The Will to Freedom – Street Theatre

21 08 2010

The Will to Freedom is a new production as part of the “Made in Canberra” series at the Street Theatre in Canberra.

The play is about Sophie Freibach, a 38-year-old German doctor, who recounts the story of Raja, an African Muslim woman fleeing a forced marriage. Sophie, compassionate and deeply disturbed by Raja’s experiences, tries to understand what it means for Raja to become an independent woman. In The Will to Freedom, the journeys of these two women are mapped and entwined: Raja’s towards freedom and Sophie’s towards understanding.

In terms of describing the style of this piece of theatre, and I am no expert, I would define it as musical theatre. The show’s New York-based director Joanne Schultz, who is acclaimed for her socially engaged, hybrid theatre productions across diverse performance genres, describes this music-driven work as “part feminist fable, part noir-cabaret.” Schultz’s description is apt as the story is focused on subject matter that is very difficult, sensitive and culturally specific. Herein lies my biggest criticism of the work, which I will discuss later.

The play is an original independent work for solo voice with the libretto written and sung by German-born singer and voice trainer Maike Brill and piano music composed by pianist and musicologist Anthony Smith. The music draws on a range of musical styles from late-19th-century European art music, through 12-tone music, tango and African drumming, to contemporary music – a diversity of styles intended to reflect The Will to Freedom’s emotional and psychological journey on the pathways to understanding.

Although I found the story and the performance very powerful, I walked away with a range of questions about the political correctness and the cultural, religious content of the story. My first ‘problem’ was that this was a story written about a particular kind of cultural experience, one that is written (I assume) from a spectator’s position, albeit one informed from a range of reliable sources. The references include Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiographical book, Mijn Vrijheid (Infidel), and a number of news articles, which are referred to in the performance.

I question why is it OK to talk about one type of experience and not another? For example in The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the writer Thomas Keneally wrote the story through the eyes of the central character, a young Aboriginal man, which he later regretted, saying that it should have been narrated from a white person’s perspective (see On the Integrity of the Narrator in The Lover and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Colin Giesbrecht). Keneally recognised the inappropriateness of speaking for another in the preface of the 2001 edition. Given the wealth of work done in the field of postcolonialism since the late 1980s, it is clear that to speak in such a way about another does not empower the cultural/racial/religious group – it only denies them a voice.

In the Will to Freedom Raja’s story is told by Sophie, but for the majority of the play, we see Raja speaking for herself – telling her story. There are no surprises in the westernised perpective in the telling of her story, as the relationship between religion and culture is blurred and homogenised. I do not wish to claim myself as an authority in this area, as I would fall in the same trap, but from my past experience with Islam (I was married to a Muslim for 3 years), there is a huge difference between what is written in the Koran and what is practiced as part of culture. Indeed, there are vast differences in cultural practices across the Islamic world. For example, the practice of female circumcision referred to in the play, is considered abhorrent in many Muslim cultures.

My personal experience was of North African, Berber Muslim culture and I found the women I met to be strong, educated and vocal, whilst at the same time modest, submissive to Islam and the teachings of the Koran. As I write this review I am also conscious that we are in the holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims focus on their faith and family and despite the difficulty of fasting it is a happy time where the breaking of the fast is celebrated with family and friends. I do not know if the performance was intentionally scheduled during Ramadan, but it is noteworthy that it coincided with this significant event in the Islamic calendar.

There is no denying that many women are oppressed in many parts of the world, including behind closed doors in our supposed free society. But why do we need to keep singling out Islam as the perpetrator of these oppressions?

That all said, I enjoyed The Will to Freedom and think it does raise many legitimate issues about human rights and the rights of women. As this play raises questions about the ability of people to speak, it is a valuable piece of work, even for its limitations. Maike Brill’s deft ability to slip between Sophie and Raja by the simple use of the headscarf is evocative and convincing and the piano accompaniment is emotive, as is much of the monologue. What stays with me is Raja’s most powerful line, “Human rights above religion”, which is a most worthy sentiment, no matter where you stand.