The in­alien­able right to self-ex­pres­sion

Sit­ting down with the di­rec­tor and cast of In­tractable wo­man

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Rahma Wiry­omartono

“Some peo­ple pay with their lives for say­ing aloud what they think,” said Anna Politkovskaya, a Rus­sian jour­nal­ist, writer, and hu­man rights ac­tivist. Well-known for her cov­er­age of the Sec­ond Chechen War and vo­cal crit­i­cism of the poli­cies of Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, she was mur­dered in 2006 in what is widely be­lieved to be a con­tract killing.

More than a decade af­ter her death and an ocean across from where she did most of her work, Mon­treal’s Imago Theatre has pro­duced a the­atri­cal me­moran­dum to Politkovskaya in the form of In­tractable Wo­man. The play de­tails her fight for free­dom of the press and free­dom from state cen­sor­ship as she ex­posed as­pects of the war in Chech­nya.

With­out as­sert­ing sanc­ti­mo­nious moral claims, the play nudges the viewer to re­flect in­de­pen­dently and con­sci­en­tiously. This en­cour­age­ment for au­ton­o­mous in­ter­pre­ta­tion is fun­da­men­tally linked to the artis­tic phi­los­o­phy of the play’s di­rec­tor, Miche­line Chevrier. Speak­ing to me on the topic of art’s abil­ity to sub­vert a main­stream line of thought, Chevrier ex­plained that “the good plays are the ones that re­ally ask dif­fi­cult ques­tions and don’t pro­vide an­swers, so they trig­ger in us a re­flec­tion and an urge to in­ves­ti­gate things that we prob­a­bly wouldn’t nor­mally.”

“That’s what I love about good art,” Chevrier con­tin­ued. “It doesn’t tell me what to think or what to feel, but it asks me what to think or what to feel.”

Imago Theatre is one of Mon­treal’s long­est run­ning in­de­pen­dent English-lan­guage theatre com­pa­nies. As the Artis­tic and Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the com­pany, Chevrier has re­fo­cused its man­date to “[high­light] the fem­i­nine per­spec­tive.” This re­fo­cus aligns with Imago Theatre’s mis­sion to be “a cat­a­lyst for con­ver­sa­tion, an ad­vo­cate for equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and a hub for sto­ries about un­stop­pable women.”

I sat down with In­tractable Wo­man’s all-fe­male cast – com­prised of per­form­ers Deena Aziz, Laura Condlln, and Warona Setshwaelo, who all play Politkovskaya – and in­quired about the uni­ver­sal rel­e­vance and time­li­ness of Politkovskaya’s story.

“Here we are, in this dan­ger­ous, anx­i­ety-filled time, so what a bet­ter time to lift [Politkovskaya’s] story and her words,” Condlln be­gan. “We want to share it with as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble be­cause of course, safe­guard­ing the right to free speech and the ne­ces­sity of truth in trauma, in atroc­ity, in dis­as­ter, in trou­bled times – is a nec­es­sary ac­tion.”

Aziz elab­o­rated on how jour­nal­is­tic free­dom in Canada is not al­ways guar­an­teed and that Cana­dian au­di­ences should be self-re­flec­tive when an­a­lyz­ing the con­text in which Politkovskaya worked.

“We’re cer­tainly not im­mune to this, in Canada. Most par­tic­u­larly un­der the Harper gov­ern­ment, there was so much clamp­ing down on the free­dom of the press,” Aziz said. “It would be a mis­take to imag­ine that we are some­how above this.”

Setshwaelo fur­ther spoke about how the arts can bring ur­gent, press­ing ques­tions into pub­lic con­scious­ness. “It’s im­por­tant to pro­gram stuff like this and not just if some­thing is hap­pen­ing, be­cause you don’t know what is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing. There’s no way that this just came up all of a sud­den in the last two years. It was still there two years ago – we just didn’t know. That’s why it’s im­por­tant to al­ways tell th­ese sto­ries, be­cause they’re al­ways rel­e­vant.”

“I think some­how we use entertainment in the wrong way,” Chevrier said, ex­pand­ing on the role of theatre in so­ci­ety. “To en­ter­tain some­thing is to con­sider it and entertainment to me is that: ‘con­sider this.’ And I think that’s what theatre does.”

Anna Politkovskaya and the Sec­ond Chechen War

Ste­fano Massini, the play­wright of In­tractable Wo­man, had this to say of Anna Politkovskaya: “It’s as if con­jur­ing this wo­man’s name could sud­denly put the bro­ken shards of the Rus­sia- Chech­nya mir­ror back to­gether.”

The Rus­sian- Chechen con­flict dates back to 1785, with low-level in­sur­gency per­sist­ing to­day. Politkovskaya re­ported through­out the Sec­ond Chechen War dur­ing a time of height­ened vi­o­lence, re­ceiv­ing death threats as she de­tailed the des­per­a­tion civil­ians faced against Rus­sia’s op­pres­sive army.

“Blood, snow. Blood, snow. Blood, snow,” on stage, Condlln’s Politkovskaya re­peats, her mind strug­gling to break free from the in­flicted vi­o­lence. The dron­ing mantra lasts for min­utes as the play nears its cul­mi­na­tion. At this point, the au­di­ence has fol­lowed Politkovskaya through har­row­ing or­deals: beat­ings, ar­rests, death threats, and state-sanc­tioned cen­sor­ship. Her re­peated calls con­trasts blood – warmth and hu­man­ity – with snow – cold­ness and in­dif­fer­ence – re­veal­ing the hope­less­ness of liv­ing through a war that seems never-end­ing.

When I asked why Chevrier de­cided to cast three per­form­ers for the same role, she stressed that the strug­gles Politkovskaya went through as a jour­nal­ist are nei­ther iso­lated to her life nor her so­ciopo­lit­i­cal con­text.

“Even though the play is about Anna Politkovskaya and she was a Rus­sian jour­nal­ist, [...] there are many jour­nal­ists from all over the world who suf­fer the same chal­lenges and con­se­quences,” Chevrier ex­plained. “It was im­por­tant for me that it wasn’t just rel­e­gated to one part of the world, or one kind of per­son, so I wanted to have a rep­re­sen­ta­tion that was ask­ing us to think about that.”

“When you’re [...] one third [of a char­ac­ter], you’re all re­ly­ing on each other to lit­er­ally fin­ish each other’s sen­tences,” Setshwaelo added. “Work­ing so closely, there’s al­ways an un­spo­ken en­ergy that sur­rounds the three of us that we have to have in or­der to feel safe to do this. It’s pretty ex­pos­ing, vul­ner­a­ble stuff up there.”

Condlln added, “what we are do­ing right now with our art, with this play, is dan­ger­ously par­al­lel to what is hap­pen­ing [in the real world].”

Politkovskaya’s fight for free­dom of the press and free­dom from cen­sor­ship con­tin­ues to have press­ing rel­e­vance, which Imago Theatre un­der­lines in its mes­sage to the pub­lic: “be in­tractable in your de­fence of a world that fights for free­dom from cen­sor­ship; a world that em­braces a plu­ral­ity of per­spec­tives.” In­tractable Wo­man in­spires us to al­ways make space for marginal­ized voices and chal­lenge dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives.

In­tractable Wo­man runs from Feb­ru­ary 9-18 at the Cen­taur Theatre. Each show­ing has a Pay-what-you-De­cide op­tion at the end of the play.

“That’s what I love about good art. It doesn’t tell me what to think or what to feel, but it asks me what to think or what to feel.” —Miche­line Chevrier Di­rec­tor “Safe­guard­ing the right to free speech and the ne­ces­sity of truth in trauma, in atroc­ity, in dis­as­ter, in trou­bled times – is a nec­es­sary ac­tion.” —Laura Condlln Per­former

Rahma Wiry­omartono | The Mcgill Daily

Per­form­ers Deena Aziz, Laura Condlln, and Warona Setshwaelo in In­tractable Wo­man.

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