Taking The Golden Dragon to Kurdistan

A director's diary.

At Heathrow there's a moment when we check a large black case carrying a skeleton through as checked baggage. We're the Actors Touring Company on our way to Iraqi Kurdistan to perform The Golden Dragon at the inaugural Sulimaniyah International Theatre Festival. The play is about the experience of immigrants in the first world and, without giving anything away, it doesn't end happily. So, there's a little frisson as we check our skeleton in because he'll shortly be treading the boards in Kurdistan at the culmination of a long speech about returning home.

During the stopover at Istanbul we start meeting our first Kurds, the kebab shop owner from Swansea, the barber from Ashford, all going back, happily in a much healthier condition than our skeleton. And we sense there's a pride in this burgeoning state that has been accidentally birthed between the huge, competing forces of Iran, Turkey, Syria and, until recently, Iraq. Snatched from Saddam, it was another No-Fly Zone that allowed the Kurds to assert their historic right to a homeland and it feels absolutely right to be here now to celebrate and support them.

In Sulimaniyah we encounter the typical chaos that western eyes will always find in the Middle East: a summary change of schedule means that the opening night ceremony becomes an opening afternoon; we are offered a choice of three venues in completely different parts of town; and the personnel keeps changing as translators morph into production managers. But with remarkably buoyant spirits, the company embrace the huge platters of grilled meats, hot tea, slow traffic and pungent cigarettes that constitutes a life in the Orient.

The Festival has decided to honour Harold Pinter who was a great supporter of the Kurds, most notably with his play, Mountain Language, written about them. There's a wonderful moment in the opening ceremony as our producer, Nick Williams, accepts a medal struck in yellow and white gold on Pinter's behalf. But when we examine the medal later, the name has been misspelt, it's for Horold instead. We are to transport it safely to Lady Antonia in Notting Hill.

As for the serious business of theatre, we battle through many technical issues to deliver a very creditable performance to a packed and hushed audience. The festival director, Dana Marouf, has clearly done a great job in presenting the play, judging from the comments. The plot centres on the plight of an immigrant with toothache whose lack of money and papers leads to some improvised, fatal DIY dentistry. An elegant Kurd opines that we seem to have the ability to transform a small thing into a big thing whereas in Kurdistan important things get reduced to insignificance. The next day when I do a workshop with about 50 people, I'm able to probe a bit more deeply and am very struck by a middle-aged man who had lived in Germany for 11 years, working as a conductor on Deutsche Bahn: for him the play expressed perfectly the pain of separation and the intense longing to return home. Ibrahim now lives with his children at Tuz Khormato, near Baghdad and he'd travelled all the way up to see our play. He felt very strongly that now we needed to come back and document stories from the period of the "Anfal", Saddam Hussein's terrible reign of persecution over the Kurds.

The workshop, like almost everything else, had been arranged on the hoof. The previous evening over, predictably, kebab, I was asked whether I'd oblige and when the issue of who might attend came up, I was assured that some young actors from the Halabja Institute of Fine Arts would certainly come over. And they did. Eager young performers, keen to learn as much as possible. Halabja of course had been the infamous site of Chemical Ali's gassing of 5000 Kurds in 20 awful minutes in 1988. But, as I discovered in the workshop, for these young people that was the past and now a sizeable minority of them were keen to get out of Kurdistan altogether, similar in proportion to those who felt that the coalition action of 2003 was a good thing. Not so many agreed with me that the fact that not a single participant in the workshop was female merited much attention.

Being in the Middle East always brings out very mixed emotions in me: it's where my Mother is from - in fact, as we travel through Kurdistan, she's on the same latitude in Tehran. But the chaos, the corruption, the stifling sense that nothing can happen here angers me. However that is always allied with the infectious good spirits, generosity and fantastic spontaneity that trump living in the west every time. I see how the company respond warmly to our hosts and when we wake on Saturday morning to see the hills around Sulimaniyah sprinkled with snow, we head up in our minibus to encounter a wonderfully liberated new world. Striding up an apparently closed road, we come across three Kurdish ladies, heaving the fresh, sweet powder snow into large, clean, plastic bags. As we approach, the oldest of the three, ruddy faced, sheathed in a glittering piece of cheap blue satin and shod only in flip-flops, starts hurling snowballs at me. She's a remarkably good shot and we set to in earnest. It's like Carnival, I can feel her letting off steam as lump after lump of frozen water thuds into me.

Later, they explain they'll keep the snow in the freezer until summer and then eat it sprinkled with blueberries as a cooling snack. Their taxi driver, unusually for a man, hasn't got out to help them load the snow into the boot. Saddam shot both his legs off, he says and proudly shows us how his car has been modified to drive without. He's in great good humour too, and as we trudge through the valley, we come across more Kurds doing line dancing, building snowmen, stoking fires of burning tires while throwing their four wheel drives up and down snow covered hillocks in a mad Middle Eastern rodeo. The whole valley looks like an exuberant, animated Brueghel. After feasting on liberally salted hot sweet turnips, we depart in the most fantastically high spirits you could imagine.

Ramin Gray is Artistic Director of the Actors Touring Company. Their production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's "The Golden Dragon" inaugurated the first International Festival of Theatre in Sulimaniyah, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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