The Arab Spring takes to the stage

The Arab Spring takes to the stage
Review: A Paris theatre has offered the opportunity for the Arab performers and artists to reclaim their experiences of the Arab Spring and bring it to the European stage.
6 min read
The Arab Spring is the inspiration for (D)rôles de Printemps [AFP]

With few exceptions - one of which is the play Rituels pour une Métamorphose [Ritual for a Metamorphosis] by Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous - contemporary Arab theatre is little known in France.

Although it is a relatively new genre on the other side of the Mediterranean, it is no less innovative and vivacious than anything from the contemporary French scene.

It plays with language registers, stretches the boundaries of theatrical production and defies the constraints of censorship.

It reflects, in fact, that during the Arab Spring the streets constituted as stages and platforms for the people to express their frustration and anger.

Over the past month, Le Tarmac theatre in Paris has chosen to give the contemporary Arab theatrical scene a chance to show how it claims and reclaims these events.

Many of these ecperiences have been stolen by the immediacy of the news but through the theatre programme (D)rôles de Printemps [Arab Spring Droll], these are reclaimed.

It rolled out a show lineup that played out between 11 and 28 March.

Thanks to the gift of script and performance, drama has the ability to seize the news and explore answers on stage.

The Tunisian piece Yahya Yaaich [Amnesia] is produced by Fadhel Jaïbi and Jalila Baccar. 

They have been staging the story of the overthrow and escape of Tunsian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, since 2010.

It has often been commended for its visionary character vis-à-vis the wave of protests in Tunisia.

Six producers - Ahmed el-Attar, Hassan al-Geretly; in Tunisia Meriam Bousselmi; choreographers Aicha Mbarek and Hafiz Dhaou), and in Lebanon Sawsan Bou Khaled - 
submitted their works to Le Tarmac. 

These were then produced through theatre, dance, installation art or theatrical performance - or sometimes a hybrid of two art forms.

In his piece of work Hassan al-Geretly, an Egyptian author of the play Zawaya, Témoignages de la Révolution [Angles, Revolution Testimonies] focuses on the integration of popular heritage in theatrical practice.

His theatrical troupe worked particularly on "narration, the art of storytelling and tales" as the 2011 revolution was rewritten and memories were manipulated.

Through their performances, each in their own way snatched the revolutions from the immediacy of the news to give the public a chance to feel "their shock waves" rather than the event in real time.

This means that none of the performances could be described as a narrative, as they refuse the principle of a plot built around different interacting characters.

An unprecedented event

Respect is due to Le Tarmac initiative, which gives free rein to questions that animate contemporary Arab drama, especially as the history of dramatic production in the Arab world is relatively recent.

Long considered an imported genre, Arab drama first faced the challenge of searching for an identity.

Playwrights strove to give the genre its own identity by reconciling cultural heritage and local practices with the winds of modernity blowing from Europe.

Moreover, drama productions in Arabic were in a quandary about which language register to adopt, whether formal or colloquial.

Traditionally far from the literary field and considered outside the frame of so-called "high-quality" productions, colloquial drama has now advanced from the background to centre stage. 

By doing this, it asserts itself in most contemporary productions.

This is the case of the three drama pieces that were showing at Le Tarmac—Alice (Sawsan Bou Khaled), On the Importance of Being an Arab (Ahmed el-Attar) and Zawaya (Hassan el-Geretly).

Alice is a theatrical performance that shows, after the opening scene, an actress eating the cucumber slices she had on her eyes to preserve her youth, and it reflects her nightmares and dreams.

In his play, Attar depicts areas of Egyptian life, disseminating his own recorded telephone conversations.

In Zawaya, Geretly represents on stage the smooth daily Egyptian dialect featuring overlapping testimonies of five characters - a martyr's mother, a hospital visitor, a football supporter, a police officer and a rascal - who experienced build up to the January 2011 revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

     For the football supporter in Zawaya, the hero is the crowd not the individual.

In On the Importance of Being an Arab, Attar plays the game of reconstruction of memories to the music of Hassan Khan.

Fixed onto a chair that poses as a cube, the Egyptian artist displays fragments of his life for the audience to listen to, read and watch. Here, individual and collective stories intermingle.

In On the Importance of Being an Arab, the artist is the only interlocutor but gives different testimonies. In Zawaya, the testimonies are represented by several voices, including those of the three scriptwriters.

Between collective experience and intimacy

Paradoxically, the six pieces of work have a strong shared theme: facing the dominant performances, collective actions, or numerous characters creating the fantasy of the Arab revolutions.

The Arab Spring translated on stage takes the form of individual, rather than individualistic, experiences and personal, even intimate ones.

For the football supporter in Zawaya, it's the crowd that counts - the hero is the crowd not the individual.

Hafiz Daou, one of the choreographers of the dance performance Sacré Printemps! [Sacred Spring] wanted to give each individual their place in the audience.

This was done through the seven dancers who tear themselves away from painted figures that are meant to stir a silent revolution in them.

Meanwhile, the bodies sway to the powerful tunes of the music, which unites them at times but also propels them towards uncertain trajectories.

To avoid being confused with a choir, the artists opted for sleek forms and a number of strong actors.

Monologues (Sawsan Bou Khaled and Ahmed el-Attar) explore the silences as much as the different sound effects that are fully expressed in the process of creation through microphones, samplers, mouth noises, percussions and music.

In Alice, Sawsan Bou Khaled deprives the spectator of words, leaving room for inordinate silence.

Alone on a bed, the scene constitutes a single scenic element undergoing constant transformation throughout multiple sets. The actress struggles with various shapes and hallucinations in her imaginary voyage.

In Truth Box, by Tunisian artist Meriem Bousselmi, the setting takes the form of a "confession seat", where fictional characters confess their sins and most intimate details.

As a matter of fact, the perspectives, journeys or paths of isolated individuals intersect here more than they do in Zawaya.

Attar's theatrical piece is about the desire to be a voyeur that drives us all.

Reversing the mirror, he thwarts the expectations of certain spectators who were looking to inquire about a historical moment.

The staging of an experience lived gives the monologue the value of historical records and stirs collective and individual or informative memory before an international audience, like Le Tarmac's.

Due to its dual script-based and visual nature, theatre is built on the spur of the moment.

The Sacred Spring performance was held on the evening of the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

This was enough proof that the moment the performance is shown it constitutes a key player in the wider creative process.

This is an edited translation from our partners at Orient XXI.