The Sheep and The Whale


Brussels – its not a capital city I have had a sense of, like Paris or Amsterdam or Berlin. French / Flemish – neither flesh nor fowl, rather in bureaucratic lockdown – the “beamter”, the “fonctonnaire”  writ large, as a culture… this is how it has mostly seemed to me – but not yesterday.

I had to go to Brussels to see a play. It is one I have been fond of for the ten years since it was written. I had to because it is not a play that’s going to get a production back in Blighty any time soon. More’s the pity. With a company of sixteen actor / musicians. Le mouton et La Balaine is an early play by the Moroccan playwright Ahmed Ghazali, previously domiciled in Canada and now resident in Barcelona (where together with his partner Mirella they run Jiwar – Arabic for neighbourhood – a quite marvelous little artists’ residency in the heart of Gracia).

Le Mouton et La Balaine (The Sheep and The Whale) is an important play because, set on a container ship marooned between Gibraltar and Tangier, it asks questions of us in Europe about those who don’t make it across the treacherous seas that border the Southern part of our continent. It should be opening the EU Cultural Capital which is this year Marseilles, but that would be a little too close to home, for comfort…

You know the opening of Casablanca. It starts with a map, so that American and European audiences can orient(ate) themselves. The map says – “folks this is really almost Europe – just a hop, skip and a jump across the Med” Of course what we are looking at on this map is not, actually Casablanca which is in fact on the Moroccan Atlantic coast – its Tangier. But hey…

Back to Brussels – the company of sixteen actor musicians have their origins in North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa and different parts of Europe and Latin America – as you might expect from the communities which make up 2013 Brussels. So why won’t we see it here? – well because its not about our diversity, we’re British, not even Northern European – “our” Africans come from Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa / Zimbabwe – sure , everyone’s in London – but its not our diverse people’s story. Nary a whiff of Windrush in these heritage-loving culture-denying times. And in our segmented, sectarian polymorphousness we won’t, as a theatre-producing culture, see it for the universal story that it is. Oh, and of course, it’s in French…

My view of Brussels was changed in part by the production and its sell out opening night, but also by the fabulous Spanish food, the excellent company of my 2 Irish expat friends, and the glorious architecture tucked away in an unprepossessing quarter of town near the theatre.

So, If you can, jump on a Eurostar and do go to Brussels. From London it takes about as long as a train to York. Explore beyond the seeming miasma of the political mandarins, and find people who know both how to cook and to eat – and see Le Mouton et La Balaine – from the Mediterranean to Theatre Ocean Nord.

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