Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Myth Indeed

On Saturday night I went to see the show Qaddafi: A Living Myth at the Coliseum. The production has been categorized as an opera/musical - or, to put it more accurately, an "anti-musical", as its creator Steve Chandra Savale has described it. Steve and the Asian Dub Foundation collaborated with the English National Opera, and Production Director David Freeman, to put together this mixture of theatre, music, dance, and film - and, of course, political commentary.

In terms of the music, I thought the production was fantastic. To combine the ENO orchestra, the Asian Dub Foundation band, Arab musicians playing oud and violin, with a pre-recorded backing track playing drum'n'bass and breakbeats - it was definitely a musical collision, that worked. Also, the dialogue of the play was delivered by the actors in a not-quite-spoken, not-quite-sung style - I guess the best way to describe it would be operatic rap. The text had its own rhyme and rhythm that complimented the music well, and the libretto writer Shan Khan has described it as "Shakespearian hip-hop." The dance choreography (yes, there was dance!) fused very well with the rest of the production as well - it was very urban and it definitely got you pumped up. The set was very simple, the main feature being large sheets of white paper on the back wall projecting video images throughout, which was a very nice touch. There was quite often a cameraman on stage filming Qaddafi, just like in real life, and at those times the live video that the cameraman was filming would project off the sheets behind (again, just like on regular Libyan TV). As for the acting, great job all around. Ramon Tikaram did an absolutely fabulous job playing Qaddafi. He got the mannerisms of the man down perfectly. Martin Turner as Ronald Reagan was also fantastic - you really felt like punching him in the chin - as was the rest of the cast.

On to what the production is actually "about". The show follows the life of Muammar Qaddafi - his background, rise to power, and descent into paranoid dictator - as well as the history of Libya, including the discovery of oil in the 1950s, the rise of the monarchy, Qaddafi's military coup of 1969, the nationalization of Libya's oil in the early 70s, the American raid in 1986, the Pan Am crash over Lockerbie in 1988, up to the meeting between Blair and Qaddafi in 2003. The opera neither glorifies Qaddafi, nor does it categorically vilify him. It is not controversial in that respect. Rather, it is about the myth of Qaddafi - almost like his own vision of himself.

Running in parallel to the biographic history lesson is the not-so-subtle political message. Basically, what the production shows is that dictators like Qaddafi do not simply form out of nothing, and oftentimes they actually begin with a solid vision in mind. In Qaddafi's case, his vision was to carry on Nasser's objectives and unite the Arab world, to nationalize Libya's oil and release the region from the hegemonic grip of neo-colonialism (also known as the "seven sisters" - the seven major oil companies vying for power in the region), and even to emancipate women from the abuses of a patriarchal society. However, although his vision might have started off positive, it was not long before paranoia set in, and his fear of being assassinated and overthrown began to overpower his will to do good. His policies and rulings came to be riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies, and his power descended into a ruthless cult of personality.

However, what the play also shows is how the superpowers of the world play the game, and how their hegemonic self-serving policies contribute, in fact lead directly to, the rise of such figures in the Arab world (and elsewhere). Reagan features regularly in the show, and one of the most memorable lines delivered by Ramon Tikaram as Qaddafi was about how there was no difference between Reagan and himself. According to Savale: "In a way Reagan and Qaddafi needed each other to support their own myths, and the piece explores the way leaders get trapped by their own myths." But Qaddafi knows how to play the game right back...he knows how to serve his own interests. Although he started off his career under the umbrella of Nasserist pan-Arabism, most Arab leaders labeled him as insane, crazy, and a joke. After years of nobody taking him seriously as an Arab, Qaddafi decided to turn away from being "Arab" and focus on Africa instead.

Another extremely memorable line, arguably the climax of the night, that Qaddafi says to the audience, is: "If I wasn't here, you'd need an actor to play me." The world will always need a Qaddafi. This production attempts to explore the man behind the myth, and the myth behind the man. Overall, I give it two thumbs up.


  • Wow sounds amazing.
    You know, I sorta want to go to the UK because the media is...well, not as censored as it is here!
    Btw, did you get to see "Death of a President"?

    By Blogger Erzulie, at 9/19/2006 4:00 am  

  • That sounds great! I can't wait to see it!!! Where did you go see it? Is it going to be around for a while?

    By Blogger Raine, at 9/19/2006 6:55 am  

  • Erzulie: Haven't seen "Death of a President" yet because it will be shown on TV here in October (it was made for Channel4). Can't wait though - supposedly it has really rustled up some feathers in the US! Yeah, as far as freedom of the media, art, and expression go, the UK is lightyears ahead of the US. You can't even compare!

    Raine: It was playing at the Coliseum in the theatre district, but Saturday was the last show. I heard it might be going on tour. Not sure where though - I doubt it will be very successful in the States because the US is not painted in a very flattering light (and refer to my comment above!). I'm sure it might play in London again because I think it was quite a success. I'll keep you posted!

    By Blogger Kleio, at 9/19/2006 10:49 am  

  • That sounds really interesting and fun! That line about needing an actor to play Qaddafi if he didn't already exist is smart, especially given Reagan's acting career (the one before his role as President...hahaha!!). Did they play with that? I'll bet they did. This is what we really miss here in Kuwait...creativity and culture! Enjoy for us!!

    By Anonymous red, at 9/20/2006 5:41 pm  

  • I think they certainly were indirectly playing on Reagan's acting career, because they showed what a theatrical and fake person he was too. Qaddafi is known to be quite theatrical, but the fact that the Americans used to make fun of him because of his antics when the head of their own administration was an actor himself - it's simply riddled with irony and is just too hilarious. The play really makes you see how evil the Reagan administration was.

    By Blogger Kleio, at 9/24/2006 3:24 am  

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