Play at kampnagel in hamburg: the ghosts of the past

In his directorial debut "Happy Nightmare", Shahin Sheikho deals with his flight from Syria. Many of the actors have had similar experiences.

Shahin Sheikho fled Syria and has lived in Hamburg since 2016 Photo: Kampnagel

Civil war has been raging in Syria since 2011. Since the first protests in spring 2011 in the course of the Arab Spring. Since then, the country has been in a bloody state of emergency. Currently, the conflict is back in the headlines: Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer recently criticized the invasion of northern Syria by Turkish troops, calling it an annexation. Most recently, she proposed a security zone for the area controlled by the UN force – there is still debate about whether the Bundeswehr will participate.

Around 11.6 million Syrians were on the run in 2015, and at least five million managed to leave their homes. Shahin Sheikho is one of them. The director has lived in Hamburg since 2016. Now he has presented his first directorial work with "Happy Nightmare" at Kampnagel. Actually, one could hardly imagine a more explosive theater evening. In fact, it turns out differently: In Rabia Al’s sparse stage design, which suggests a bedroom with few means, the narrator experiences several nightmares.

The light (Omar Hairan) flickers wildly, the projections of overgrown forests, of marches in false colors, of tirelessly digging pickaxes make one shudder. Between the threatening sound and the same memories, suicide seems to be the protagonist’s only way out. But no sooner does the slender Sheikho (he also takes the lead role in his production) stand on the little stool and has already put his head through the noose than the next nightmare thwarts his suicide plans.

As if from nowhere, the ghosts of his past keep walking in, friends, torturers and family. Accusers and abandoned ones. They tell of what they have experienced and survived. There is no escape. The story that Sheikho tells in nightmarish scene splinters and flashbacks is based on real experiences. Even though only a quiet, aestheticized, sometimes almost surreal approach to all the traumatic events is visible on stage, it creates a painful sense of what Sheikho (and countless other refugees) have been through.

"Happy Nightmare", directed by Shahin Sheikho, premiere Oct. 24 Kampnagel Hamburg

Piled on top are the memories of fleeing in a rubber boat, the feeling of homelessness and fear of death; and – in the attempt at a lived German present – the inhuman encounter with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. The text is expressively rendered in Arabic, the character drawing is classically psychological. All actors act unbroken, their play seems intrinsically motivated. Finally, a group of actors was assembled for the play who share many of Sheikho’s traumatic experiences.

One-dimensional theater play legitimized

This casting, and thus artistic decision, legitimizes the urgent, one might say one-dimensional, theatrical play. At worst, such work can be pushed to the corner of public group therapy. But the director, despite the closeness to his own story, maintains sufficient distance. In his realistically rendered chamber play, he moves somewhat indecisively between documentary-like scenes of torture and bizarre dream worlds.

To go on stage with such a personal fate, to turn one’s own maltreated innermost outward, requires above all courage. This step is highly creditable to Sheikho. At the same time, through this personal display, he evades fair criticism. For ethical reasons.

Who dares to judge the portrayal of the traumatic fate of a refugee? In a country in which the most virulent xenophobia repeatedly erupts from not-so-hidden corners? In a country where the "upper limit" dominates the political debate about effective measures against the influx of refugees?

Neglected – like a foisted child

Kampnagel offers Sheikho and his team space. Space for a public, in which this production is announced as a serious, full-fledged premiere. That’s honorable. And also a bit half-silly. For, in addition to the moral quandary, an annoying omission looms on the part of the professional, dramaturgical support: Never have supertitles been so cryptic, so incomprehensible and carelessly translated.

There is only gibberish full of spelling mistakes, from which the audience must laboriously puzzle together the story. The evening seems to have been abandoned. Neglected – like a child that has been pushed under the table, only half-heartedly loved. Successful integration looks different.

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