Canadian-Lebanese playwright delivers an ode to life in exile
Washington - Seuls, performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center, captures the subtleties of solitude and perhaps the ultimate sense of alienation: negotiating the dream state inside an unending nightmare, all while inspiring the nostalgia that enshrines a life in exile.
The play was written, directed and performed by Wajdi Mouawad, who delivers the entire show in French mixed with some Arabic, particularly when he connects with his father, who is presumably a Lebanese émigré.
His character, oddly named Harwan, just one letter removed from the Arabic word for “animal”, spends most of his time in the vulnerable state of near total nudity. And why shouldn’t he? After all, he is seul – alone — with nothing and nowhere to hide. At times he is haunted by stabbing throes of self-loathing
Inside his Montreal home, Harwan is sheltered from the harsh winter. He negotiates his future and his past through an old-fashioned landline telephone that fails to ring when someone calls. A graduate student, Harwan is writing his thesis on one of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights and actors, Robert Lepage, whom Harwan is annoyed to learn he must chase all the way to Russia, where he takes the audience on a surprising twist of events. Harwan uses the broken phone to bridge the generational and cultural gap with his father, a relationship more intertwined with Harwan’s fate than the audience can initially know.
In today’s world, no script on alienation is complete without the mismatch that humans sometimes feel with technology. Harwan captures this frustration in a photo booth, where he struggles to adjust his image in the reflection of the camera lens. It is here that the plot begins to mirror itself.
While home alone wearing nothing but his underwear, Harwan resembles any of us. He struggles with the demands and deadlines of everyday life and greedily grabs a moment of dilly-dallying. Then, in the midst of a snowstorm, Harwan plays tunes of nostalgia by Fairuz, which was probably lost on the generally American audience at that Kennedy Center but certainly moved those in the crowd who understood.
Towards the end of the play, Harwan launches into an arguably self-indulgent finale that seems to last a very long time. He flails and flops and colours himself green but finally he finds his place among Rembrandt’s classic paintings at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.
“It was confusing but it’s about exile, which for a Lebanese is a long-time theme,” a member of the audience said. She withheld her name because she said her husband holds a sensitive diplomatic position in Washington. “Normally Lebanese attend each other but today it’s been mainly an American audience, so I’m very surprised and happy,” she added.
Harwan delivered parts of his monologue in Arabic without subtitles, much to the frustration of some in the audience who did not understand.
One woman, a former Western diplomat, lamented what she would have missed had her Arabic-speaking companion not translated for her. “There was that song about life being a series of illusions. Now that’s pretty significant,” she said, referring to a song that Harwan played by Muhammad Abdul Wahhab. Mouawad declined through his agent to be interviewed for this review.
Mouawad’s most famous work is a play he wrote and performed called Incendies, which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film for Best Foreign Language. Mouawad created Seuls, in 2008, and now he’s working on his next chapters, Frères, Père and Mère. Soeurs was completed in 2014.
Seuls has been performed in Canada, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Lebanon, Russia, Romania and South America.