Premiering during the Istanbul Theater Festival, the surprising, incisive, and at times disturbing, play Nocturnal Symposium—written by Eric De Volder, directed and adapted by Mesut Arslan—will be running at Zorlu PSM Sky Lounge from November 24–27.
The play unfolds within a stage designed by the artists Lawrence Malstaf and Meryem Bayram; a wooden installation functions as a sort of empty pool where the characters swim through their lives, their experiences, and their feelings, which are represented by huge spinning tops that move randomly and noisily.

The plot is apparently simple: an absent father and his estranged family who hate him to the point of wishing him dead. But Nocturnal Symposium is not a traditional piece, with a clear beginning and a tragic (or happy) ending. “It’s not a linear story, it’s more like an intersection and interconnection of all the characters’ individual paths”, Mesut Arslan told The Guide Istanbul.

As the play progresses, the audience may even feel disturbed by the flashing lights, by the apparently meaningless sounds, by the absurdity of the dialogue, but this is the way Arslan chose to convey the characters’—and thus everyone’s—fears, their idiosyncrasies, and, ultimately, their unwillingness and inability to communicate in a raw, direct way.

“Lack of communication leads to a lot of misunderstandings, even to death or violence: but who’s to blame?”, asks Arslan. “Of course, the society and its structure…but in the end all of us are responsible for the issues of the system. As with the father in Nocturnal Symposium, we are all flawed. And, as with the kids and the wife who bear so much anger against the father, we often don’t realize that the point is not really to find a ‘bad guy’, a scapegoat,” says Arslan.

In fact, Nocturnal Symposium makes the viewer rethink this tendency, suggesting that we, as individuals in the system, and our communication problems are at the source of many problems.

“In our society, everything’s about linear patterns, linear conversations, standardized careers. In the play, out of 40 repetitions of the question “How are you?”, only one person—the old grandma in her 80s—doesn’t answer with the customary ‘I’m OK’,” continues Arslan. “Well, I strongly believe that our task is in finding a balance between an excessive linearity and a total circularity.”

Arslan believes that too much rationality kills communication, and suffocates the natural, healthy instincts that everyone has from birth. However, too much reliance on instinct can also do harm. Only a mix of both can give us balance; represented in the play by the spinning tops, and by the single-legged stools on which some members of the audience sit, almost melting into the scenery. “Even this simple stool is composed of a circle, the seat, and a line, the leg. In order to sit on such a stool, the one thing you need is balance,” says Arslan.

The leitmotif of balance is visible in the performance. The installation is in the style of a modern structure that could easily fit in a contemporary art exhibition. Yet, the audience sitting around the scene, the absence of a curtain and of a clear stage, and the many lines born out of improvisation, give it a sense of spontaneity.

“Many are afraid that the play is so honest and groundbreaking that it may not be appreciated here: I’m ready to get rotten tomatoes thrown at me,” says Arslan with a smile. “But communicating something— even when disturbing, or not politically correct—makes me happy.”

Curiously enough, the play’s Belgian author Eric De Volder had a special connection to Turkey. “After discovering him in Belgium—where I’ve been living and working for years—I found out that he had rented a place in Karaburnu for over 20 years, and he was using it for rehearsals with his theater company. The interaction with the people of the village was spurring the artists to improvise and create in a very natural way,” says Arslan.

Showing the play at the festival does not simply close the circle that began when De Volder chose Turkey to get inspired and to rehearse with his company; it is also a choice made with awareness.

“Nowadays more than ever, in Turkey as well as anywhere else, people—including myself—need to listen more to their inner needs and instincts, and remove some of the filters that we grew accustomed to putting up when we communicate,” believes Arslan. “This way we can try to find the balance we need to be happy.” 

Mesut Arslan

Istanbul Theater Festival runs from November 17–December 4. 

Nocturnal Symposium starts at 9pm, November 24–27 at Zorlu PSM Sky Lounge. Tickets 80 TL, students 10 TL. In Turkish with English subtitles. The show will continue throughout the season after the festival.