What happens when you allow someone to tell your story – but a version that's really their version of your story? And then to be complicit in that retelling of your story, of your own volition? Rabih Mroue's Riding On A Cloud, which opened The O.P.E.N. (heh) last week, is a gorgeous meditation on what it means to interpret histories – in this case both one's personal history, as well as the history of a nation.
I've been struck, from what I've seen at The O.P.E.N. so far, by the ability of its films and performances to paint a very intimate portrait of a family or individual and simultaneously frame it within the larger painting of a country and its political, national struggles. We see this in Miguel Gomes' sprawling Arabian Nights trilogy, where tales of Portugal under economic austerity are told, sometimes in the most mundane moments of everyday living. And we see this in Jumana Manna's wonderful A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, an attempt at ethnomusicology that at once captures the very domestic daily lives of the diverse peoples occupying Palestine, as well as the larger, incredibly complex Arab-Israeli conflict.
Riding On A Cloud takes us to Lebanon. But before that, it introduces us to Yasser Mroue, Rabih's younger brother and the main performer of the work. It is Yasser's story that Rabih tells – or should we say appropriates, in the most loving of ways – in an attempt to examine what it means to represent an individual on a stage, or a complex part of history to the world, while completely aware that every story that is told is simply one side of the story.
Yasser makes his way to a small desk on the stage. We realise he walks with a pronounced limp. He eases himself into a chair. Before him: a tower of stacked CDs and a smaller deck of cassette tapes. He records himself speaking. Then with his left hand, he carefully opens a CD cover and pops the disc into a player. A video flickers onto a large screen behind him. He pops a cassette tape into another player, and we hear his voice (or is it Rabih's?). This is how the show goes. A video concludes, and Yasser goes on to the next one, backed by an audio narrative. It's a radio play-type unfolding of Yasser's story, from childhood to a crucial time in his life when he sustains a life-changing injury.
In 1987, when he is 17, during the Lebanese civil war, Yasser is shot in the head by a sniper while crossing the street, distraught, after hearing news of his grandfather's assassination. He is saved by an operation but wakes from a coma to be told that he has aphasia. His speech, and his understanding of language, is severely impaired. Most notably of all, his doctors reveal that he has a cognitive problem with representation. The doctor shows him a pen. That's a pen, says Yasser. The doctor shows him a flashcard with a pen printed on it. Yasser can't recognise the object, even when it's placed next to the actual pen. To him, the flashcard is a piece of paper with some colours on it.
I was inordinately moved by Yasser's journey of recovery. Perhaps it's because I write a great deal, and my currency is precision of language. "I suffer to find the right word," the voiceover says, at one point, after touching on the other twin love of my life, the theatre. He divulges that going to the theatre is a brutal, emotional experience in which he cannot distinguish acting from real life. To him, acting IS real life. The actors are real people. When they die on stage, they truly die. It's a truly epiphanic moment, sitting there watching him perform his own representation of himself, a representation he can distinguish cerebrally but not emotionally.
This quiet unpacking of a single life manages to somehow always feel larger than itself, whether through Yasser's musings on how he was shot – better to be collateral damage or a predetermined target? – or when set against the backdrop of a country undergoing deep, fracturing turmoil.
How much of this performance was invented, and how much of it was the truth? I'm not sure. But I do know that we convince ourselves of invented histories every day. The small lies, or half-truths, that help us pad out the traumas that we face, or allow us to take a less severe look at ourselves. How do we represent ourselves to ourselves? How do we backtrack, reconstruct our lives to make sense of what has happened to us? It is these things that make Riding On A Cloud at once devastating and life-affirming.
- I loved the small asides of wordplay that happen throughout the piece. There's a scene where we hear a song by the Civil Wars, a folksy duo (now defunct) that I love. The phrase "Civil Wars" on-screen then morphs into "Lebanese Civil Wars", and the melancholy ballad suddenly gains new meaning. It's a nod to the free association Yasser turns to when re-learning language, frustrated when he can't recognise the object on a flashcard and reeling off a series of unrelated objects in an attempt to find the correct answer.