It’s an interesting coincidence that Modern Times Stage Company is presenting its new play Hallaj in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The true story of the tenth century Sufi mystic, who defied religious and political leaders, ultimately becoming a martyr to his people, has an eerie resonance against the current backdrop of political strife playing out in the Middle East.
Though it doesn’t deal directly with issues of sexuality or gender identity, some of the central themes in Hallaj will be familiar to the queer community.
“Hallaj is a man being asked to deny the essential truth of who he is,” says actor Stewart Arnott. “It’s a lot like being in the closet. In his case he realizes he has to speak the truth, even though he knows it will lead to his death.”
Arnott plays Abdul, a fellow inmate in the prison where Hallaj is being held awaiting execution. Hallaj’s crime was to suggest that God (or the power for good) could be found within all people. Sufism (his particular brand of Islam) is focused on inward, mystical thinking. But this path of independent thought has landed Hallaj in trouble with religious leaders who see his claims as an act of blasphemy punishable by death.
“In this time period the common form of execution was to cut of the prisoners’ hands, feet, and tongue, prior to beheading them,” Arnott says. “He is aware of the fate that awaits him for defying the authorities, but his belief in his ideals is so strong he is willing to undergo whatever tortures they will enact.”
Played out as a series of flashbacks, the work charts Hallaj’s life, beginning with his training in Sufism, through his marriage and eventual arrest. We meet him on the eve of his execution, after eight years in prison. Political leaders have been unsure what they should do with him since he was first arrested. His crimes are legally punishable by death, but the massive popular support his case has garnered means killing him could turn him into a martyr.
“It’s a fascinating work to see in this particular time when we have people around the world rising up against the political and religious establishment,” Arnott says. “There is always a fear from those in power of anything that feels radical or creates unrest in the citizens. This has always been the case with regressive regimes and leaders who feel they have to dictate. Although it’s a story from the ninth century, it’s a play that reflects a constant reality.”
Hallaj marks Modern Times’ return to the Buddies in Bad Times space. Though director Soheil Parsa was a Buddies fixture in the mid-90s while he was an associate artist with the company, during the last decade his work has been presented at numerous other spaces around Toronto and internationally. Known for his trademark blend of sparse sets paired with immersive sound and lighting environments, Parsa has produced some of the most visually stunning works Toronto has seen in the last two decades.
“For anyone who has never seen the company’s work before it’s a truly remarkable experience,” Arnott says. “Whether or not the deeper social and cultural issues in the work interest you, there’s really nothing else in Toronto like this.”
Modern Times Stage Company
Nov 18 – Dec 4 at 8pm
Buddies in Bad Times theatre
12 Alexander St