`We had three heads'

Print edition : February 09, 2007

Interview with Uzbek director Ovlyakuli Khojakuli.

A SHAVEN head streaming with plaited strands, ear and finger rings, a chain with an "Om" pendant, a wrist band... Ovlyakuli Khojakuli cannot but turn eyes towards him wherever he goes. More, the man breathes alertness. Born in Turkmenistan where he studied theatre, Khojakuli went on to work in Uzbekistan with different theatre groups. He specialises in adapting Central Asian audio-visual and story-telling traditions in his modern productions. His interest in Sufism and poetry made him dramatise works such as "Seven Tourists" by Central Asian poet Alisher Navoi, and "Conference of the Birds" by 12th century Persian mystic Fariduddin Attar. His film Oedipus had a Turkmenistan cast. Khojakuli's striking imagery has attracted international attention.

Did you have a choice in this project? Yes. Why did you choose Medea?

Medea is one of the most challenging characters in Greek mythology. She represents the problems of all women faced with difficult choices. She had a big love in her life. She believed in the sanctity of marriage, motherhood, home-making. Betrayed by Jason, her faith turns to fury. Her decision to kill her children is not an easy one, not done on the spur of the moment. It was a considered choice to do what she thought was right - for the children, and the world. She did not want them to grow up like Jason, become oppressors and contaminate the earth.

These were the issues I wanted to show on the stage and open out for discussion. Show why she did what she did. Was she prompted by love? Wrath? Vengefulness? I needed very strong acting from the actor to realise my goal. Medea's decision is one of the most powerful decisions in Greek mythology.

It is easy to understand Medea's poisoning of Glauca, whom Jason marries after casting her away. But killing her own children?

Once she sees the hollowness of Jason's love and faces the tyranny of Creon who exiles her, the injustice makes her think about the values she wants to promote and cherish. If she leaves the children with Jason, how can they grow up to be anything other than obnoxious like Jason? She has to cut his line.

A startling scene in your play is when the frustrated Medea calls her old servant, kisses him, and says, "Do what you like with my body." Why did you introduce this sexual encounter?

This sequence is from the Russian version of the story. There Jason sends a friend to seduce Medea in the hope that she will forget him. When Medea refuses to be so humiliated, Jason has her raped by lustful sailors. That was when her heart broke. The servant encounter was my take-off on this idea.

Your dialogues are modulated to create an incantative kind of opera. Why?

The characters are so strong and highly charged with emotions. So I evolved this way of delivery - not music, not rhetoric but a scream. Tragedy should be like a prayer of despair. Of course, actors had trouble doing this, but we did manage.

What was the most difficult thing in this production for you?

It was the problem of working with actors from different theatres and groups, each with his/her own ways of doing things. To bring them together and make them work as a team was tough. This first show is raw. A few more shows and the actors will become stronger, more sensitive.

How was it to work in a trilogy, sharing space with other directors?

In theatre, the director is the head of the team. Here we had three heads! So the director has to do what he should never do: compromise. At times it became more important than the final product. But we will work more now...

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