Politics, history and family collide in this hybrid theatre work inspired by a secret diplomatic agreement in 1916 that changed the face of the middle east
Languages collide and divergent disciplines (poetry, prose, parkour, academia, and music) work harmoniously in this new Australian work from the National Theatre of Parramatta.
Devised by an Arab-Australian ensemble of non-actors with divergent skills, and directed by Paula Abood, the production takes as its leaping off point a little-discussed episode of modern history. In 1915, during World War 1, a French and British diplomat met over a map and dismantled the Ottoman Empire by drawing red and blue lines. The result was the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement – secret at the time. One hundred years later, you can see this agreement’s legacy of conflict, destruction and chaos.
While the history books focus on the geopolitical ramifications, The Cartographer’s Curse delves into the personal fall-out for the cartographer (played by Ludwig El Haddad) who is enlisted to demarcate British and French ‘spheres of interest’. As he pushes aside his misgivings (“I’m just doing my job,” he protests) his daughter and son (played by Zainab and Ali Kadhim) become politicised and find their own – different – modes of activism.
Framed by this loose plot, the production unfolds in a series of vignettes: the cartographer’s daughter makes thistle soup; a local merchant recalls scenes of famine and violence; we see the cartographer present the results of his labours to his diplomatic masters. Several episodes are delivered as spoken word poetry rather than prose. The actors continually break the fourth wall and address the audience with interrogations on the themes of freedom and family.
The emphasis on different perspectives, and the inclusion of various ‘spoken stories’ within the text, undermines the idea of authoritative ‘history’ and ‘truth’, and instead suggests that truth lies in a plurality of stories and inherited memories.
The pace of the production sometimes feels too measured and pensive, but bursts of parkour motion by Kadhim give it a forward drive. He climbs up pillars and flits, upside down, across a metal frame suspended over the stage. His body traces the shapes of Mohammed Lelo’s music, performed live on the qanun (a stringed Arabic instrument that is plucked).
Lelo’s music becomes a character in its own right, guiding the unfurling events on stage as he scores the production live. The cascading notes, paired with the energy of Kadhim’s parkour, creates an alluring sensory experience.
The set is simple: three arches carved into a clean white backdrop. Throughout the production, the backdrop is transformed by visual projections of maps, landscapes and the delicate bloom and decomposition of falling thistles. The thistle is a reoccurring symbol, signifying pain and survival where nothing else grows.
The timing of The Cartographer’s Curse could not be more apt in a world in which ‘difference’ is met with hostility and fear, and labels are thrown around carelessly; in which politicians have the audacity to denounce people for supposedly bearing incompatible ideologies and culture; and in which we choose to close our borders to those who need help.
During the acknowledgement of country at the start of the production, Indigenous Elder Rita Wright spoke about the ongoing cultural displacement and suffering of her people, and emphasised the importance of love and mutual understanding.
Affluent, privileged colonial voices dominate the prevailing ‘world history’. In embracing neglected historical narratives, Abood’s production allows us to test existing interpretations of what has gone by in order to make sense of what is in the now.