Staging Shakespeare in Wolof and French at a Rap Festival in Senegal

Monkhead Co-Artistic Director Nico Pimparé discusses his experience working with young adults in Guediawaye, one of Dakar’s most deprived suburbs. He staged an impromptu production of  Julius Caesar as part of Voice4Thought, an international Hip-Hop festival on the theme of ‘Radicalisation’.

A Stanislavsky exercise at our rooftop rehearsal space in Guediawaye, Dakar.


The result is phenomenal. Children and adults alike are shouting, shoving each other, sweating on each other… Two kids run up to me, out of breath, to ask me for more information on Caesar’s death. The actors playing ‘the crowd’, despite their booming voices which we have been training all week, are completely submerged by the actual audience, and some of the rappers push through the mosh pit to give them microphones. I don’t know whether anyone understands anything anymore. I don’t know whether anyone cares. After Brutus’ speech, comes Mark Anthony’s, and after that there is the lynching of Cinna, an act of barbarous mob violence. For a fleeting moment I get scared for the actress playing Cinna, but that’s silly of me — despite their rowdiness, our audience knows that all of it is just play (forgive the pun).

I am whisked on stage for the bows. The actors our ecstatic. I am ecstatic. I have just witnessed something that money or extra rehearsal time just can’t buy. I don’t know what it is — the outspoken nature of Senegalese culture? The proximity of real political violence? The pride of my illiterate cast at having appropriated a 400 year old text? The fact that this audience rarely, if ever, sees theatre? Or just the hyping of our play by a gang of twenty freestyle rappers? In any case, I have witnessed an audience not only see a play about political radicalisation, but play the act of radicalising themselves. It has been an actual act of catharsis.

I am in Guediawaye, one of the most destitute suburbs of Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. To be precise, I am at ‘G Hip Hop’, the HQ of rapper and political activist Fou Malade. Fou Malade became a national icon after he co-founded ‘Y’en a Marre’, a group of Senegalese journalists and rappers credited with helping to mobilise Senegalese youth to oust President Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 following his controversial bid for a third term.

A street in Ouakam, Dakar, where I stayed.

When my plane left London, less than three weeks ago, I had no idea that all of this would happen; all I had was a friends’ place to crash at and a return ticket one month later. But it all fell into place very quickly.

On Saturday the 4th of November, three days after landing, I had lunch at the family home of Fou Malade with his brother, his sister and one of his two wives. The meeting was held in true Senegalese style; the key words being hospitality and time (lots of it). After a long lunch of fish and rice, many cups of tea, a couple of spliffs and a very prolonged nap, he drove me to Guediawaye, on the outskirts of Dakar.

There, he asked me to create a piece of theatre to present at the upcoming international Hip-Hop festival he was hosting, Voice4Thought. The play was to be performed on Saturday the 18th, exactly two weeks later. It had to incorporate elements of Hip-Hop and to fit the festival’s theme: political radicalisation.

Outside ‘G Hip Hop’, I got a shave. I paid the barber 250 CFA Francs, the equivalent of 35 pence, after which, as it was dinner time, the barber offered me a meal. His wife and children entered the tiny salon and we all gathered around a large bowl of fish and rice. For the second time in one day I ate for free. Senegalese hospitality is tangible.

beard shave
Left: a typical weather forecast in Dakar. Right: A solution to the itchiness one suffers from as a result.

Cut to Saturday the 11th, the first rehearsal day, a week before the show. I am in G Hip Hop, surrounded by an expectant cast: four women and four men, all in their early to late 20s. Sitting around us are a bunch of other young people, who I will later learn are wives and friends of the actors, as well as an older character referred to as ‘uncle’, who will observe rehearsals every day without me ever knowing who he is or why he is present.

I should also describe G Hip Hop in more detail: it is a huge open space bordered on one side with a stage and on all other sides with little bunker like buildings which serve as offices, beat labs, meeting spaces and kitchens. We rehearse in a shaded area right in the middle of the open space, surrounded by rappers and rastas, who sit in the open air or wade from one bunker to the next. Beats come out of every door that is opened. There is also a group of children, who interrupt their games every so often to observe the rehearsal.

People who work in theatre in the UK will know how much the privacy of rehearsal spaces is valued. We often talk of ‘safe spaces’, where people can speak intimately, can fail, can do strange warm up games. Well, there is none of that here in Guediawaye. And I’m having a ball! The connection with the audience, which we struggle to achieve on London stages, is already established. People are laughing, reacting, coming to me with suggestions, encouraging the actors… There are no taboos. At least I don’t think there are. I find myself being as ridiculous a director as I am in London. I am lying on the floor, propped at an awkward angle on the edge of a chair. I have lost my script – someone from the audience hands it to me. I lose a flip flop as I scurry to the other side of the rehearsal space to note an actor. Everyone laughs. The audience is with us. We’re making this together.

The play we’ve decided on is an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It is Act II Scene 2, where, following Julius Caesar’s assassination, Brutus and Mark Anthony deliver speeches to an unhinged crowd. It is a powerful examination of radicalisation: Mark Anthony famously turns the gullible crowd against Brutus and incites a civil war.

The casting is done in seconds. Out of the eight actors, only two speak French: they will play the politicians Brutus and Mark Anthony. The rest play the crowd. In a country where French is the official language, not speaking it is synonymous with not having gone to school. It saddens me to realise that 75% of my cast, who are in their twenties, are illiterate.

I realise that the same will apply to the audience, and this gives me an idea. The crowd will speak in Wolof (the most widespread local language). And because the crowd’s main role in the scene is to react to the speeches, they essentially repeat what has been said by the French speaking politicians, thus providing a live Wolof translation. This should make both French speakers and Wolof speakers happy, and capture the theme of language and class barriers in West African politics.

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Modou Mbaye (Momo), 20, high school student and aspiring actor, adresses the crowd as Brutus.

Saturday the 18th. After a week of rehearsals, voice workshops and Stanislavsky classes, it is show time. Our lights & sound operator is the in house DJ. Our Brutus, Momo, is wearing my leather shoes and a suit he has borrowed from his brother. Our Mark Anthony, renamed Antonia, is played by a young woman, Thiate, who is wearing an elegant traditional dress. She has never had the chance to try the scene out on stage as she missed yesterday’s dress rehearsal (her parents wouldn’t allow her to do theatre anymore, and she has sneaked out on some other pretext to come today).

The crowd, of about 400, is electric. They have been warmed up by an endless succession of freestyle rappers spitting rhymes on stage. I have actually had to intervene after the twentieth of these, as it’s nearing 11PM and stress and exhaustion are getting the better of me and my cast. The rappers vacate the stage. The DJ hits his cue. Caesar’s dead body, carried by the chanting crowd, comes through the audience and is dumped on stage. They disperse into the audience – we have taken advantage of the Hip Hop setting and our ‘crowd’ is in the actual mosh pit throughout the scene. They call Brutus on stage. He reluctantly comes forward, holds a microphone and addresses the people:

“Romans, Countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear.”

JAMS win the OSBTTA/Barbican award!

From left to right: Alan Fielden, Malachy Orozco, Sophie Grodin, Jemima Yong. Photo Credit: Helen Murray

Last month we interviewed JAMS in the lead-up to the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award at the Barbican.

They have just been announced as the winners! CONGRATULATIONS!

See our interview below!

JAMS on interchangeble roles, the politics of storytelling and reconstructed meat

They have recently been named one of two finalists for the prestigious Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award and, following a sharing of their work in November, will have the chance to win a £32,000 development grant, a year’s worth of development time and mentorship from the Barbican, as well as a full run there next year.

Meet JAMS, an international theatre collective featuring:

Jemima Yong, SG/MAL (performance maker and photographer),

Alan Fielden, KR/UK (writer, director and artist),

Malachy Orozco, IRE/USA (technical and performance guy friday)

Sophie Grodin, DEN (collaborative performance maker).

jams all 4
From left: Jemima, Alan, Sophie and Malachy

Jemima and Alan first met at The Central School of Speech and Drama. They started working with Malachy in 2014 on Alan’s play SUN (“the children of Forced Entertainment, Punchdrunk, Shunt and maybe even Samuel Beckett” Donald Hutera of The Times) and later on Jemima’s performance All About My Mother in 2016, Singapore. In 2012 Alan and Sophie created ROOM – an experimental piece featuring one audience member which has since toured internationally with the whole JAMS team (and Annabelle Stapleton-Crittenden), described by Vice Motherboard as “virtual reality without the headset … breathtaking and very original”.

Last week, Nico Pimparé talked to the JAM part of JAMS in their South London rehearsal space. (Sophie was in Denmark at the time of this interview, and so unable to join.)

What is the piece about?

A — There is the actual story of Marathon which is the story of a messenger who’s been given the task of returning to his king and saying “We have lost the war! The enemy are coming!” That is his journey, that is the story of Marathon. On his way to the king he meets the people of the country, he builds up a sense of who the king is, he starts to doubt his patriotism, or his faith in his mission – he considers running away, he could just as easily leave his mission.

But the telling of Marathon is where we’re really putting our attention and our creative research and development: it’s the form of telling it which is of interest to us. We’re hoping to create form that embodies some kind of confusion, hysteria, and disruptive storytelling that I think we all feel in the contemporary world. The form of it is to do with repetition and variation: that’s the form that we’re applying to storytelling, that’s the main form of the play.

So there’s two layers, the story of Marathon, which is fairly easy to understand. And then there’s the other layer which is ‘how do you structure the story and how do you relay it to the contemporary observer?’ and what you’re focussing on now is that layer?

A — Yeah, this week has been pretty predominantly about structures and patterns.

Cool, so can you give an example of how you work?

A — Sure, so whilst I was in Japan, Jemima and Mal had a rehearsal where they really brought down to absolute bare essence what the story of Marathon is. It was always the intention, with the story of Marathon, to repeat it. It’s a very simple, essential, repeatable story with easy motifs. And then Jem and Mal just stripped it right back to the story of a messenger, a king, and a witness and they managed to tell that story in a minute.

And for us the next point is: to start playing with ‘the messenger runs from point A to B’, to then pause and explore what ‘B’ is, like change the lighting state completely, bring in some fake trees or whatever. Messenger sits down at point B and it turns out that point B is the city of Chicago in 1920, they have a conversation with Al Capone, I don’t know, you know, and then we move on… But to kind of make these massive leaps between the micro and the macro.

I just watched you perform a part of it. Was that improvised or  written down?

J — Some things were set and some things were improvised. One thing we’re currently exploring is: what needs to remain fixed and what can be varied – how far and where the boundaries are.

So in relation to the isolated experiment that you just witnessed, what was set was the audio loop: “the messenger receives the message, the messenger runs from point A to point B to point C to point D.” There are two bodies at play and a basic choreographic score that the variations jump off.

So how do you experiment with that? Because you have quite a specific process, right? You have a way of working that involves you in the rehearsal room doing things physically, so…

J — I think we are still learning what our specific process looks like. There are things that we’ve noticed recurring whenever we work together which is maybe indicative of what it might look like.
We create music together… after a long period in a rehearsal room, something builds up in us and explodes in music. Someone starts playing the piano, someone starts playing the drums… We jam often, it helps in the dynamic of the process.

Also, we film most of our performance experiments and watch them back immediately after, take notes and reflect.
And when we approach task-based exercises, a big part of the process is the trust and fluidity of stepping ‘in’ and ‘out’, interchanging roles.

JAMS jenga

What are the advantages of this process as opposed to the traditional way of working, i.e. from a script?

M — When you use a word like ‘advantage’ I feel like that implies that there is a ‘best practice’ kind of thing. I think a lot of individual writers famously struggle by themselves, and with alcoholism. At a desk, by themselves, torturing themselves to come up with these pages. None of us are alcoholics that I’m aware of, so that’s one advantage I guess.


M — It started out that way, there was gonna be a script, and there still may be elements that are scripted. But I think the nature of it seems to be kind of ‘teasing’. You do this with wool or hair. You’re like pulling apart the idea of ‘story’. And to script it perhaps is not how you do that. You need to invent new ways in order to interrogate stories and the old ways.

I think the question of story and narrative has come up a lot, especially in corporate culture and political culture. There’s this thing of, you know: if you’re gonna sell, if you’re gonna transmit your message, if that message is going to be tasty and palatable to your audience, your public, your customer, it has to be a ‘story’. And, I don’t know, for me storytelling has always been this very sacred thing. That people talk about ‘corporate narratives’ and ‘product narratives’ is really like, just, I don’t know, it hurts me a little bit. So for me… we need to look at what ‘stories’ are and perhaps what they aren’t.

We’ve talked about politics as well: trying to get people to question the way information is presented and to be ready to probe it. Like ‘what is this story after?’ ‘what does it want from me?’ ‘How does it want me to react?’. And maybe we can even bolster our own personal defences against what feels like a very hostile place – the sort of story-scape that’s out there in the world.

What are your influences?

M — A radio producer called Joe Frank, who writes like really surreal stories. Spalding Gray, who made like quasi-autobiographical work. There’s a Latin American writer Julio Cortázar, writes really far out stories. Meredith Monk, who’s a singer and choreographer auteur. Bruce Nauman, multimedia artist. Sam Shepard. Brecht. Goat Island.

J — One of the influences that I think we have to mention is Rick and Morty.

M — That’s true, yeah.

J — In this project especially we reference Rick and Morty like a party that we all went to but were all very drunk at. So we’re constantly re-enacting bits and pieces from it.

M — Definitely. The way they deal with tropes. Cos this language has emerged, this like cultural language of Simpsons and television and they’re so prevalent and part of the joke is knowing the kind of joke that’s being subverted.

A — Influences – ummm… Shūji Terayama, Japanese filmmaker. John Cage. Then there’s a guy who’s not really an influence but has been influential on this project called John Moran: he’s someone who will repeat the same scene whilst varying the context and the information around the scene. Tim Crouch…

So John Cage, that’s interesting. He deconstructed music, and you seem to be interested in deconstructing theatre…

A — There’s loads of deconstruction of theatre! This was brought out as a point at the interview at the Barbican. This kind of thing has been done. But there is a particular contemporary sense of being right now that I feel like a lot of people talk about, or a lot of people demonstrate, which is somewhere in between a kind of depression, anxiety, feeling of not being able to do anything – because of how overpowering the information and data and confusion of living in the modern world is… that leads to some kind of hysteria, and can lead into strange avenues of outlet.

So you’re not deconstructing something, you’re taking something that’s deconstructed and reconstructing it…?

A — It’s like a reconstructed meat.

M — I think, as Jem said earlier, we’re still working out what we do and how we do it.

J — I don’t think we are deconstructing theatre. We’re deconstructing story and the way information is currency; the way it changes hands.

A — Just one last point is, like, a word we haven’t come back to in a while is ‘enchantment’. ‘Enchantment’ is something you might associate with children’s films, but ‘story’… the news can be ‘enchanting’, a good advert can be ‘enchanting’ and we’re deconstructing with the aim of ‘disenchanting’ as opposed to just kind of an exercise of deconstruction.

M — It’s like an Ikea approach to information. We’ll just give you all the bits and you put it together.

A very good point to end on. Thank you very much.


Cécile Trémolières on ‘This Beautiful Future’

Meet Cécile Trémolières, the French designer behind one of 2017’s most visually stunning and critically acclaimed plays – The Yard’s This Beautiful Future (back for a second run by popular demand this November).


“The first masterstroke here is Cécile Trémolière’s design. […] I genuinely don’t think a design and opening of a play has made me grin so much in ages.”

— Andrew Haydon, Postcards from the Gods about This Beautiful Future

Currently, actors are also walking on Cécile’s work at The Gate Theatre (Suzy Storck) and Wilton’s Music House (La Tragédie de Carmen, produced by the Royal Opera House).

But you may already have seen her designs in The Mikvah Project (Yard Theatre), The Iphigenia Quartet (Gate Theatre), Punkplay (Southwark Playhouse), My People (Clwyd Theatr), Invisible Treasure (Ovalhouse), Madame Butterfly (Arcola Theatre), Harajuku Girls (Finborough Theatre) and Impermanent Theatre for Impermanence Dance Theatre. Her work has been exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial 2015, the V&A and World Stage Design 2017, Taipei. 

This Beautiful Future. Credit: Richard Lakos.

So let’s start at the beginning. I think most people don’t even know how designers work, or what the hell they do. Why don’t you just start by telling me when you first heard about This Beautiful Future?

I had worked with Jay [Jay Miller, director] on The Mikvah Project [2015, The Yard]. So we worked together before and then he was just like “I’ve got this play I don’t really know what it is about, and I want you to read it.” And that was in December, maybe, or January, and then I read the play and the play was, I don’t know, maybe ten pages long.

So it was just a draft version?

It was a draft. I mean, the last draft was maybe three days before the show opened, so the play carried on changing…

Did you have a conversation about what you might do or how you might approach it?

A tiny bit, but I think it’s always hard to… you don’t really come up with the design straightaway. You just have a feeling about the play, that you’ll like being part of that project.

There’s two things. Usually my brain is quite slow [laughs], I don’t find ideas straightaway. They just take quite a long time, I’ve got to rest with the play for a bit, and also when I read them it takes me a while to warm up to them. Although this one I really liked straightaway.

But I found it really strange because… there wasn’t mention of the karaoke when he sent it to me and it was just happening in the 40s and it was just that, like, really tiny little version of a really sweet story. I was just like “Why should we do this at The Yard?”. But at the same time I could feel, because I know Jay… I knew that something really special would happen.

So the karaoke idea, whose idea was that?

That’s Jay’s idea, yeah. I mean, that was something that he really wanted to explore. I don’t know if he wanted to explore it before the play happened. But it made a lot of sense, actually, with the project.

What I liked a lot about the design – it doesn’t look like what you’d expect if you just read the play. I mean, as you’ve said, the play is set in 1940s, occupied France, and the design is not at all like that. So where did the design come from?

So we knew we needed two karaoke booths and we knew that the karaoke booths were some sort of link to our world. We knew that we needed some sort of dreamy world for the youngsters. Jay really wanted a bed and some wallpaper [laughs]. He was just like “Can you look at wallpaper? And I want a bed.” Then in the beginning I was just like “Oh no I really don’t want to put wallpaper and a bed! It won’t work with The Yard.”

So the first ideas we had were… We basically make a model and then we try a lot of stuff inside the model. So what I did was to cover the back wall entirely with a repetition of one motif, like different types of wallpaper.

We had this idea of a village, this idyllic landscape, and Jay had this idea of this, kind of ‘pre-impressionist’ french painting type of landscape. So we played around with this for the backdrop by cropping things, repeating motifs, changing colours on photoshop…

And then for the bed… At the beginning we were thinking more of a structure – so it was this kind of tower where those two young people lived. And then, maybe February, we had an R&D with just the two actors, and it was mainly for the text, not for the design. But I really wanted to hear the text, because I always feel that unless you can see two people saying something you can’t really imagine it.

So I came along and then I taped on the floor what we had at that moment. And it just didn’t make sense: it felt really small and really bulky and clumsy at the same time. So we binned all these ideas and then what mattered was having a big space for them to play on. And then something very soft – the softness and the prettiness of it was really important. But then not having it be a full bed. The bed as a specific space and then the rest as a soft playground. And this is how I thought of grass. Grass is soft, it’s pretty, it’s natural, it feels right for the play.

This Beautiful Future. Credit: Richard Lakos.

It also contrasted with the architecture of the theatre, which is grey and solid…

Yeah, but I think design is not so… You play around with stuff in the model and suddenly there’s something that feels right. And for me it’s quite instinctive. I know that the green would look nice with the white and the grey, I knew that it would feel right for people to run on it, it would feel like this kind of Eden. You know, when I was thinking about “what is my dreamy place?” – it would be a garden, something green. And I think I’m sharing this with a lot of people.

And then afterwards it made sense on another level, which is that it’s supposed to happen in a Jewish house and it reminded me of the ruins of this concentration camp, near Auschwitz, and they’re all covered with field and white flowers and so it makes sense that you don’t want to represent that Jewish house, but that something has been covered with nature. It made sense as well. So you’ve got a meaning but I think it started with the instinct of how the actor would feel free in the space more than the meaning. This kind of came after.

So when you say that it takes you a while to get familiar with a play or that you need to hear a play to start to understand it… How does it work inside your head? Is it gradual? Or does it sort of suddenly make sense to you?

It feels like it suddenly makes sense but I think that’s because gradually I’ve been listening to it. You know, when you work in opera you can listen to the music and it’s really helpful because you can feel it straightaway. When I read the play, I can’t really put the right intention on it. And also, you know, when you read a novel what makes you think about the space is the descriptions. The stage directions usually are quite constrictive, and they don’t make me dream. So it’s about reading the emotion and at the same time understanding what’s behind it.

So when you’re having difficulty working with the play, what do you do? Especially since you don’t have actors to play with all the time.

When I struggle now I like to force myself to go to the library. Because you can go on the internet and go on Pinterest and look at loads of images and try to find something that makes sense to your instinct response to the play, but it is not as good as a library. You can’t really be surprised on the internet while you always find some gems in the library and you’re like: “That! I don’t know why it makes sense.” And then you understand why it makes sense.

And when you make it make sense to yourself, how do you then go and make it make sense to the director?

I’ve been lucky, because I work with people who are on the same page. So usually, if this makes sense to me it will make sense to the director. I think for This Beautiful Future I didn’t really have this moment of emptiness because we had the time with the R&D with the actors. It all made sense really quickly after that. But for Suzy Storck [opening at the Gate Theatre on October 26th], for example, where the director does not live in this country and we did not have pre-rehearsal time with actors, I had to kind of stop and then go back to the library and then kind of try to articulate very clearly why I wanted to go in that direction.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Suzy Storck?

Yeah, it’s very different from This Beautiful Future. It’s really dark and quite a complex play. Again, with this one, I had quite a lot of trouble understanding it when I read it the first few times. But now I really love it.

It’s a very complex play, with different types of language – sometimes poetic, sometimes super naturalistic. It’s hard to get all the emotion behind it. And it’s for The Gate, which is a very small and long and narrow space.

So – The Yard for me is an easier space to design for because it’s a space that I feel matches what I think about when I think about good theatre. I think The Gate is a great space but I find black boxes harder to design for, because you’ve got to create a space that you completely immerse people in.

I think with The Yard you can’t go against that space – it’s just saying “I’m here, and just play with me!” [laughs] You’ve always got to work within a certain space and when the space is completely aware of itself it makes your job more, kind of, genuine.

This Beautiful Future opens its second run at the Yard from the 2nd to the 25th of November. You can also check out her work in Suzy Storck at The Gate Theatre (26th of October to 18th of November) and La Tragédie de Carmen produced by the Royal Opera House at Wilton’s Music House (3rd to 11th of November)

Paris, Texas

Director Nico Pimparé reflects on one of the least known works of one of Monkhead’s favourite playwrights – Paris, Texas, written by the late great Sam Shepard – and probes the depths of his murky soul to figure out why it’s the only film to ever make him cry…


Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders, is the only film that has ever made me cry. Yes, that includes all of my childhood. And believe me, I’ve tried: I watch movies drunk, sober, on a cinema screen, huddled in my bed, in the morning, in the evening, at night, alone, with people… When it happened, I was sitting at my desk in my student bedroom, early on a Saturday afternoon, hungover, curtains closed.

Since then, I’ve pretty much bulldozed through both Wim Wenders’ and Sam Shepard’s bodies of work, desperately looking for the same catharsis, but I haven’t quite found it. It might just have been because it was my first time with Wim and Sam, but I think there’s more to it. In the light of Sam Shepard’s death two months ago I thought I’d revisit the only film that ever made me cry.

I first watched Paris, Texas because someone had put it in my downloads folder and I liked the title. It’s hard to conceive of two more diametrically opposite locations: Paris, Texas. It has an oxymoronic zing to it reminiscent of the Russian greats: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Dead Souls, Fathers and Sons… And what makes Paris, Texas a masterpiece is, in fact, a juxtaposition: Sam’s harshness and Wim’s softness complementing each other brilliantly through their contradictions. Sweet and sour sauce. Cold vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate cake. Paris and Texas.

Actually, it turns out that Paris is (in real life) the name of a small city in Texas a hundred miles northwest of Dallas – a sort of self-professed oxymoronic geographical location. Fun fact: yes, the city of Paris, Texas does have a 70 ft replica of the Eiffel Tower, built in 1993.

In the film, Paris is talked about but never visited. Travis, the main character, has bought a piece of land there. The closest he gets to explaining why is during a drunken conversation he has with his seven year old son, where the city feels like a symbol for the tension between what one wants to be and what one is.

Don’t just read the script, watch the video! This scene is a masterclass in directing: the pace, the stark red and black colours , the singular light bulb above Travis’ head, Hunter’s position which makes him look down at his father, the desolate ‘white-noise’ soundscape of the laundromat they are in, the painful guitar slide in the background… the list is endless… and all these detailed touches simultaneously bring out the pathos and the beauty of the text.

[Here Travis talks to his son about his mother and father]

TRAVIS: She was just plain. Just plain good. She was very good. But my Daddy– See, my Daddy had, uh– He had this idea– he had this idea in his head that was kind of– kind of– kind of a sickness.

HUNTER: What idea?

TRAVIS: He had this idea about her… And… He looked at her… but he didn’t see her. He — He saw this idea. And he told people that she was from Paris. It was a big joke. But he started telling everybody all the time and finally it wasn’t a joke anymore. He st– He started believing it. And he actually believed it. And she — Oh, God.She would get so embarrassed. She — She was so — She was so shy.

But let’s fill you in a little. The film follows Travis’ rebirth and rediscovery of the world after four years of wandering aimlessly through the desert – a bit of an atypical  ‘coming of age’ story.

Now, anyone familiar with Wim Wenders’ work as a director will know that he is obsessed with the confrontation between the harsh realities of the world and the idealised romantic gaze of children. In Alice and the Cities, a nine-year-old girl is left to her own devices as her mother leaves her in the care of a complete stranger. In Wings of Desire, an immortal angel longs to “be born” as a mortal.

In the idealised Romantic sense, a child (or angel) has not been through the hardships of love, grief or even material subsistence. A child has not experienced the fear of death. A child is Adam, sitting in the garden of Eden, with apples hanging above his head. That makes for beautiful, contemplative movies. Some of my favourite movies. But not quite crying material.

In Paris, Texas, there’s something more. Travis is at once child and old man. He has eaten the apple and regurgitated it – but he knows both the taste of the apple and of the vomit. When we meet Travis, in the very first scene, he has been walking aimlessly through the desert for four years. At the end of the movie, we discover that Travis’ mad escape from civilisation was the result of shock at the violence of his own passions. I’ll spare you the spoilers, but you can get a cheeky taste of the kind of trauma he went through by reading this quote:

“And when he woke up, he was on fire. There were blue flames burning the sheets of his bed. He ran through the flames toward the only two people he loved but they were gone. His arms were burning, and he threw himself outside and rolled on the wet ground. Then he ran. He never looked back at the fire. He just ran. He ran until the sun came up and he couldn’t run any further. And when the sun went down, he ran again. For five days he ran like this, until every sign of man had disappeared.”

Like in a lot of Sam Shepard’s work, the character’s deep emotional trauma comes from powerlessness in the face of his own instinctive desires and behaviour. As he wakes up in his flaming bed, he knows that within him lives a man who has committed atrocities. His conscious mind cannot cope with the frightening expression of his subconscious drives.

And haven’t we all felt that? How many times have I woken up cringing and covering my head with my blanket, hoping that my body would melt into the bed and emerge in a parallel universe? A universe in which I never humiliate myself. A universe where my actions reflect the moral and ethical cleanliness that I expect of myself. A universe, in other words, where I am not myself. And the worst thing is that even if I could go back in time and eliminate last night’s wrongdoing, nothing would be solved: I would be left with the knowledge that there is a humiliating or dark part of myself that not only exists but is also prone to express itself.

So Travis, who, by the way, has gone through a much more painful experience than I have ever, does the only thing he can do. He walks. In the desert. For four years. And here is what he looks like after those four years, when we meet him in the movie’s opening scene:

Looks more like a child than a wise old man, right? A kid with a red cap, a jerrican of water and an old withered body. He has shed all semblance of civilisation. He has lost the ability to speak. In his naive and contemplative gaze we see a child’s furiously active brain constantly trying to integrate and make sense of the signals that he receives from the world. He is truly a man reborn, a phoenix, straight out of the womb of the desert. ‘The other’ in him had become so difficult to cope with that he has had to wipe the disc and start all over again. He has taken a journey back in time to the moment before shit got messy. In Freudian terms, it is the purest realisation of the death drive – the subconscious drive for destruction and oblivion fuelled by the desire to go back to the moment just before birth, when everything was simpler. Travis has gone through a suicide of his civilised self.

So that’s what brought my eighteen year-old self to tears. On the one hand, the childlike gaze of Wim Wenders – his subtle and soft orchestration of Ry Cooder’s soundtrack and Robby Muller’s shots. On the other hand, the wisdom and pain of Sam Shepard’s characters – capable of great violence and great regret. Together, they’ve made a film about the unbearable pain of being an adult, the awful knowledge of what you’ve done, and what you could do.