My sometime co-scriptwriter Emmet Ryan has, in an unusual move, taken time out from reviewing beer and customised burgers to catch a play in Berlin. From Ballhaus Naunynstrasse he sends this review of El Dschihad:
German-Iraqi actress/writer/director Claudia Basrawi takes 70 minutes of her audience’s lives and throws them into a story built around facts but delivered with aggressive and compelling storytelling. The story of El Dschihad is built around interviews Basrawi conducted to get an understanding of Germany’s historical role in the current problems in the Middle East. Basrawi, whose youth brought her to Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, tells the story of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s efforts to get Muslim subjects of the British Empire to rise up against their colonial masters during the First World War. Germany’s ill-fated plan was to use an insurrection in Arab states to divide the attention of British forces.
The piece jumps between discussions of contemporary efforts to battle terrorism and the historical follies of the Kaiser. Despite its documentary format this is very much a drama, albeit a deliberately disjointed one. Despite being the effective lead, Basrawi deliberately takes a back seat instead essentially letting her cast, playing a multitude of roles, take their lead from her cues.
No-one makes greater use of this than Rahel Savoldelli, who is brutally intimidating in multiple formats. Savoldelli’s appearances in the multimedia elements of the performance are nothing less than an attack on the audience. Opening with her interview as a psychiatric patient of Mario Mentrup, acted live in a corner off-stage but broadcast on a larger screen, Savoldelli is aggressive in her deliberate attempts to confuse Mentrup’s supposed straight man. Mentrup does an excellent job in playing the foils to those opposite him, most notably in his primary role as Mr S, a composite character of multiple interviewees of Basrawi, where his character is more direct with his emotions in order to make the cold reality of Elmira Bahrami’s Ms K stand out.
One isn’t meant to like Ms K; she’s got too many right answers, and most of them are ugly; but her calm delivery is arguably as tough on the senses as the intensity of Savoldelli’s pre-recorded piece, reading notes on the plan to convert British POWs into agents of insurgence against the Crown. In this brief but effective monologue, Savoldelli’s head appears like Big Brother albeit with the odd harsh cut to rouse the audience as she details the plans to use Mohammedans against the British Empire.
The mixture of multimedia elements, including an opening that shows contemporary damage to an unnamed city in the Middle East, forces the audience to shift focus but not at the expense of the message. Basrawi is trying to comment on a complex issue from afar, but one that is close to her heart, and does so in a way that doesn’t play as excessively preachy. It’s a tough balance but one delivered well.