A new musical stage adaptation of Bliss or Mutluluk, a novel of the same name originally written by the politician, singer and artist Zülfü Livaneli, played at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, East London last week. A joint production with Istanbul’s experimental theatre Talimhane, this was an outstanding, emotive and powerful performance.
This UK run – a three-day stint between 30th March and 1st April – included the play’s world premiere and launched the cast’s European tour, which will be followed by performances in Turkey.
Using traditional Anatolian instruments, the supporting musicians created an authentic aura for a Turkish and English-speaking audience, accommodating those without fluency in Turkish with English surtitles.
The play, starting in a village near Lake Van, tells the story of Meryem, a teenaged girl who was raped by her uncle and follows her journey to Istanbul with her older cousin Cemal. After Meryem’s tragic experience, she is accused of having dishonoured her family and faced with the choice of suicide or “going to Istanbul” which, though she does not know it, means being escorted there by a male relative who is instructed to murder her on the way.
Despite the protestations of her compassionate and sympathetic paternal auntie Bibi, played by Sibel Tüzün, her uncle, a religious leader or Şeyh played by Tuncay Çağıl assigns this task to his traumatised son Cemal who has just returned from military service.
This epic story has two main opposing themes, one of which is the suffering of young women in Eastern Anatolia, including the problems and injustices of “honour-based” traditional society, which are expressed through Meryem’s life. This theme is coupled with another, namely women’s liberation and empowerment, also expressed through Meryem’s experience.
As the lead actress Ezgi Erol explained to T-VINE, “Meryem is a victim of rape, but has something very connected to life in her heart, she is so clever and seeks and finds her freedom.”
Ezgi explained that she loved Meryem’s courage, adding that “I’m very proud to play her”. She also commented on the wider role of the play, saying that this character’s story “is not just a written story but something that is lived also, we are giving these women a voice.”
It is upon beginning her journey to Istanbul with Cemal that Meryem shows the second of these themes, which becomes physically visible on stage through her clothing. Symbolising a phoenix emerging in flames from the ashes of the past, the young teenager starts a new life full of hope by putting on a red dress at the start of her journey. The process of Meryem’s emancipation becomes increasingly apparent after she and her cousin meet the charming, witty and light-hearted, wine-sipping professor played by Serhat Tutumluer who injected some comedy into an otherwise sorrowful, but no less gripping and powerful performance.
When meeting the professor who wears shorts and a polo shirt, she still dons the traditional garb of an Anatolian peasant girl, but gradually while staying on his boat and listening to his criticisms of ignorance, she stops wearing her cardigan or hırka and by the end has discarded her headscarf, ultimately also rejecting the advice, help and commands of others including Cemal, declaring that she has risen as a phoenix.
By doing so, Meryem demonstrates the power and capabilities of a woman who rejects being treated like an object and starts to live for herself. Conversely, the wife of Meryem’s uncle or yenge, played by Zeynep Er, is a glib reminder of how some repressed women project their oppression on to others. Yenge not only supports Meryem’s punishment, but blames the young rape victim for her ill fate and tries to force her to commit suicide. Even though both women are restricted by the same socially constructed roles, and Meryem faces far more difficult circumstances, it is the younger of the two who shows that women are able to challenge these roles by declaring their own agency.
Religion also appears in the play as another fascinating background theme. Initially it is associated with corruption, abuse and regressive tradition, personified by the character of the Şeyh, an Islamic holy man. Yet a different connotation emerges through Cemal, who toils deeply with the prospect of having to murder his childhood play-friend and cousin Meryem, while considering the words of his friend, a soldier-turned-fisherman, who explains that the killing of innocents is forbidden by Islam and questions the instruction given by a person who claims to be “a Şeyh”.
This journey of self-realisation and social awakening also has a third dimension through Memo, a childhood friend of Meryem and Cemal. The character speaks only once, but we never see his physical appearance. Instead, we hear about him from Meryem, Cemal and Bibi, who was both his and Cemal’s midwife. Memo had left the village to become a guerrilla fighting against the Turkish Army at the same time Cemal served a solider.
His non-physical existence is an important tool of representation, with the audience left to imagine what could have happened if the two friends – now sworn enemies – had encountered each other in the mountains. Would they have killed each other? And, if Cemal is challenged over his “duty” to kill Meryem, surely the same moral dilemma exists with his intentions to kill Memo?
Unlike movies, this stage production doesn’t offer a romanticized concrete finale. The audience is left to join up the dots, a point explained by Tuncay Çağıl, who played the Şeyh:
“We aimed to include each audience member in the story, as individuals will fictionalise the story differently. That is why art exists.”
In sum, Bliss was an outstanding display: it grappled with sensitive and emotive issues such as ‘honour killings’, while also offering hope for the future with compassion, reason, faith, humour and common humanity. If readers are presented with the opportunity to watch this show, they should take it with open arms.
Article written with assistance from Ceren Günel.