Ghost River Theatre examines tolerance, free speech and fundamentalism in production inspired by real life murder

Outspoken Dutch filmmaker and staunch criticizer of Islam, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in broad daylight in the streets of Amsterdam on Nov. 2, 2004.

He was left with a five-page manifesto threatening western-style governments pinned to his body.

His killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim extremist born and raised in the Netherland’s capital, now serves life without parole in Nieuw Vosseveld Prison located in the southern Netherlands.

Eight years later, on Dec. 12, Calgary’s Ghost River Theatre will unveil Ali Momen, Alexa Devine and Clinton Carew star in Ghost River Theatre’s Everything is Terribly Nice Here, inspired by the Nov. 2, 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

Photos courtesy of Tim NguyenEverything is Terribly Nice Here, a play inspired by van Gogh’s murder, written by David van Belle and directed by Eric Rose, Ghost River’s co-artistic directors.

Van Belle, who began writing the production in 2007, says that once the premise of a conversation between these two polar opposites hit him, he was hooked.

“I’m really interested in the bigger picture, and I wanted to ask: ‘What makes somebody a Mohammed Bouyeri? Why is there such anger?’” says van Belle. “I don’t think we can talk about Theo van Gogh or Mohammed Bouyeri without talking about the exclusion that went into Dutch society. It’s naïve to remove context from any of these discussions.”

The plot

In Everything is Terribly Nice Here, Theo wakes to find the aforementioned manifesto knifed to his body, a clock counting down a millennium, his attacker just across the room and a third presence both men are aware of, though neither immediately understands.

The conversation

The attacker, based on Bouyeri, is named Haitham. Van Belle says that he has written Haitham as a very smart character who engages Theo on an intelligent level.

“Realistically we’re talking about a man who lost his life because he was a loud mouth, which nobody should be killed over.”

– Clinton Carew

“I think Haitham surprises Theo,” says van Belle. “I think Theo thinks Haitham’s just some religious hick, but he actually has a lot of interesting things to say. I think he’s the surprise in the play.”

Actor Clinton Carew, who plays Theo, says the attacker has considered his fate and understands things on a complex level, thus allowing for dialogue with substance.

“Something that deserves a conversation gets to have one, if only in the theatrical world,” says Carew. “I think conversations that start here have the potential to move into the real world, and by starting the conversation on any level, it becomes a positive thing.”

The interpretation

Clinton Carew and Ali Momen play Theo and Haitham, two fundamentalists on opposing sides of an ideological spectrum. Everything is Terribly Nice Here, runs Dec. 12-22 at the Pumphouse Theatre.

Photo courtesy of Tim NguyenCarew’s initial involvement in the play left him feeling irritated after his first viewing of the script.

“I remember thinking that there’s a fine line between creating a really hard argument, and apologizing for a terrible thing that’s happened, but that’s the challenge,” says Carew. “Realistically we’re talking about a man who lost his life because he was a loud mouth, which nobody should be killed over.”

Giving the killer a voice had Carew questioning whether or not the production would bring undeserved attention to someone who took a man’s life under the context of radical fundamentalism.

Understanding this point of view, van Belle says that one of the aspects of the play he’s the most grateful for is that while preparing for the production he’s had “beautiful conversations” – which he also refers to as “beautiful arguments” – with Muslims of all approaches to the faith, who have supported his vision. Some of those conversations have made their way almost word-for-word into Everything is Terribly Nice Here, providing a voice for more than just van Gogh’s attacker.

“I wanted to make sure that those discussions would come out. Even if I didn’t necessarily agree with one point or another, I wanted to be able to give that person as strong a voice as I could,” says van Belle.

“Theo van Gogh said some really awful things. Do I think he had the right to say them without being killed? Absolutely. But he also had a lot of things going for him and a whole system willing to listen, which is one thing Mohammed Bouyeri didn’t have, and some of that discussion is built into the show.”

The ‘unknown constant’

Theo and Haitham are not the only characters to partake in the production’s over-arching discussion. They share the stage with the character “She,” who from the perspective of director Rose, represents women who have long had to clean up the messes men make, while being punished the most during times of conflict.

“There’s something about her trying to set up a scenario for these two men toWriter van Belle started Everything is Terribly Nice Here in 2007. The production opens at the Pumphouse Theatre on Dec. 12.

Photo courtesy of Tim Nguyen see themselves as humans and meet each other in ways that can move society forward, opposed to these cycles of violence that just keep on going throughout the course of history,” Rose says.

Van Belle says he has questioned her character more than Theo or Haitham, and describes She as the missing component in the argument. She represents the answers standing just outside our frame of reference.

Carew says it’s interesting how much of an influence She has on the dynamic of the production when Theo and Haitham are conscious of her presence, and also when they’re not.

“To a certain extent with these kinds of arguments, you have to look at women as a sort of unknown constant while these extremely phallocentric arguments are going on,” Carew says.

Van Belle adds, “‘She’ in our play is not a pawn or an unknown. If anything she may very well be the queen of this particular chess board.”

The show opens for previews Dec. 12-13, and to the public Dec. 14-22 at the Pumphouse Theatre.

jwilson@cjournal.ca