Dorothée Saysombat on La Conquête (The Conquest)

Dorothée Saysombat. Photo: Jef Rabillon

The theatre company Compagnie à was born out of a desire “to explore theatre writing, through the relationship between actor and manipulated object and the relationship between audience, sound and space.”

This year’s Manipulate Festival seems, then, like the perfect play for them to present their 2018 work La Conquête, or The Conquest as it is subtitled in English for their performance at Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.

Dorothée Saysombat, a performer and director originating from Laos and China, and Sika Gblondoume, a performer and singer originating from Benin, perform the work which explores colonial conquest. With the pair’s own lived experiences having been intertwined with the legacy of colonialism, it makes for a poignant piece of theatre.

Ahead of performing at Manipulate Festival, we caught up with Dorothée, who also co-founded the company, to find out more about the work.

Q&A with Dorothée Saysombat

What can you tell us about La Conquête?

“The Conquest” is a show created by the Company in 2018, which mixes acting, puppetry, object theatre and work on the body. The aim is to explore the main drivers of colonization through the theatre of objects and the body–castelet. To show and hear the traces of this colonial history today. By using the body as a territory, a playground, for pillage, for exploitation, “The Conquest” tells how the act of colonizing leads to the enslavement of minds and humans.

The two actresses, [myself] and Sika Gblondoumé, are linked to this colonial history through their origins: [I] being of Chinese and Laotian origin and Sika from Benin. Starting from our intimate history, linked to this universal history, we wish to talk about colonization as a heritage that concerns us all, whether we come from a colonizing or colonized people.

The intention is to tell what the act of colonizing consists of, the gesture of invading, and to question the place of the human being in this process. By colonizing a land, are we not undoubtedly enslaving the human beings who live there? These questions seem all the more burning to us today, at a time when some are talking about “relieving the guilt of the colonizing peoples” and praising the “benefits of colonization”…

This is not a historical reconstruction. We wish to evoke colonization in the universal sense, and not exclusively the history of the colonies of Europe. The intention being to say that this act, this desire for conquest has existed throughout time, and unfortunately, continues to exist, on the entire planet.

Photo: Jef Rabillon

The language used is very metaphorical, symbolic, essentially visual. Working with the puppet and the object allows us to place ourselves on the side of evocation, to escape any moralizing or didactic discourse. Allegorical language allows access to a more collective dimension, while speaking intimately to each person.

We like the bittersweet treatment in our shows, which address political or social subjects. It’s a way of offering another look at a subject, of taking a step back, of bringing back humanity and connection, because it’s a laughter that circulates and connects, rather than a laughter that excludes and mocks.

What is it like to be performing the show as part of Manipulate Festival?

It is a great honour and an immense pleasure to be invited to this festival. We had the joy of presenting the show “Le chant du bouc” there 6 years ago and it remains a fantastic memory. We look forward to meeting the public in Edinburgh and sharing this work and these words with them.

What was the inspiration for the show?

It is a long-standing necessity to talk about this subject. This was present for [me] well before creating the company in 2003. Its intimate and personal history linked to this colonial question, the fact that this story is still presented as a closed chapter of History, particularly at school, and that there still remains so much darkness and silence around of this made him really want to approach it today on a theatre stage.

This necessity was shared with Nicolas Alline, for whom the question was also burning. The intuition of working around the fragmented body, the landscape body was there from the start of this intention.

We then worked in the form of back and forth between research on stage, at the table, in archives, etc. and from scenes experienced in the daily lives of Sika and [myself], which also make the stigmata of this story heard today.

Photo: Jef Rabillon

How much has the work changed as you’ve developed the piece?

The final form of the show has not evolved much since its creation in 2008, apart from the rhythm of the show, which has been refined through performance, as is the case with every live show. but the writing and the “score” (because it is written like a real score!) were there from the creation.

How do you think audiences will react to La Conquête?

We can never know in advance (and fortunately!) how the audience, which is made up of different women and men, will intimately receive a show. It is the magic, the mystery and the beauty of the living spectacle, which is an encounter, at a precise moment.

We do not position ourselves as lesson givers, holding the truth, but wish to share these questions which seem fundamental and burning to us today. We leave room for each viewer to make their own thoughts, connections, and possible responses, based on the images we offer.

[And] I am obviously very curious to see how the Edinburgh public will receive this show, and in particular exchange on how the questions posed by this colonial history are experienced in this country.

La Conquête (The Conquest) plays Festival Theatre from 9-10 February 2024 as part of Manipulate Festival