As part of The O.P.E.N., I watched director Rabih Mroué’s Riding On A Cloud. The play is performed by Rabih’s brother, Yasser, and is in part a play and in part an autobiography of the performer.
Yasser Mroué has a painful story to tell. At 17, he was shot in the head by a sniper. The bullet damaged the left side of his brain, leaving him paralysed on his right side and aphasic. This is the story of a man, performed by that same man in the space of a theatre.
There are some things that strike me particularly as I watch this play.
It is one thing for a play to be the story of the performer. But it is another thing entirely when the play challenges you, as the audience, to ponder of the distinction between the real world and the fictive world during the performance itself.
In planting this idea in our heads, the play is transported into another dimension entirely as we become torn between “enjoying” the play as a story, and feeling the weight of what actually happened to him, as a person. To be sure, there are many of us who feel for characters in a story, but a character’s story ends with the performance. Yasser’s story is his life, a life that will go on feeling the effects of what has happened to him, a story that does not end.
The natural direction, which allows Yasser to recount his story by playing back DVDs and recordings serve as a constant reminder of the fact that these are memories rather than fiction. Yasser stacks his DVD’s higher and higher, as if piling on the memories that have accumulated over the years. Yet the fact that he stands, theatrically staring at the screen sometimes, reminds us that this is a performance piece.
Is Yasser performing a story, or is he telling us his story? Does a personal story make it any less a performance? He tells us his brother has chosen only 15 to 20 of his DVDs for this performance – clearly telling us that the narrative is partly fiction, that it has been curated for our benefit. We can presume Yasser had the autonomy to decide what it was that he wanted to share during this performance, though. How is this any different from him simply telling us what he wanted to tell us?
Near the end of the play, we find that Yasser thinks there are many people with his story, making him doubt if his story is even worth telling.
The events in the play occur near the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1987. Yasser’s attack happens after their grandfather was assassinated. Yasser even mentions a friend who who was hit by a stray bullet. What may seem to be a story just like many others to Yasser is one that is most definitely different and shocking when performed in Singapore.
This then brings us round to the question of whether we are able to grasp the significance of Yasser’s story in full. His story is specific to the place (Lebanon), its context and his own biography. He tells us his parents married young – his mother was 14 while his father was 21. They had one girl child and wanted another one. I, for one, am not familiar with the Lebanese cultural context. I cannot tell if marrying that young is a norm, and if wanting a girl child is atypical (and what this says about his parents’ mindsets). Because of this, a lot of implications about who he is and where he comes from is lost to me. I am certain I’m not the only one unfamiliar with this culture and the political history of Lebanon, so how well does this story really translate across borders?
Another more obvious question on translatability is language. Riding On A Cloud is performed entirely in Arabic, with a bit of Russian when Yasser talks about his Russian friend. The nuances of the languages are lost when translated into English. At the same time, translating the spoken language into English doesn’t work as we experience foreign languages as rhythm rather than meaning. When Yasser intones, “To be or not to be” in English, it sounds like an awkward phrase in the midst of an otherwise melodious piece.
In most societies, disability is often associated with some kind of a deficiency. It is an unfortunate truth that people notice disability more quickly than they notice the person behind the disability.
Yasser is a disabled man, but he is also a performer. That Riding On A Cloud allows him perform himself makes him a consummate actor for the role. In doing this, the fact that he is disabled is pushed to the background as we see him as an actor on stage.
Watching him perform his story, we come to know the person. Indeed Yasser appears to manage his space without much difficulty, peeling a banana, using the DVD player and recording his voice. In a heartwarming finale, he even plays a guitar with his brother.
It is laudable that Riding On A Cloud manages to dispel negative ideas on disability and disabled people without actually making it the focus of the play, and without marketing this as a performance by a disabled man. By treating his disability as an issue not even worth mentioning, the play shows rather than tells how we can look beyond and actually see the people behind the disability.