Radio Muezzin | Everest Theatre

It wasn’t because my vague expectations of an uplifting theatrical experience, imbued with vocal musicality were foiled. It wasn’t because Sydney Festival, or Seymour, stuffed-up the ticketing. My disappointment and disillusionment ran much deeper. It wasn’t the only cause of a very restless night, but it was a contributor, methinks.

Radio Muezzin, it seems, is the result of a loose coalition of European producers, under the leadership of Stefan Kaegi of Rimini Protokoll. Kaegi, academically, has background that crosses visual and performing arts borders Throughout his career to date he’s made something of a specialty of the bizarre; such as confronting (for some reason, or none) 80-year-old ladies with Formula 1. Other examples of projects he and his collaborators have indulged in (and I tend to stress the word indulged, perhaps moderating it with a selfish prefix) include Deadline, performed by masters of funeral ceremonies, graveyard musicians, medical students and gravestone-makers. Only in Berlin, I reckon.

Call me conservative (that’d be a first), but it sounds like the arse end of the avant garde to me; the kind of silliness that can so easily give experimental theatre a bad name. But I knew none of this, last night, when I saw Radio Muezzin.

One of the cast (it was obvious, thanks to his Egyptian cotton robe, prayer hat and, ah, mike) sat among the audience, near the back of Seymour’s Everest Theatre, quietly preparing for his ‘role’. His role is, to a lesser or greater extent (and there’s part of the abrasive rub) playing himself, alongside two other muezzins, a radio technician and a stand-in for a disenchanted sheikh.

The stage has been laid with what looks to be traditional carpet which, to the untrained eye at least, suffices in evoking the floor of a mosque. Behind the ‘performers’, four large rectangular screens form a backdrop. Onto these are projected, by turns, continuous, panoramic (still and moving) images, or individual, differing ones. There are a few props: a desk with paraphernalia belonging to the radio operator who appears later; chairs for the muezzins; a ‘modesty’ screen, commonly seen in mosques and behind which women worship, in this case concealing weightlifting equipment, belonging to the sheikh, who has a muscular interest in more than his faith. Overhead fans are switched on, one by one, at a certain point, creating a dramatic shadows redolent of the languid, long afternoons one might experience in Cairo. Lighting states vary quite minimally; the most memorable being a green fluorescent tube, mimicking those to be seen, ubiquitously, on minarets there.

In the beginning, voices emerge from the darkness; the muezzins variously placed in the theatre, as if we were waking to the out-of-sync sound of the real deal, emanating from different directions. Spots come up and the muezzins assemble on the stage, embarking on a haphazard presentation, in Arabic, with English surtitles. Happily, my Arabic-speaking companion was able to advise me as to any discrepancies and also, to a certain extent, on religious and cultural context.

Lines were fluffed and missed; surprising, as I gather they’ve been reciting them since at least 2009. I surmise the work has ostensibly been written by the performers, which perhaps explains and excuses its haphazardness. Mind you, judicious dramaturgy might’ve mitigated against or, at least, mediated this.

While I understand a hands-off approach to be very much defensible, despite resultant theatrical deficiencies, so as to preserve the integrity, charm and idiosyncrasies of the work and performers, to have their personalities shine through, I’m not convinced this ‘pure’ approach has been adhered to. Or, if it has, it seems to have been arbitrary and selective.

For example, in a particular chant, my semi-expert companion advised me a reference to Mohammed’s wives had been omitted. Suspicions the producers (or performers, but I’m disposed to doubt that) have tried, deviously, to buy conservative Western affections were heightened when, in introductory biographical narrative, a couple of the muezzins referred to their second wife. In my obtuseness, I took this to mean they’d remarried. Eyad, my companion, informed me it’d also been phrased this way in Arabic. While that’s possible, we later concurred and concluded it more likely they were referring to having two wives. I take no issue with that. At least not right now. But I do take issue, if that be the case, with any deliberately misleading phrasing which would leave a different impression, for cultural and religious practices, no matter how at odds with views we might hold should and must, at a certain level, be respected and their context taken into account.

Moreover, Islam ought to be able to stand, unexpurgated, on its own two naked feet, as it were, without having to pander to our narrow, ethnocentric tastes in order to be accepted. One might further argue it needs no acceptance from us: Western approbation doesn’t endow any discrete dignity. A similar accusation might be leveled at the apparently highly-selective inclusion of references to Jesus and Mary: while I realise Islam also embraces the divinity of these, it again felt, on reflection, like a very deliberate attempt to buy our sympathies. Sure, it might’ve been designed, as an artifice, to underscore commonality where difference tends, mostly, to be stressed, which would be, in one sense anyway, more innocent, or at least well-intentioned. It’s just I smell a rat. And, either way, it’s tampering, fiddling, meddling, bending, rather than dramaturgy.

It would be interesting, if not instructive, to know more concerning the motives of the work, from all directions. If a motive was to present the undeniable beauty of one of the world’s great faiths, it failed, or backfired, through apparently disingenuous approach, notwithstanding the beauty of some of the tracts, the love, commitment and reverence of the muezzins, some extraordinary vocalisations, and so on. If a motive was to expose a depressing reality, insofar as ‘live’ muezzins being replaced with ‘live’ radio broadcasts, it took too long to get there.

It’d also be worthwhile knowing how, why and over what irreconcilable differences arose between the sheikh and his colleagues, resulting in his withdrawal from the project and an awkward stand-in being cast.

The work isn’t without its strengths, of course. Despite hard-to-forgive performance glitches (which made it look more like a late rehearsal), technical direction is tight. And one or two penetrating insights come to the fore: for example, at least one of the muezzins seems to conflate spirituality with politics and patriotism, in drawing a parallel between love of Islam and the Prophet with what is widely seen, it seems (at least internally), as Egypt’s greatest moment of modern times (save, perhaps. for the recent, soft revolution): it’s reacquisition of parts of Sinai and the Suez, in the Yom Kippur war of ’73. It was great, in that, under the temperate Sadat, it led to long-overdue peace between Israel and Egypt; it’s the confluence of the ship of state’s affairs with religious matters that’s concerning. (Not that we don’t have it here.)

In the end, despite its highlights and a pervasive sense of shared humanity, I was left with a very uncomfortable feeling: a strong sense; an odour. I fear these men, materially poor, may well have been exploited, in too similar a fashion to paternalistic, colonial ways of yore or, let’s face it, living memory. The British probably still have Pemulwuy’s decapitated head. Art and other museums all over Europe still burst at the seams with misappropriated antiquities and other booty. Australian and other Aborigines have been written up as if curiosities. They and other races have been the object of almost continuous fun-poking, derision and much worse.

Islam isn’t a spectacle, as exotic as it may still seem to many of us. Nor are its followers objects of fashionable fascination. At least, they shouldn’t be. Yet there’s a subtle, or strident, sense of that here. These are not the days of empire. Not Roman, British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, or any other. We’ve no right to this kind of reckless, thoughtless, wholesale plundering of noble people or cultures. Too many people seemed to be laughing, in a condescending, mocking, rather than empathic, identifying way. The whole thing gave me the heebies.

If this is ‘collaboration’, you can keep it. It reminds me of opportunistic western Europeans making trips to the NT, to steal the secrets of authentic yidaki-making, then returning to homebase to turn that sacred knowledge into enterprise, such that it’s easier to buy a didgeridoo in Germany or Switzerland than Australia. It reminds me of dictators long since dead, the essence of whose attitude would still seem to have some hold and sway, even today.

There are many who won’t want to hear this. I can think of a number right now. I have loosed the elephant in the room. Rampage, Jumbo, I say! Trample this eugenically-inspired outlook once and for all.

The details: Radio Muezzin plays the Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival until January 21. Tickets on the venue website.