While in the Arabian peninsula a country called Iraq cried for its leader of decades, sent to the gallows in what the defense called a “brutal assault on truth,” a “politically motivated judgment” and a “breach of due process.”
You have to be either very shallow, or extremely moved by the world’s political upheaval to make parallels between a play written by a Frenchman, Gaston Leroux in the 1900s, and the hanging of Saddam Hussain in the Iraqi prison as 2007 unfolds. A prison where he undoubtedly himself sent many to their deaths, a savage murderer he was, to some he was even worthy of brutal death, but to others he was a hero.
The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Shah Sharabeel, produced by Mudassir Sheikh and performed at the Lahore Alhamra by Center Stage Productions, in a quintessentially tear-jerking performance, reminded us that when a Phantom is killed, we cry at the inevitable sadness of obsession.
I grapple with the question why: why revenge is not sweet, why vendetta leaves behind unquenching loss, why punishment is not enough for the famished soul, why we still weep for a raging mad and merciless Phantom. What emptiness roars when the opera is left without this evil? With the darkness gone, will light really make its way in the underground again? Who writes the script now, who sets the agenda, and who tells the audience what to think?
The Phantom played by Omair Rana emerges from a ghost-like identity, hated, loathed and feared, to being real, we begin to examine him. Much like the White House press conferences had turned Saddam from the Most Wanted dangerous fugitive, to the shabby old caveman undergoing a humiliating physical, which was telecast around the world, making him real again. Without a mask of positional power, Saddam was scared, marred and driven to madness as a reaction to his isolation. In the Phantom’s case, driven to madness by his deformity. The Phantom’s character was acted out and enunciated so well that even the Mask, white and ceramic seemingly broke into facial expression, of abandonment, pain and the need to belong.
The damsel in distress in the female lead, needing to be rescued, was certainly a woman with an opinion, to the relief of any modern feminist. She loved Raoul, and no charm or tutoring from the Phantom could change that. Christine, played by Rudaba Nasir was very well cast, a true angel of music, always in character in every scene, though slightly losing enunciation at the beginning of the second act. She reminded me of Iraq, beautiful, eternal, casting spells on the world to possess her, with or without her will. Still resilient and true through the change of masters, she sings the weepymusic of the night.
Ian Eldred played Raoul, the fountain of youth, and the wisdom of being a man, all rolled into one pretty white boy, makes him forge a plan where Christine is used as bait to capture the Phantom. Perfect blocking on stage and great projection, and of course a well choreographed swordfight with the Phantom, without which there would be no spectacle complete.
The cast was brilliant, Gerald played by Nauman Faizi and Celestine by Jalal Manzar were notably refined actors. Lighting, costume, props, stage are at a very advanced level of theater in Pakistan. It was a breath of fresh air to see this play, rather than a washed down version of some half backed director on how the country ought to be.
Hats off to Shah Sharabeel for putting this wonderfully together! And for letting an ancient play become relevant enough to contemporary life. A moment of wonder in the world’s craze for speed helps us recognize the phantoms within us.