“Waiting for Godot “at the Common-Room Theatre

Shamal Amin and his radical production

Performers: Nigar Hasib and Frmsek Mustafa
1987, in Baghdad, Sulaimanyah and Kerkuk/Iraq

Only two women, a doll, a two meter long rope and a pair of shoes on a two square meter, black and empty staging-area. Nigar Hasib and Frmsek Mustafa performed the entire play, which lasted approximately one and a half hours, in sitting, kneeling or lying positions. They never got up off the floor. This was Shamal Amin's mise en scene of Samuel Becketts “Waiting for Godot”, which was received with great enthusiasm by audience and critics alike. 27 treatises and articles were written about this production, in Kurdish, Arabic and English language. It was performed several times before large audiences and was acclaimed to be one of the most interesting and most important experimental productions of 1987.

Two aspects of the performance impressed audiences and critics the most, namely the casting of two women in the play and the absence of the tree. These were the most radical steps of staging the play in all of theatre history. The tree, usually representing the conflict of time, was considered an obsolete prop and was purposely omitted. Everything was focussed on the body. Just as in Grotowski's work, there was no duration between inner impulse and externalized reaction, which is to say that the inner impulse simultaneously became the externalized reaction. Impulse and action become one: the physical dissolved, consumed itself and the audience saw merely a serious of impulses, which had suddenly become visible.
Shamal Amin's directing aimed at a technique of incorporating all of the psychical and physical powers, which emanate from the most intimate layers of being and instincts of the performers, gushing forth in a special, radiating form. During the creation of this production, Shamal Amin was directly influenced by Grotowski, as he himself emphasizes:

(...) I don’t do that in order to imitate Grotowski, but to synthesize my own work with his during this particular phase of my development, because I feel the need to confront myself with him, to test and feel Grotowski. But doing this, I don’t give up being myself. (...) My meeting Grotowski is not a chaotic, premature birth, and I don’t want to realize myself through him, for that would be a mistake. The search for oneself is only possible through oneself. That is the only way of freedom and self-expression. (...) Grotowski fascinates me, but not as a model for any particular way of working. (...) I’m not looking at him for any leading directions. Self-expression through another ones means is only an attempt to cover up ones own weaknesses. I consider Grotowski to be an exceptional theatre man. I see him as a dervish, and his search for the total act and unification of the objects is indeed a kind of dervish-like approach.

Shamal Amin tried to dissolve all distances, in order to facilitate the presence of the living organism. The first step towards the dissolution of these distances began with the departure from the formal script in allowing two women to enact the play. Choosing the space of a common-room theatre added another essential experimental aspect to it, just as the use of ancient songs, the two languages (Kurdish and Arabic) and the traditional mid-eastern children’s games did.

The characters were born old and then became children, they died and were resurrected, returned to the womb and were crucified. The body and the voice played a crucial role. The performance was the result of a long working process. The different phases of development extend over a period of six months of intensive work. Rehearsals were held in different rooms and places: large halls, small rooms, in the kitchen, the library and yard and garden.

We are everywhere and we work everywhere.

We don’t know limiting borders at all...
That’s what Shamal Amin said.

One of the most important scenes was the particular work with the shoes. Both performers displayed such highly an effective, bodily and vocal expressive capability during their action with the shoes, that the audience spontaneously broke out in cheers and applause. Sometimes the shoes were used as a children’s toy, or as an animal, like a horse, and even as a boat. Hands and feet were brought to action in very detailed movements, offering a multitude of signs and meanings, as for instance the traditional hand reading in relation to the waiting.

The bodies of the performers in “Waiting for Godot” weren’t an instrument for Shamal Amin; they were neither a means of expression, nor material for any particular symbolism and not even a means of representation. They became a place from which the performers could express themselves as free human beings.

The production was an attempt to allow the body to resist all forms of exploitation, all bodily taboos. And this is how the presence of the bodies of the performers was not only seen through the eyes of the spectators, but was perceived through all of their senses. Each one of them, influenced through their own social and political structures, interpreted the performance differently. In the Kurdistan, the play was taken to be a symbol of freedom and in Baghdad as a symbol of the death of the dictator. That’s why some of the commentaries appeared under titles such as: Godot's eternal Return, Iraqi Waiting for Godot, Godot and Us. And that means that the play did not only reach its success through its experimental techniques, but because of the many questions it threw up on a political level in Iraq and in the Kurdish territories.

In his letter from Baghdad to a friend in Sulaimanyah, Shamal Amin wrote: "Grotowski and I between two worlds"

“ I’ve written this letter on the eve of the twelfth performance of “Waiting for Godot” and you surely know about the success of the play, from the newspapers.
Last week, at the academy, two secret service agents informed me, that it was not good, that I had taken a communist as a model for my theatrical work.  I asked whom they might have meant with that? They said: Grotowski!
It is laughable. I’m being interrogated, almost arrested; they wanted to stop my performance because a communist influences me, while Grotowski himself had to suffer in his own country, because he wasn’t a communist!
Another ridiculous situation occurred yesterday evening. The secret agents threatened me and warned me, that I wasn’t to put on any plays by Samuel Beckett anymore, because Beckett was a representative of absurd thinking and that would be imperialism.
The Iraqi regime accuses me of communism on the one hand and on the other of imperialism. If they succeed, they’ll hang both of them together with me"

During the public discussions about the performances in Baghdad and in the Kurdistan, most critics agreed about the following:
The body and the theatre have ceased to function as a sign or an instrument, as material or even as a medium; they’ve become a place of “rebirth” of the human being, of its freedom and its own human processes. The theatrical character is not the aim or purpose of the function of the body; it is here for a completely different reason. The way to total acting, the self-transformation to become a completely new human being. That shouldn’t surprise us, because not only the experimental theatre company goes through this process, but the whole of the Kurdish people. These views have certainly been influenced directly by Grotowskis points of view regarding the function of the performer.

The effect of the performance could only have been a result of the relationship between the physically present performers and the physically present spectators. In order to achieve this “coming together”, Amal Shamir tried to eliminate all the distances between spectators and performers. The actresses had to confront themselves directly with the presence of the spectators.

Shamal Amin always created a new spatial arrangement. In “Godot”, the entire space became a waiting room. The audience was seated on benches, which were placed at different locations throughout the room and was treated like people in a waiting room. In the closeness of the “Living-room theatre”, all of the spectators were only an arms length away from the performers, and both ensemble and audience could feel each other’s breath, smell each other’s sweat. 

Nigar Hasib
Vienna 2000

Text first appeared in: Lalish Journal/issue 1/2000, Vienna,
Lalish Theatre-laboratory/research-center for theatre- and performance culture.

Translated into English by Hans Echnaton Schano, theatre director.