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Rimbaud, the rebel without a pause

PARSHATHY J NATH | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 16, 2020

Fresh ground: Norway’s Grusomhetens Teater performs “I is Another” — Rimbaud in Afrika at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala   -  O AJITHKUMAR

On Rimbaud’s birth anniversary, a theatre artiste recalls a play inspired by the French poet and enacted by a Norwegian drama group

* The play “I is Another” — Rimbaud in Afrika was performed at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala in January by Norway’s Grusomhetens Teater

It was, in one word, dramatic. Actors moved from one end of a stage to another, in the garb of villagers, officials or voyagers. They tossed and turned like a boat rocking against violent waves in a wild storm. The bodies on the stage were chaotic — like the fragmented and churning self of a poet who’d sought to survive in an alien land.

But then the boat was the life of Arthur Rimbaud — the enfant terrible of French poetry who quit writing to trade guns and coffee in Africa during the last years of his life.

The play, performed months before Rimbaud’s 166th birth anniversary, intrigued its audience at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala held in January this year. “I is Another” — Rimbaud in Afrika, performed by Norway’s Grusomhetens Teater, was inspired by the French poet, who was born on October 20, 1854, and died of cancer at the young age of 37 in Marseille, France.

What was it about Rimbaud’s life that drew the Norwegian team to imagine a play around him?

Lars Oeyno, artistic director of Grusomhetens Teater

 

“Arthur Rimbaud went into demanding landscapes both in his early artistic writings and as a hard-working merchant towards the end of his life. That is the price of experience,” says Lars Oeyno, the director of the play and the artistic director of Grusomhetens Teater. “Rimbaud’s life and poetry are always important to me. The free poetic mind visible in his verses is of value because it challenges the literary and common cultural situation in Western society.”

Established as a theatre group in 1992 in Oslo, Grusomhetens Teater derives inspiration from Antonin Artaud, one of the leading figures of avant garde European theatre. Artaud was the founder of what is known as the Theatre of Cruelty, which seeks to shock an audience with images, sounds or gestures. The theatre group has performed on various stages in Japan, Russia, Turkey, Germany, Sweden, Poland, England, France and India.

Clearly, Grusomhetens Teater wanted to reimagine the essence of the poet’s spirit and adventure on stage. The fragility of human existence was brought out in the frenzied movement and vocal expressions of the actors. Like Rimbaud, the visual treatment thumbed its nose at conventional theatre, which is often word-heavy, and the illusion of “busy-ness” that humankind prides in.

The play also relied on the symbols of Rimbaud’s poetry. “I used Rimbaud’s famous poem The drunken boat as a model for the composition, but also for the performance idea itself,” Oeyno explains. “The boat that drifts in the flood of life in Africa is (the poet) himself.”

The scenario, Oeyno stresses, is surrealistic. “It meets my concept derived from Artaud [who was associated with the surrealists for a spell] and the fact that both cruelty and body are involved. Rimbaud experienced an uncivilised reality with brutal life conditions, and was finally crushed by it all. He falls to the ground in his effort to reach the unknown as expressed in his famous letter to [French poet] Paul Demeny, written 20 years earlier. I wanted to meet the surrealistic or anarchistic images of Rimbaud in my staging.”

Rimbaud’s life shunned the order of conventional society. The rebel poet ran away from his home, had a tempestuous relationship with poet Paul Verlaine and led an anarchist lifestyle that scandalised polite society.

The poet stopped writing when he was in his early 20s and began travelling through Europe, often on foot. He worked as a foreman in a stone quarry in Cyprus, and as a merchant in Yemen.

“Rimbaud foresaw his limited situation as a writer in Western society, and wanted to avoid that. To risk something in life was of more value. His journey to Yemen and Ethiopia was a poem where a dream could be created — not through artistically written words, but with violent life conditions as a tool, ” Oeyno says.

The director has just completed a production of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven and will soon restage the play Last Song, conceptualised and directed by Oeyno. The company first staged this in 2009 and then performed it in Kerala in 2013. Perhaps the theatre group’s determination to bring out something creative during the ongoing pandemic is influenced by spirited souls such as Rimbaud who broke all norms.

“The Rimbaud story informs us that we must endure. His path of pain through poetry is what he has given to the future, and that pain, I believe, very much sympathises with our struggle these days,” Oeyno says.

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based in Thrissur

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Published on October 16, 2020
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