In the shadow of Erdogan
Award-winning Turkish theatre director Murat Daltaban talks to Mark Brown about making theatre in his home country and his recent move to Scotland
At last Sunday’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS), which were presented at Perth Theatre, the most successful production, by a distance, was Turkish director Murat Daltaban’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros. Presented by the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, in association with Daltaban’s company DOT Theatre, Istanbul, the show picked up the prizes for Best Production, Best Male Performance (Robbie Jack), Best Music and Sound (Oguz Kaplangi) and Best Director (for Daltaban himself).
The production, which boasted a brilliantly sharp, flexible adaptation by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris, revived Ionesco’s bitterly comic allegory about conformism and the rise of fascism. In the play, the unlikely hero Berenger clings to his humanity as the people around him transform into rhinos.
The allegory, in which culture, freedom and, ultimately, humanity is trampled under the hooves of a collective social delirium, speaks powerfully to our own times. From the rise of Trump and the so-called “alt-right” in the United States to the election of extreme right, xenophobic parties in such countries as Austria, Hungary and Italy, Ionesco’s 1959 drama appears very much as a play for today.
It also chimes with events in Daltaban’s homeland of Turkey, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the failed coup attempt of 2016 as a pretext for clamping down on democratic rights. What, I wondered when I met Daltaban at the Lyceum Theatre following his success at the CATS awards, was the relationship between his production of Rhinoceros and the current situation in Turkey?
“Politics in Turkey today is like a psychological war between the people and the state”, says the director. “The primary pressure is on the media. The only free media we have in Turkey right now is on the internet.”
Regarding theatre artists, the situation is mixed and complex, Daltaban explains. “There is censorship in the state-funded theatre companies. The government’s logic is that, if you receive government money, you can’t criticise the government.
“This is why I resigned from working with the state theatres”, he continues. DOT Theatre is artistically and financially independent of the state and “does not take any money from the government.”
However, Daltaban points out that Turkish theatre is not under a system of complete censorship. “The government doesn’t have an automatic state censorship system which demands to see scripts, for example. It is not official censorship, but psychological repression of theatre artists.”
One method of indirect censorship within the state theatre sector has been to reject plays by foreign writers, from Shakespeare to Dario Fo, on the basis of a “patriotic” decision to stage only dramas by Turkish writers. The irony of this is that one of the few examples of actual direct censorship has been against a contemporary Turkish writer, Onur Orhan.
Orhan’s monodrama Only A Dictator, which is considered by the state authorities to be a critique of President Erdogan, has faced bans wherever it has travelled in Turkey. Local state authorities cite “public order” concerns as their reason for closing the production down.
“The direct censorship faced by Only A Dictator has an intimidating effect on other theatre artists”, Daltaban comments. “They banned that play wherever it went, in order to create an atmosphere of intimidation that would affect other theatremakers.
“The result is that even artists who are independent of the state theatre system are engaged in self-censorship. This is a response to the psychological pressure exerted by the government.”
Which begs the question of the extent to which Daltaban and his company have been affected by the intimidation of the Erdogan regime. Not only has DOT Theatre been engaged in a major co-production with Scottish companies, but Daltaban and his family, and also his friend, and DOT Theatre’s composer, Oguz Kaplangi, have recently moved to live in Edinburgh.
“Our move to Scotland is not because of the repression in Turkey”, the director insists. “It is something we planned before the current situation developed.
“In order to create the kind of theatre we want to make, we wanted to spend half of our time in Scotland and half in Turkey. However, recent events in Turkey have made the process of relocating to Scotland a bit faster.”
DOT Theatre, which has its own successful and popular theatre venue in Istanbul, will continue its work in Turkey, and Daltaban will move back-and-forth between Edinburgh and Istanbul. He hopes to establish a production office for DOT in the Scottish capital, enabling the company to make more international work, not only with Turkish and Scottish artists, but with others in Europe, not least his contacts in Germany.
The director’s pre-existing plan to relocate to Scotland may have been expedited by the repression in Turkey, but it is rooted in artistic and personal experience. “We have been coming to Scotland for many years”, he says.
“Edinburgh is an international theatre space. Artistically, it is much more than local. I also believe that Scotland is a very happy place to live.”
As to the immediate future of Turkey, Daltaban is concerned, but optimistic about the general election on June 24. “The government has all the media, so the election definitely won’t be fair”, he says.
“However, in the last 10 years the civil society movement has become very experienced in terms of protecting the integrity of ballot papers, and the opposition movement is very strong.”
A slightly abridged version of this feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 17, 2018
© Mark Brown