In 2011, I set off on a hunt that would take me around the world to work with ex-soldiers and ex-combatants on theatre projects dealing with homecoming and the return to civilian life after war. For months, I sat in rehearsals listening to the stories of these wounded men, without a clear picture of what it was I was looking for. Most of their tales were trauma narratives, set on an ever-softening loop, like a stuck record fading slowly towards the eventual peace of death. ‘The pit I dug to bury my enemy in cement.’ ‘The day I lost my limbs and sight.’ ‘The cell where they tortured me.’ Hearing these stories again and again, I got the sense that the men telling them were shedding a small piece of their past with each retelling. Change was occurring, but it was the slow and limping healing of a lifelong injury, and not the total transformation of a poetic rebirth.
Between each project I would come back to Britain to sit down with playwright Julia Pascal and unpack the dense months of material collected. Julia had the difficult task of synthesizing my fractured year into a new play; a play that I was beginning to fear would be as grinding and nonsensical as the painful memories that were quickly becoming a discordant stream of world-weary Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu and Kashmiri voices.
Then I went to the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission’s Child Rehabilitation Centre in Musanze, where a recently demobilized child soldier told me this story:
Once upon a time there was a boy named Chance. As a child he was made to fight, and lost his hands and his arms in the war. When Chance returned to his family, they saw he had no arms, and that he could not work, and so they threw him in the river, where he was swallowed by an enormous fish. When the fish spat him up, Chance had grown both of his arms back. He met a boss-man who taught him to fly a plane. He returned to his family who saw he was rich and able-bodied. They begged to have him back, but he rejected them, and set off into the world in his airplane.
Somehow, intuitively, this 16-year-old boy – placed precariously between a tumultuous past of fighting in the Congolese jungle, and an uncertain future in a civilian society which may or may not accept him – had managed to hit upon my own unarticulated question and its answer: what is the moment of total healing, of hope, in all of these painful histories?
‘Chance’ was reminding me that hope must be sought in the poetic realm of myth and magic, where severed arms can regrow, and salvation can be found by riding in the intestines of a leviathan.
Julia Pascal was as moved by the boy’s fairy tale as I had been. ‘It’s Jonah,’ she said. ‘Jonah and the whale.’ We breathed a shared sigh of relief as we realized we had finally hit upon a theatrical context that could actually unite our multi-lingual cacophony into a single coherent voice and vision.
Lights up (fade). Three soldiers from three countries are sitting in the belly of a whale…
Critically acclaimed physical theatre company Theatre Témoin presents Julia Pascal’s ‘Nineveh’, a visually stunning exploration of the trauma of combat and the hope that comes afterwards. Inspired by true stories told by child soldiers and ex-combatants from across the world; collected by the company during a year of creative work in Kashmir, Israel, Lebanon, and Rwanda, ‘Nineveh’ runs at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London from 16 April to 12 May.