Caragh Medlicott reviews Y brain/ Kargalar, a play which offers a duplicity of experience between Turkey and Wales.
Y brain/ Kargalar is an autobiographical play which documents the inner wrestlings of writer Meltem Arikan. Arikan’s remarkable backstory serves as context for the production; forced to leave her native Turkey due to a political smear campaign, she arrived in Wales and uncovered a deep connection to the land while simultaneously going through a period of personal crisis after the sudden death of her husband. A Be Aware Production, the play is the first of its kind, written and performed in Welsh and Turkish – it is made accessible to English speakers through a play-text which comes with a small reading light.
The ostensible complexity of a performance delivered in two languages is balanced by the simplicity of set and costume. The stage is swathed in sheer cocoon-like cloth; under the warm orange lights and pulsing music it nearly resembles a womb. It’s a striking visual which communicates many of Y brain/ Kargalar’s most prevalent themes – that of identity, rebirth and womanhood. With just a two-person cast, Arikan’s name is literally split in two; Mel (Pinar Öğün) represents the anxious and repressed Turkish version of herself while Tem (Rebecca Smith) is her newly uncovered, nature-loving Welsh self. The inner grappling representedon stage resonates with our current political climate which is dominated by the language of division and the recurring image of “broken Britain”. Though the play does speak to this thematically, it is most prominently an exploration of the personal; it is rooted in the specificness of individual experience, the fragments of childhood memory which shape us even as adults.
Y Brain/ Kargalar’s chaotic narrative mirrors the pattern of human thoughts by moving from event to event, feeling to feeling – it is through this restlessness we hear of Mel’s reversed homecoming. Arriving in Wales, Mel encounters Tem for the first time – a version of herself who is calm, connected to the stillness of nature and rejuvenated by Wales. Mel finds herself enthralled by the Welsh landscape; from the roughness of the mountains to the lushness of the green valleys, the natural world is given a poetic animation through the play’s rhythmic use of language. Tem acts as a calming anchor to Mel who is filled with anxious energy; endlessly over-analysing her every action in neurotic thought cycles. It is the constant intrusion of her past which paralyses Mel in the present day, and it is Tem’s ability to slow and distract Mel’s imagination which prevents her from spiraling into despair. In some moments, Mel and Tem might refer to themselves as ‘we’ while at other points they use ‘you’ or ‘I’ pronouns; there is a sense of calmness present on stage when the pair feel unified as one individual, and conversely a panic when they are disconnected, a pandemonium which plays out with Mel and Tem talking over each other, shouting, the separation of their languages suddenly feeling greater than before.
John Rea’s soundtrack is perhaps most aptly described as an electronic interpretation of the sounds of living – it’s akin to the noise of blood rushing in your ears, the thump of your heart. Mel and Tem move sporadically on stage; sometimes in mirror-like sequence, other times intertwined and even occasionally playing with the carefree, easiness of sisters – but most powerfully they stand side by side moving with the music, speaking in unison. Director Memet Ali Alabora convincingly marries the many moving parts which make up this production. With the exception of those who can speak both Welsh and Turkish, for most audience members at least half of the dialogue is left to subtitles. This gives the emotion, volume and rhythm of voice a whole new dimension that is not usually present in theatre, it pushes the story past literal meaning and into feeling instead. Both Öğün and Smith supply highly charged performances; their chemistry is tactile and their relationship engaging. At one point there is even an unexpected rendition of Disney’s hit song “Let It Go” – there is no denying that it feels out of place in this context, but its relationship to the play is obvious; the song has become something of anthem for liberation and self-discovery, especially within the LGBT+ community.
Though the play captures many moments, there is one particular scene where Mel and Tem remember sitting with their back to a tree in Roath Park, surrounded by geese. It is this point which encapsulates the heart of the play, with the rest of the narrative woven around this small, singular point. For Mel and Tem this is a happy, yet confusing memory. It is when they both openly consider their deep connection to Wales and how they see their personal self reflected in the makeup of an entire nation; the history of repression, the shining individual identity. It is this moment which provokes their reflection on the concept of home and belonging – the confusion that comes with feeling homely in a place so far from your origin. This is a far greater concern for Mel, while Tem is insistent that one must not confuse possession with belonging, both in human relationships and in defining what is home.
Y Brain/ Kargalar offers a unique duplicity of theatrical experience – arguably, my perception of the play as an English speaker is more limited than that of a Welsh or Turkish speaker. However, as with every audience member, it is also specific to me and the decisions I made when choosing between following along with the text or watching the action on stage. It has to be said that the method of translation isn’t as seamless as a film or TV show, but if it had been it surely would have felt unmatched with the rawness of the play. All in all, it seems quite remarkable that a production so concerned with identity has been able to deliver something which offers a narrative specific to the language and choices of the viewer. Y Brain/ Kargalar’s most persistent message is one of hope. Really, this is potently captured in the recurring image of the tree; no matter how dark and complicated the roots, they do not stop a person continuing to grow.
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Caragh Medlicott is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.