links to parenthood, regardless of whether these are unconscious or stifled, reveal our difficulties in managing our heritage, regardless of whether this is personal, linguistic, cultural or political. What do we do with our parents’ struggles, their humiliations, their wounds? Is one duty-bound to carry them forever? What does one keep? How does one honour their memory, how does one defend them, at that moment of life when roles reverse? Another question is that of the turning point of one’s life: when one reflects for the first time and asks whether one has not missed it, knowing that one cannot start again. Or to realize that we are all sitting on an explosive mine, that might necessarily detonate from one moment to the next. We are all held suspended by extraordinary events, that are personal (death, heartache) or collective (a terrorist attack, an earthquake), that might happen at any moment, and change our lives forever. I have tried to place in dialogue the smallest intimacies with the great fractures of this world.
Translated from the French by Joseph Pearson. With thanks to James Helgeson.
by Wajdi Mouawad
inspired by Annick Bergeron and Nayla Mouawad
Direction: Wajdi Mouawad
Premiered on 21 April 2015