The living dead among us: Servati’s ‘The List of the Dead’ in Tehran

TEHRAN, Jan. 26 (MNA) – A loose adaptation of Tadeusz Różewicz's play, 'The List of the Dead' directed by Reza Servati is a psychological journey through loss, suffering, guilt, self-loathing, life and death, and the power of art, music and creation in reconciling with the fragmented self.

Ein Hund /der stirbt /und der weiß /daß er stirbt /wie ein Hund

Und der sagen kann /daß er weiß /daß er stirbt /wie ein Hund /ist ein Mensch.*

Perhaps, it would not go amiss to start this review of Reza Servati’s stage production ‘The List of the Dead’ (a loose adaptation of ‘The Card Index’ written by Polish dramatist Tadeusz Różewicz’s in 1968) with a poem by the Austrian-born poet Erich Fried, who lost his father to the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation and fled to London soon after. There is a character in the play that first appears as an ‘intellectual’ but is soon reduced to take the form of a dog, to fetch, to bark, to wiggle his hind leg, slurp water from a chamber pot, a display of humiliation and agony, lost identity and sacrilege of individuality. “There are three important rules to train a dog,” a character says on the stage. “One is to make it suffer; two is to make it suffer; and three, (here he snubs out his cigar on the back of the human-dog), is to make it suffer.” The human-dog then whimpers in pain and lowers his head obediently to the ground.      

Servati gained in popularity in 2012 with the staging of 'Woyzeck' – a huge, ambitious production of Georg Büchner’s play about a destitute, lonely soldier in a provincial German town, whose life and aspirations are thrown into a whirlwind upon discovering the unfaithfulness of his wife; his fears and jealousy then turn his world into a nightmarish setting, and his mind becomes a graveyard of fragmented concepts of apocalyptic visions, underground organizations and parallel universes.

Following in the same footsteps of fragmented psyches and disintegerated individualism, Servati's latest production, which is taking part in the international competition section of the 36th Fajr Theater Festival, is scarce in dialogues, but abundant in movements, sounds and colors. Set sometime between the end of WWI and WWII, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, perhaps, if one is to assume that the adaptation also takes the setting from the original text, although nowhere in the performance is it ever mentioned where the story is being unfolded, other than a fragmented state of mind, a personal hell, a nightmarish location occupied by the dead, the undead, the unliving. The ‘hero’ of the story takes on several names; it does not matter who he is, but what he represents: an inner vacuum, a disintegrated self, a mental struggle with the past that doesn’t let go, a psychological journey through loss, suffering, guilt, self-loathing, life and death…'Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben’.**

The performance brings over 30 actors on the stage (one a child of ten years of age) with whitewashed faces, haunted eyes circled by black rings, and reddened tongues hanging out of blackened mouths, signifying the burning urge to speak and yet the inability of doing so. And a piano that also functions as a bed upon which the ‘hero’ spends most of his time, mute and passive like the dead, which also fittingly looks like a giant black coffin that keeps getting pushed around the stage by the hands of the dead and his mental tormentors.

With no particular name, identity or occupation, the ‘hero’, still entangled in the suffocating web of the past, becomes an orchestra conductor and imprisons himself in his house for two years to compose a piece for the dead: the mother and father who were murdered by the Gestapo because the young ‘hero’, in his childish naivety, turned on the lights and waved his hands at the troopers (“With these hands, I can do whatever I want: I can embrace a body or crush a man’s skull.”), the wife who died in waiting and solitude and broken dreams (“I only came here to hear you play that piece you wrote for me one last time.”), the servant who drowned herself in the river (“I suffered a lot for you.” And “You killed my childhood!”), the young musician who slits her wrist when the ‘hero’ denies her a place in the orchestra (“Does anyone know where my place is?”) and the hero’s very sense of the self, who has no recollection of his identity and his place in the world (“Have you seen me? Can anyone here see me?”)

 “I have no business with the past,” the hero argues. “But the past still has business with you,” they argue back.

“The List of the Dead” is both grotesque and absurd: the grim makeups and mouths wide-open in silent screams, (“Oh but what a horrific war it was!”), and the comic march of the ‘angels of death’ to an upbeat music, who quite gleefully step onto the stage to collect the dead and take measurements (“Sausages are such sad creatures!”, the ghost mother sprawled on top of the paino says so grimly it actually becomes quite absurd); the deformity of the ghost father and his crawling on the ground like a Silent Hill monster, and the exaggerated reactions of the ‘Furies’, the juries, the jarring voices of a guilt-ridden conscience, in the corner of the stage, as they dance and sing and entertain, while the hero slips further and further into the lower circles of insanity.

“The List of the Dead” is the story of the dead who live among us, and the living who die among us; the ones who talk of ‘life’ when they think they are going to lose it, and then talk of nothing but ‘death’ when they realize they no longer are. The story of mistakes, of culpability, of inability, of passivity and self-destruction. They story of self-loathing that slowly moves toward reconciliation and the forgiveness of self. Setting the ghosts free, coming back to the land of the living, and never looking back, for there is nothing behind the door, that the dead are dead and the past is gone, but the only thing that remains is sound.

Built upon Marconi’s theory of the ‘immortality’ of sound, “The List of the Dead” is, before anything else, a celebration of music and dance, which cleanse the downtrodden conscience of the dust of the past and the mistakes that you can no longer fix, but it does not mean that you have to keep living with them.

“Your music can bring us back!” the dead exclaim. But the performance ends with a piece conducted for the living, for the audience. Don’t ever look back. “You just think too much,” the child hero says as he grabs the adult hero’s hand to lead him back to the land of the living, to the present and onward to a more hopeful future. “One day, everything will be alright.”

*"A dog who dies and who knows that he dies like a dog and who can say that he knows that he dies like a dog is a man." 

** 'A Time to Live and a Time to Die' by Erich Maria Remarque

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