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Fable worth telling

In 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories,' Salman Rushdie creates a fanciful, allegorical tale about free speech.

November 27, 2002|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to the Times

BERKELEY — When Salman Rushdie's son Zafar was young, the novelist made up stories to entertain him in the tub. "You could scoop a cup of water from the bath and pretend there was a story in it," Rushdie says.

Eventually Rushdie turned that experience into the germ of a book, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," published in 1990, a parable about a father and his son and an ocean on a moon that is the source of all the tales ever told. Now it's a play, as well.

"It's nice to see it come back to life in a very different form," says Rushdie, just before the play's West Coast premiere last Wednesday at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The play, closely adapted from the book, is a fanciful story about the forces of lightness and darkness, about the need to communicate and the totalitarian urge to eradicate language, a moral fable written out of Rushdie's own famous ordeal with censorship and a price on his head.

The basic plot came from a short story that Rushdie had given up on years before the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious order) in 1989, claiming that Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" was blasphemous and that it was the duty of every Muslim to try to kill the author.

"I'd become involved myself in a war between language and silence," Rushdie says.

Rushdie went into hiding for years, and only returned to the public after the fatwa was lifted in 1999. In the meantime, he wrote "Haroun" so his son -- then 10, now 23 -- could enjoy the book at one age as an entertaining story and later as a thought-provoking allegory.

"He's loved it at every age, I must say," Rushdie notes. "And he hasn't read that many of my books. He's read a lot of first chapters, though."

Haroun (Zafar's middle name) is the son of a famous storyteller who suddenly loses the ability to tell stories. Haroun journeys to the moon to help his father get back his gift, and the boy wanders into a war between two tribes, the people who talk, and the people who don't and who are trying to force silence on the world by poisoning the sea of stories.

"What is the point of stories that aren't even true?" a character asks.

"We are an animal that tells stories," Rushdie answers himself. "We start out telling other people's stories and in the end we become someone else's story."

"Haroun" was first performed on stage at England's Royal National Theatre in 1998, in an adaptation by Tim Supple and David Tushingham. The original play hewed closely to the book (all of the lines were Rushdie's), lasted 2 1/2 hours and concentrated on the story's comic aspects. That version was performed a couple of times in the U.S.

Two years ago, Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone met Rushdie and suggested staging a different version of the story. Dominique Serrand and dramaturge Luan Schooler took the original play, cut it down by an hour and tried to make it more serious without losing the lightness.

"The other version was very much cartoonist," says Taccone. "We thought the script was too long and thick, insistently light and ignored the full spectrum of the world that the book explores."

Rushdie approved the adaptation and flew out early from his home in New York to offer advice during rehearsals. "Any input I wanted to make, they were very generous to accept," he says. " 'Haroun' is mostly dialogue; it's written like a play already."

"I think there are four lines in the whole thing that are not Salman Rushdie," Taccone adds.

The production is a visual spectacle: Actors emerge from a pool of water. Rise through the air on cables. Glide across a catwalk like ghosts. The stage plunges into darkness when Haroun goes to the land of silence.

Overtones of current events seem unavoidable (one character wears what looks like a burka, which the director says was not intentional).

"Sept. 11 is irrelevant to this production," says Serrand, who directed the production. "There's a great deal of censorship in America. Sept. 11 should have started a time of questioning, not reaffirming. Jesse Helms and the head of the Taliban are the same person. My father was a terrorist by George Bush's definition. He was in the French resistance. The baddies are here as well as everywhere else. This play is about questioning ourselves."

"The play is as much about small acts of censorship," adds Schooler, "books being pulled from shelves anywhere."

Berkeley Rep has produced plays dealing with the subject of oppression before, most recently Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul," which had its West Coast premiere earlier in the year.

"This play is a wildly different approach than 'Homebody,' " Taccone notes. "Haroun is completely accessible. It is a parable about the ability to speak, to tell one's story, that censorship under any guise is not healthy. We've tried to introduce the sense of darkness that's linked to lightness."

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