It’s a classic setup: two lovers from opposing sides, persisting in their affair and branded as traitors. A favorite theme since at least Romeo & Juliet, it’s also the premise for Canadian-Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s latest play, Vögel (Birds), currently playing at the Akademietheater. But that’s where the similarities end. Rather than focus on a doomed romance, it’s instead an ambitious, insightful meditation on guilt, trauma and identity spread over three continents, delivered in four languages (English, German, Arabic and Hebrew) and surtitled in two (English and German).
Languages switch so seamlessly you barely notice
What sounds like the recipe for a perfect mess is instead cleverly executed under Israeli director (and new Burgtheater ensemble member) Itay Tiran, using an ingenious set of moving screens and projectors to create all backdrops, with the surtitles imposed directly into the action instead of banished to the top or bottom of the stage. Supported by impeccable performances, languages switch so seamlessly you barely notice, further illustrating the shifting sands of identity and self that are central to the play.
Vögel sees Eitan (Jan Bülow), a German-Israeli geneticist and Wahida (Deleila Piasko), a second generation Arab-American historian, meet at Columbia University and quickly fall in love. All is well until Eitan invites his family over from Berlin for passover – his father, David (Markus Scheumann), takes it particularly hard, rejecting Wahida sight unseen and even accusing Eitan of patricide. His mother Norah (Sabine Haupt) supports him, albeit halfheartedly, as a matter of principle. Only his grandfather, Etgar (Eli Gorenstein), offers any convincing sympathy.
Angered by his father’s reaction, Eitan tests his own DNA to prove they’re not related and uncovers a family secret; he and Wahida travel to Jerusalem to dig further but are caught in an explosion at a checkpoint. As Eitan lies in a coma, Wahida must seek out his estranged grandmother (Salwa Nakkara) and summon his family, bringing everyone together for the final confrontation.
Love will tear us apart
The plot, however, merely serves as a pretext to muse over the nature of identity, guilt, generations and the cycle of recriminations that the Middle East has become, explored with multi-layered conversations and anecdotes rife with symbolism.
Each protagonist has a skewed sense of identity, set on a collision course with the others: Eitan the scientist is convinced that humanity can be explained by genetics, with identity and guilt mere figments of the mind, little more than superstition; Wahida is so westernized, she’s baffled by Eitan’s family’s rejection and only confronts her cultural identity when faced with discrimination in Israel; Etgar, a holocaust survivor, uses whimsy and black humor to shield himself – conversely, his son David has taken the collective suffering of his people upon himself, despite his father’s insistence that successive generations need not inherit the pain. And finally, the former East German Norah’s obligation to support her son stems from her own rebellion against her communist atheist parents – but doesn’t keep her from openly resenting Eitan for pitting her against her husband. All views will be challenged by the end of the play. The titular birds are a recurring theme, appearing in poignant metaphors at key points: birds and fish can never enter each other’s world – and if they do, they’ll die eventually. But birds can also fly over walls.
Vögel does have weaknesses, with its comprehensiveness possibly its own biggest enemy. The topics explored could easily fill 2-3 plays, and at 195 minutes, it occasionally feels that way, leaving you exhilarated but drained by the intermission. It doesn’t help that the second part barely treads new ground, instead reinforcing previous themes – even the dark family secret, once finally revealed, comes too late to add nuance.
But Vögel still works, offering more food for thought than an entire foreign policy symposium and ending on a hopeful note. In the end, it’s not Romeo & Juliet but rather Oedipus Rex – you can run, you can hide, but you can’t escape your fate. But fate needn’t necessarily be doom.
Next performances: 21 & Nov 11, 13, 24; 19:00, Akademietheater. 3., Lisztstraße 1. burgtheater.at