Michele Celeste's latest play `My Goat' looks
afresh at hostage crises.
spoke to the playwright
Towards the end of World War II, some of the Neapolitan women whose men had been transported by the Nazis decided to turn anger into action. Taking advantage of the German's rout, they turned their hands to kidnapping. The terms of release they laid down were simple: this German for my Italian, or, failing that, for appropriate compensation. In many cases their implacability paid off and the restored Municipality of Naples was obliged to deliver.
Michele Celeste, who grew up in a small village outside Naples, was intrigued by this bizarre and poignant footnote in the city's history. By the early `80s, when he gave up the profession of classical guitarist for that of playwright, he had already long been thinking about dramatising the predicament of one such woman and her hapless hostage. And with the current market in hostages as bullish as it was then, it became obvious to the playwright that he needn't hark back to 1945 for his historical backdrop.
My Goat, which has its world premiere at the Cockpit Theatre this week, is set in the shell-shocked heart of Beirut. Says Celeste, who speaks perfect English with a heavy Italian accent: "Looking into the subject, I found there was a venerable history of hostage-taking in the region and in the Middle East as a whole. The practice was an accepted feature of wars and feuds, and the Syrians were invoking a respectable regional tradition in taking those Israeli pilots to exchange for Syrian prisoners in Israel."
The goat of the title belongs to Shazah, a pregnant Lebanese Arab woman, and it's a far more highly-valued member of her menage than Carlos, the Western-European archaeologist she is holding hostage. But as her bargaining-chip, Carlos is the wherewithal for Shazah's hopes of buying back her husband, himself an unwilling guest of one of the Lebanons many military factions. So endemic is the bartering of human freedom that, in Celeste's black comedy, the practice has acquired an aspect of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. "There's hundreds of kidnappings," says Shazah. "Take the woman holding my husband. First she kidnaps a Druze. When his value goes down she exchanges him for a Maronite. As soon as she gets the whiff of his value dropping she exchanges the Maronite for my husband. Without a hostage you're nothing!" At first, the eagerly-anticipated hand-over is frustrated by curfews, cease-fires and other vicissitudes of Beirut's wartime life. But the arrival of Shazah's baby affects her agenda more profoundly.
Like Celeste's earlier, multiple prizewinning works (Columbus and Mariza's Story among them), My Goat approaches human cruelty and weakness humanistically, placing people under too close a scrutiny to allow for broad judgmentalism. In the process of entertaining, these plays succeed in humanising evil through its everyday absurdity and pathos. Celeste wanted to invest My Goat with those qualities which, to many minds, made his Hanging the President the most powerful new play of 1988. They are qualities which many playwrights try to place naturally on the stage but fail. One the writer calls "humour in desperation"; the other, its graver corollary, "the transcendent tenacity of hope."
Considering how well we both know these qualities in real life to have served the hostages of recent history, the subject-matter of My Goat looks a natural for Celeste's treatment. "Like other writers, I was very interested in what happens over a long period in the relationship between a captive and a captor, the way that common humanity can start to intervene. It isn't a trivialising portrayal, but it is full of humour. I think that this is only realistic, and I've never been a gloom-and-doom writer. It's a humane play, and one which celebrates the best things. It's a genuine story, I hope."
Michele Celeste's hostage play is an intriguing black comedy that thrives on the tensions between an Arab woman and her Spanish kidnap victim.
The concept of a merry-go-round of Middle East splinter groups trading hostages like groceries with Mrs Average Arab seems utterly preposterous. But inspired by a British TV documentary Michele Celeste (who's beginning to make a virtue of `hostage' plays. cf Hanging the President'), has written an intriguing satire about an Arab woman and her male Spanish kidnap victim in a bombed-out block of flats in West Beirut circa 1982.
Carlos, a veteran hostage whose dreams of becoming a famous archaelogist are gradually being ground to dust, makes a very odd chandelier, chained as he is from the light socket of Tom Piper's rubbled set. But despite the hunger, humiIiation and fear, rivetingly cotrived in Jonathan Arun's unshaven pertormance, its the conflict of interests plaguing the pregnan peasant woman, Shazah, which dominates Burt Caesar's production. Hoping to swap Carlos for whoever might be holding her `disappeared' Lebanese husband, Anna Savva's proud and passionatc Shazah is continually and affectingly torn between putting her husband before Allah, her heart before her principles, her priceless goat before her engaging prisoner.
There's a neat symmetry to their mutual predicament; in fact so neat it starts getting quite cosy despite the black trappings of Celeste's comedy - a couple of ghastly bits of finger-for-ear bargaining, and Carlos's belief that Shazah's goat (which unfortunately doesn't get to make an appearance) has it better than either of them. But having opened their hearts in no-man's land, Celeste then hustles his play througb an all too convenient nihilist exit. Its an affecting piece, beautifully acted, directed and produced, but oddly more memorable for its sentimental comedy than any searing statement. James Christopher.
MANY things have been created in the name of love: but hostage-markets? Inspired by a 1982 television documentary on women in Beirut who traded in hostages in order to "buy" back their captured husbands, playwright Michele Celeste's production takes a long hard look at the emotion.
For if this play is motivated by love, it is driven by harshness. Set in the desert city where missiles still tear the skies apart and mortars rip up the earth, death, not the bloody gore of death but its dusty, everyday reality, presides over the action.
Pregnant Shazah's husband is captured by a rival faction. So she goes out with a kitchen knife and nabs a Druze militia-man. But on the hostage-market Westerners are fetching the highest price. So she trades him for a German.
The German turns out to be a Spaniard with a German passport. And anyway Germans quickly go down in value in this ever-changing human marketplace. She tries to pass him off as French, currently fetching the highest price in a currency which thinks nothing of forwarding ears or noses as quality samples.
A cast of two - the Arab woman Shazah (played by Anna Savva) and the Spaniard Carlos (Jonathan Arun) - and an unchanging set of concrete slabs arranged like bombed-out rubble evoke a horror made bearable only by comedy. And both actors tread the tragi-comic border with admirable honesty. Savva's hard-edged tone is very Arabic. Whilst Arun's bitter delivery can be hilarious.
This is the sort of place where children ought to be bathed daily in vinegar to toughen them for life. Even the sound effects grate with the effort of survival: although the goat-bleats. missile swoops and gun-blasts could have been turned down a notch.
And the goat? Shazah's love for her goat as she fattens it up for slaughter belies the need for the emotion.
Cockpit Theatre, NW8
MY Goat is another tale oF boy meets girl, girl loves goat with a twist. The boy in question is Carlos (Jonathan Arun), a Western archaeologist who finds himself the unwilling hostage of Lebanese/Arab woman, Shazah (Anna Savva). Pregnant and alone, Shazah holds only two things dear, the goat she has hand-reared, and the belief that one day her husband will be returned to her.
We, the audience, are invited to the Beirut Stock Exchange, where the only value placed on human life is as a tradable commodity.
Shazah regards Carlos as an item which she can in due course exchange for her husband, who is himself a hostage.
Writer Michele Celeste was inspired by the plight of Arab women he saw on a British documentary, desperate enough to kidnap anyone, to exchange for their relatives. It is this element of truth and the whole lunacy of war that gives this play its cutting edge.
While it could be argued that My Goat is about half an hour too long to hold the audience's attention. the interaction between the protagonists is fascinating to the end. In a land where a goat can make you rich on the black market, while another dead human is worthless. Shazah's values are very disturbing. Her precious goat is fed, watered and loved while Carlos is beaten and starved. Through Carlos' constant reference to his own wife and children, his captor finally begins to see him as a person rather than an object. The relationship that ensues between the two, forced into co-dependency is an interesting parable of the whole human race.
This production is stark and lacks nothing in realism. Watching a man chained for months to a ceiling without the most basic amenities, held captive by a woman who is scarcely better off, you will not doubt come out feeling better about your own dwellings, be they ever so humble.
MY GOAT - part of three excellent productions
If My Goat - a play about hostages in Lebanon - had been first performed just a few years ago, it might have looked like a sparkling political satire. As it is, it comes out as a mixture of the macabre and the sentimental, but is still a fascinating piece, wonderfully acted at the Cockpit.
Michele Celeste, the Italian who wrote it, says that he took his original source not from the Middle East, but from
Naples 1943, when Neapolitan women would pick up fleeing Germans as compensation for the loss of husbands and sons who had been transported by the Nazis. There developed a kind of transfer market in hostages, though there were also some emotional attachments.
Much the same happened in West Beirut in 1982/83, where the action takes place. There are only two characters. A pregnant Arab woman, whose husband has been kidnapped by one of the warring factions, is in charge of a European archaeologist, innocently caught up in the process of tit-for-tat hostaging. The goat remains in the background: a substitute child competing for food and being fattened up to be ready for selling.
If there is no symbolism in the names, it is a remarkable coincidence. The woman's missing husband is called Yasser (after Arafat?). The man's German wife is called Ulrike (after Meinhof?). And the German-Spanish archaeologist is called Carlos, a name to conjure with in the world of terrorism. Moreover, Carlos is played (superbly) by Jonathan Arun in an unmistakable Irish accent.
The Irish dimension adds to the strange mixture of the primitive and the sophisticated which seems to dominate Lebanon. When the woman thinks she has traded her hostage, she finds she is gazumped because the market for Frenchmen is higher.
The macabre comes in with the exchange of ears and little fingers as proofs of identity; the sentimental with a man and a woman locked up together. It is not very profound, but at times it is certainly haunting. Anna Savva as the woman has
a memorable husky voice and is full of intensity. This is a fine performance. Burt Caesar directs and Tom Piper's set catches that sense of parts of the Middle East being permanently rebuilt and destroyed. Malcolm Rutherford
THE STAGE, September 29, 1994
THERE'S a market for hostages. A stockmarket to be precise. Just like currencies, stocks and shares so the value of a hostage varies according to nationality and the varying political and economic strengths of the particular country - in this case an Arab war zone.
In this witty two hander, Michele Celeste has created a comic parable between a Spanish/German archeologist, Carlos who is held hostage by Shazab, a pregnant Lebanese. "Without a hostage you are nothing," Sbazah tells CurIos whom she sees as her bargaining card with the rival factions holding her own dear husband, Yasef.
And so, stuck amidst the rubble ruins of no man's land, between ever changing enemy lines, Shazah, a passionate and distraught Anna Savva and Carlos a homesick, bewildered and increasingly angry Jonathan Arun are locked together, as curfews and ceasefires continually frustrate any rescue or peace.
With a skilled mixture of humour and seriousness, Celeste guides the relationship between Shazah and Carlos from mutual antipathy to a grudging respect and eventually a reluctant fondness.
Shazah's goat, Kiddie, may have received the fresher water and better scraps at the start of the play, but by the end, it's the goat that's dead meat - not Carlos. Only with the surprise shock of a truce do captive and captor really have the opportunity to look at one another and realise that, underneath it all, they are not so dissimilar.
My Goat may be short, small and straightforward but it is perfectly formed. A little dynamo of a play.
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