- Damascus Theatre Festival
The Fourteenth Damascus International Festival of Theatre demonstrated the vitality of that art form throughout the Arab world, with thirty-eight productions representing fourteen Arab countries (including a Syrian–German collaboration). As in past years, the festival also included a few offerings from outside the Arab world—this time a production from Holland and one from Cyprus—as well as several roundtable discussions and audience talkbacks. Although it is impossible to characterize such a range of productions, it is clear that younger Arab directors are emphasizing visual spectacle, often including video, elaborate choreography, and large casts. Yet some of the strongest pieces featured small casts and simple scenography, and in the juxtaposition of these directing styles one sees the range of work presented. While virtually no Arab playwright or theatre company makes direct reference to living political figures, much Arab theatre is highly political, addressing present events through historical analogies or fables that are open to interpretation, or by addressing social developments that are directly tied to heads of state. Such dramaturgical strategies were on display at the festival, and I sought out those more political works.
The highlights of my attendance were two stripped-down two-handers: Sławomir Mrożek’s The Emigrants, translated and directed by Samer Omran, and Taoufik Jebali’s Dinosaur Diaries (adapted from Brecht’s Conversations in Exile). In both instances, outstanding acting with simplified design proved highly theatrical and timely. While the source texts for The Emigrants—a Syrian production—and the Tunisian Dinosaur Diaries focus on displaced Europeans, both plays are remarkably relevant to the contemporary Arab experience. Mrożek’s The Emigrants (1975) depicts two Polish emigrants working in Paris—one an alienated intellectual, the other a buffoonish worker. Samer Omran, in addition to translating and directing, played the intellectual opposite Muhammad al Rashee. The original text’s references to the repression and failing economy of communist Poland translated seamlessly to contemporary Syria. Although Omran’s translation makes no mention of Arab emigration, the use of the Syrian dialect grounded the audience in its own present. The site-specific production necessitated a simple style: squeezed as the audience was in the underground and dilapidated Al-Qazzanine air-raid shelter, there was little room for properties beyond the two cots, a small makeshift table and chairs, cups, pans, and other basic implements required by the text. With the only lighting a bare bulb and bits of candle, all production elements conspired to create an intense intimacy that grew increasingly painful as character desperation shifted into violence.
The Tunisian actor, director, and theatre impresario Taoufik Jebali regularly brings outstanding productions to the Damascus Theatre Festival, and 2008 was no exception. This year he revived Dinosaur Diaries, the 1987 piece with which he opened the legendary Tunisian theatre, El Teatro, now in its twentieth year. Jebali adapted the play from Conversations in Exile, which Brecht wrote in Finland after fleeing Nazi persecution; the text, however, which describes a world in which a person is simply an appendage to her passport—the noblest part of a human—felt disturbingly current. Raouf Ben Amor, with his quiet dignity, was wonderfully cast opposite Jebali, who can convulse an audience with an intense and quizzical look or with one of his awkward though precise gestures. The set—a simple park bench against a gray flat—provided a neutral background to the performers. Jebali’s productions have toured throughout Europe and the Middle East, and it is a great pity that US audiences have not yet had an opportunity to see the work of this giant of Arab theatre.
Two productions by the Syrian National Theatre illustrate an opposing trend in Arab theatre: masrah [End Page 617] busri (visual theatre). Basam Qahaar’s Teatro and Abdul Munim Amayri’s Tactics both featured large sets, casts of twenty or more, frequent and dramatic light cues, and elaborate choreography. The ambitious Teatro is an adaptation of the novel Teatro 1949 by Fawwaz Haddad, which describes a theatre manager navigating the turbulent period after Husni al-Za’im seized power that...