It feels kind of unreal: I´m on my way again to my beloved theatre ensemble in Sulaymaniyah.  18 months of pandemic lockdown were enough to turn this into a surreal and precious experience. For the whole of last year our intensive theatre exchange had to dwindle down to a sparse structure of video meetings and WhatsApp calls. For theatre people, this can´t be a substitute – let alone for an ensemble like the SABUNKARAN THEATRE GROUP, that even without the virus has been changing fast and is always vulnerable, always at a tipping point.

            So I´m on my way again: Again Istanbul with it its brash offers of an aspiring international capital, again the landing in the heated night of North Iraq. I really am travelling to see a theatre premiere performed 4218 kilometers away from my home town! All my German friends think I´m crazy, but I am fully vaccinated, equipped with a heap of sandwiches and even more corona test kits.

            Radwan, the director of this premiere is coming to get me from the airport – he insisted to do this friend´s favour in the middle of the night. He is as excited as I am: Everything is as it always was  – and yet, this time everything´s different. We drive through this boiling, windy city, both high on spirits and low on sleep. Only the creaking air condition of the monastery is still the same, I learn as I unsuccessfully try to get some sleep in my room at the guest house.

            But as soon as the next day, I realize: Since I left two years ago, in our ensemble here, a lot has changed, and much for the better: It is true that still the play´s director buys the carpet for the creaking stage himself – this wooden structure -covered in staines by now – that we had constructed 2016 for our first production. But: The actors arrive, and as much as they are happy to see the “almany majnoon” (the crazy German) – they quickly leave me to do their warm up: physical and voice exercises, and a focus exercise in the circle that they introduced just recently.

            And the play itself! By mixing Fernando Arrabals famous “Letter to General Franco” from 1974 with texts from Homer´s Oddssey from 730 b.Chr,  Radwan Taleb and the ensemble – some well known faces and a lot of new ones – create a performance that in its formal energy and cutting political edginess goes far beyond anything we´ve done in the group so far. Whenever the characters on stage mention “Espanja”, it is evident for the whole audience who the Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish actors are really talking about. No wonder the atmoshphere in the monastery´s garden during the show is one of total focus on both sides of the stage. Even the pledge, the director makes to please not to film the performance, is more or less heeded – a full sensation for everyone who knows the habits of Arabic audiences. When the play has finished it is clear that in the last 18 months, Radwan has achieved with this group many astonishing things on many different levels. 

            After the premiere, Abouna Jens, the Prior of the monastery Maryam Al-Adhra, who usually isn´t a man of many or big words, is improvising a touching speech: “When we founded this theatre group six years ago, not in our most daring dreams we could have imagined that once you would come up with such a performance. Now you finally have become a real ensemble”. The proud actors visibly cherish these words, while they munch on their food. “Dear General – it surely is exhausting to do so many evil things.” – reads one of the lines of the text. It almost serves as the headline to this special evening.  But what is counting now for the exhausted members of the group is the delicious Kurdish köfte and the Turkish beer that the monastery is inviting them to tonight. The Crazy German is the only one who´s not exhausted and for once – what a nice change – can enjoy the production´s overwhelming success as a mere guest.

Stefan Otteni