by Mark Brown*

Murat Daltaban: Web

Murat Daltaban is a leading Turkish theatre director. In 2005, he was a co-founder (with Özlem Daltaban and Süha Bilal) of Istanbul theatre company DOT Theatre.[1] His company presents predominantly modern and contemporary plays, with a strong emphasis upon Scottish theatre.

In August 2017, Daltaban directed an acclaimed production of Eugene Ionesco’s modern classic Rhinoceros, in an adaptation of by Zinnie Harris,[2] at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, as part of the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival. The staging, which was a co-production between DOT and the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, was revived in Edinburgh, in 2018. It received four of the 10 awards at the annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland,[3] in 2018, namely: Best Male Performance (Robert Jack as Bérenger); Best Director (for Daltaban himself); Best Music and Sound (Oğuz Kaplangi); and Best Production of the 2017-18 theatre season. In 2018, Daltaban announced that he and his family were moving to live in Edinburgh. His friend and collaborator, the composer and musician Oğuz Kaplangi, also relocated to Scotland.

This interview was conducted at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh on June 13, 2018. Translation during the interview was provided by Meriç Rakalar.

I visited Istanbul in 2016 and I think it is a wonderful city. Like many people, I am very concerned by recent events in Turkey, including the repression of culture.

Two years ago there was already some pressure [from the government]. The repression started after the Gezi movement,[4] and we’ve been feeling it ever since.

I realize that this might be a sensitive subject. However, are you able to talk about the reasons why you moved from Turkey to Scotland?

We are not moving away from Turkey completely, and the move to Scotland is not because of the situation in Turkey. This was something we planned before, for theatre reasons. We want to spend half of our time here in Scotland and half in Turkey. What’s happening in Turkey [in terms of repression] just made the process a bit faster.

Would you say that Edinburgh is now your permanent base?

Not really. We will always have one foot still in Turkey. Our son will start school here [in Edinburgh], but we will keep our theatre in Turkey, and we will go back to it. We will live here, but keep going back to our theatre in Istanbul.

So, DOT Theatre, Istanbul will continue as a company?

Exactly.

I want to talk about Turkey in a moment. However, can you tell me a little bit about your reasons for wanting to work here, in Scotland, and how you see that working out?

Edinburgh is an international theatre space. We don’t just see it as a local arts space. I also believe that Scotland is a very happy place to live.

Artistically, do you see the collaboration being with the Lyceum or something wider?

It looks like we’ll continue working with the Lyceum, but we’re planning to develop our projects here as well. We hope to have co-productions with theatre artists in Turkey. We also plan to have a production office here in Edinburgh.

Murat Daltaban (left) with Zinnie Harris and Oğuz Kaplangi at the
2018 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland ceremony

So, DOT Theatre will have a production office in Edinburgh as well as your premises in Istanbul? Do you have your own theatre building in Turkey?

Yes, we have our theatre in Turkey, which is a pioneer in its field. It’s very popular. The plan for DOT Edinburgh is to create something that is beyond the national; it will be an international production space.

As you have probably already realized, most Scottish theatre companies do not have their own theatre buildings. Even the National Theatre of Scotland[5] doesn’t have its own theatre building.

Yes, I know. We’ve been coming to Edinburgh for a long time, and that [understanding of how many Scottish companies work without a theatre building of their own] is how the idea of having an Edinburgh production office developed. However, our venue in Istanbul is somewhere that gives us strength and power. It is a show area.

Logistically, the fact that Scotland is at the most westerly point of Europe, and Turkey is the most easterly point, gives us a very wide range of productive possibilities. In the future, we want to develop links that we have in Europe, especially in Germany, where we have strong connections.

Regarding the situation in Turkey, the situation facing theatre artists is well known internationally. For example, I read a report that the works of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and Dario Fo have, effectively, been banned by the government.

That report is not true. Of course, there is self-censorship going on in Turkey, and there is political pressure, but it is not that strong. They create pressure to try to intimidate us, but it is not so strong that particular plays or playwrights are banned. The greatest pressure is on the media. The only free media we have right now is the internet. Politics in Turkey is like a psychological war between the people and the state.

The supposed banning of the four playwrights that I mentioned was actually reported in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera,[6] in an interview two years ago with Dario Fo, shortly before he died. The interview was about the fact that Fo had been told that he had been banned in Turkey. I’ll send you a copy.

Yes, please do. Do you know which Fo play was banned?

He was told that his plays were banned in general, and that there were productions of Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! and Accidental Death of an Anarchist that had been banned.

It’s true, actually. I remember hearing about one instance. That was probably in a national (state) theatre, not in the private ones. There was one play that they wouldn’t allow. Their logic is that you can’t stage a play that criticizes the government using government money.

The one-man show Only A Dictator, starring Baris Atay, has been banned from taking to the stage in several Turkish cities in order “to create an atmosphere of oppression.” Photo: Public domain (web)

Similarly, there was the case, and you will probably know more than I do, of the play called Only a Dictator by Turkish playwright Onur Orhan. From what I read, it faced bans in certain localities in Turkey.

They banned that play wherever it went, to create an atmosphere of oppression for other theatres (which might have wanted to stage it).

At this time, what do you think is the position of the independent artist in Turkish theatre?

Artists do self-censor. The government pressure has psychological effects on them. The government does not have automatic censorship. For example, they don’t have an official state censor who demands to read scripts. However, you might say there is psychological censorship of theatre artists.

I believe that people who live in Western and Central Europe should not be complacent about the freedom of artists in their own countries. They shouldn’t think that Turkey is the only problem. For example, in the Czech Republic, within the last month, a show in Brno was stopped by a mob of fascists who broke onto the stage, and the police did nothing for an hour.[7]

The whole thing starts with keeping the power with the police forces. They intimidate people by applying force. The good thing in Turkey is that we have a very strong opposition. The people who make independent theatre are a very big group and very young.

The theatre space has almost turned into an activists’ space. Protecting that space and making new things there is like a form of resistance against the government. That’s why, when there is pressure from the government, there is a very fast and strong response from artists, especially theatre artists.

There is a strong opposition group behind this young theatre movement. All of this is underground. It is communicated through the internet, because all of the mainstream media is under the government’s control. This makes the opposition movement quite fun, actually. It expresses itself with humour. We have elections[8] coming very soon, and the opposition is going forward very strongly and with great optimism.

Are you confident that the elections will be free and fair?

They (the Erdoğan government) have all the media and they can use all the powers that the government has. So, it’s definitely not fair.

What about the actual counting of the ballots themselves? Will there be enough international oversight for people to be confident that they are being counted correctly?

There are some international control mechanisms. Beyond that, the opposition is trying to be very organized around the counting of ballot papers. In the last 10 years, the civil movement has become very experienced in terms of protecting ballot papers. Civil society has become very important in this time, and it is basically running things (in terms of oversight of the elections) and has protected Turkey’s democratic mechanisms.

Let’s talk about theatre in Istanbul for a moment. My understanding is that the city’s theatre culture, historically, and up until now, has been very vibrant, with literally hundreds of productions in any given evening. Is that still the case?

Yes, what you say (about Istanbul theatre culture) is true. A while ago it was even richer, with the funding we got from the European Union. However, in the last few years, with relations between Turkey and the EU deteriorating, we have not had access to those funds. Now, there are still many plays, but they are cheaper productions.

It still makes Istanbul one of the great European theatre cities, just in terms of the sheer number of shows that are being performed.

Yes. Interestingly, Istanbul is in a (geographical) location in which it has been influenced by many different and rich cultures. This creates a cultural mosaic. We draw upon the cultures of the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia, and they are harmonised in Istanbul in a very interesting way. It might seem as if (with so many influences) nothing can have very deep roots, but actually all of these cultures have sunk deep roots in Istanbul. Even for us, who are living inside it, that richness is still very surprising. One can hear this richness particularly clearly in music. You can see it in the number of musical instruments that we have in Turkey.

Rhinoceros. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Moving on to your production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Can you tell me about the origins of the project? Who suggested it: did it come from you or the Lyceum? Who alighted on this play?

It was David Greig’s[9] idea. He asked me if I wanted to do it, and then we started working on it with Zinnie Harris.

I assume you had a connection with David Greig before that.

We knew each other from before. He’s been in Istanbul and I’ve produced some of his plays there. However, we didn’t have a close relationship until this project. We were friends with Zinnie before. I admire her work and we have presented many of her plays.

So, David Greig asks you to direct Rhinoceros. What did you think in terms of the resonances of the play with twenty-first-century Europe, and the world, in fact? People can talk about this play in a mechanical way. Critics can be deterministic and say simply, “Rhinoceros is an anti-fascist play, that’s why it was staged.” However, it seems to me that every work of art has to start from how it makes us feel, in the first instance, not just what it makes us think. That said, Rhinoceros does have political resonances.

When we first decided to do the play, the first idea, which I put at the centre of the production, was that the space would get smaller, shrinking from the street to the room of Bérenger.[10] This is something we have gone through in Turkey. As the streets are occupied by the state, the pressure makes you feel increasingly isolated, as an individual.

Internationally, since the Berlin Wall was broken in 1989, more than 70 countries have built new walls of their own. Oppression leading to isolation is a tool that oppressors and fascists use in today’s world. Fascism is a tool of totalitarianism. This is the central idea, for me, in Rhinoceros. As a regime increases the use of the tools of fascism, the individual person becomes more isolated. The widespread use of media turns such isolation into an epidemic.

Eugene Ionesco. Photo: Public domain (web)

Just to finish on Rhinoceros. It seems very important to me that Ionesco expresses his political thoughts without polemic. Very often the demand for “political theatre” is a demand for a very clearly expressed, easily understandable message. It seems to me that Ionesco doesn’t do this. He puts his aesthetics and his poetics first, and uses them to express what he wants to say politically. Crucially, it is not what I call “megaphone theatre”.

That’s true. I believe the same thing. Ionesco rejects the “political theatre”. He rejected Brecht’s theatre. His origins lie in Dadaism and the earlier avant-garde.

Alfred Jarry. Photo: Public domain (web)

Gertrude Stein, Dadaism, the Bauhaus. . . .

Yes. Ionesco’s theatre also comes from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu. Ionesco is the final point in a series of developments in theatre that started with Jarry. That’s why, when I was directing the production of Rhinoceros, my thoughts were on Jarry. The play is a thriller; it is also grotesque, comic and brutal. It attacks with its ideas.

You and I have a lot in common on this subject, I think. I have just written a book about Modernism and Scottish theatre, in which I write about the importance of dramatists such as Jarry and Ionesco. Scottish theatre, for reasons that have to do with Scotland’s very strong Calvinist Protestant religious Reformation, has very little by way of a history. The theatre didn’t really begin to recover from religious prohibition until the twentieth-century. Our finest playwrights, in my opinion, emerged in the 1990s; particularly David Greig, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower and Anthony Neilson.

Yes, I agree. When I was at university Irish theatre was very important for us. However, currently in Turkey it’s the Scottish theatre, and it is exactly these four playwrights who are referenced within the universities.

David Greig. Photo: Public domain (web)

There are very good Scottish playwrights who went before the generation of the 1990s. However, they write in, what David Greig calls, “idiolects”; that is, forms of language that are particular to them, as writers, but also very Scottish. These writers were writing for Scotland. The generation of the nineties is writing for the world.

Yes, I think so too. I will stage Knives in Hens[11] in Turkey later this year. I have studied these playwrights, and I agree with you (they are the most important Scottish playwrights).

I think Scottish theatre is different from Irish theatre or English theatre. It has a deep, dark humour. It is also mythological and, therefore, poetic, I think.

I agree. Our theatre had been repressed for centuries. In England, theatre was repressed for 11 years only, from 1649 to 1660, Cromwell’s interregnum. King Charles II reopened the theatres in 1660, when the monarchy was restored. Here in Scotland, our repression went on for centuries. So, if you compare Scottish theatre to Irish theatre, for example, they have Synge, Wilde, O’Casey and Beckett, and we have Greig, Harris, Harrower and Neilson.

I agree with you. I believe I am very lucky to be able to meet with these two people, Zinnie Harris and David Greig. Besides Zinnie being my friend, I’m just so lucky that I’ve had the chance to meet and work with them.

Postscript

During the interview, a researcher discovered that the report about the banning of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and Fo in Turkey was the consequence of a misunderstanding based upon a diktat from the Erdoğan government that only the work of Turkish playwrights should be staged in state theatres in Turkey. On this subject, Daltaban adds: “This is an excuse they use (for censorship), that they are being patriotic. It is a device that can only be used in state theatres. This is why I resigned from working in the state theatres. We don’t take any money from the state.”


[1] go-dot.org/about-dot (accessed December 3, 2018).

[2] Zinnie Harris is a Scottish dramatist and theatre director. Her plays include Further Than the Furthest Thing (2000); Midwinter (2004); Solstice (2005); Fall (2008); The Wheel (2011); and How to Hold Your Breath (2015). Adaptations include: Julie, after August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (2006); and This Restless House, her version of Aeschylus’s epic trilogy The Oresteia (2016). She received the Best Director accolade at the 2017 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her direction of Caryl Churchill’s play A Number at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. She is Professor in playwriting at the University of St Andrews.

[3] CRITICS’ AWARDS FOR THEATRE IN SCOTLAND, 2017–18 Winners (accessed December 3, 2008).

[4] The massive protest and strike movement against the Erdoğan government, which began in Istanbul in May 2013, initially in opposition to the sale of the city’s famous Gezi Park to private developers.

[5] Established in 2006.

[6] “Dario Fo banned in Turkey,” interview with Dario Fo, by Giuseppina Manin, Corriere Della Sera, September 2, 2016.

[7] In May 2018, 20 activists from the so-called Decent People movement raided the stage of the Husanaprovazku theatre in Brno, stopping a performance of the play Our Violence and Your Violence: praguebusinessjournal.com/brno-theatre-head-decent-people-movement-nazis-of-brno (accessed December 3, 2018).

[8] The Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections were held on June 24, 2018 (11 days after this interview). President Erdoğan was re-elected with more than 52 per cent of the vote. His AK Party won 290 of the 595 seats in the Ankara parliament.

[9] David Greig is best known as an award-winning Scottish playwright. His considerable and diverse output includes Europe (1994); The Architect (1996); The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union (1999); Dr Korczak’s Example (2001); and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (2011). He was a founder member of the acclaimed, Glasgow-based theatre company Suspect Culture (1993-2009). He took up the post of artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in 2016.

[10] The protagonist of the play who battles to maintain his humanity while those around him transform into rhinoceros.

[11] By David Harrower (1995).


*Mark Brown is a theatre critic, author and scholar. He has been chief theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper The Herald on Sunday (previously the Sunday Herald), since 2003, and Scottish critic of the UK national title the Daily Telegraph, since 2005. He holds a Ph.D. in Theatre Studies from the University of Dundee (awarded 2017), and teaches on theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, among other institutions. His book Modernism and Scottish Theatre since 1969: a Revolution on Stage is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Making Theatre Ιnside and Οutside Turkey under Erdoğan: Interview with Murat Daltaban
Tagged on: