Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Duo-drama in focus

Nora Amin found plenty to think about at Sharjah’s greatest theatrical event

Punishing Someone

The second Festival of Duo-Drama at the city of Daba Al-Hisn in Sharjah, UAE (15-19 January) brought back to light the question of theatricality on the Arab stage. The event presented duo plays from Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates and hosted the Sharjah Forum for Arab Theatre in its 14th edition. While the performances of the festival projected a clear variety of topics and styles, the forum was centred on the relation between theatre and the novel.

Generally speaking in the Arab theatre festivals, there is seldom any connection between the conference or the symposium and the performances participating; the former is held, it seems, to invest the event with academic authority and maintain the fashionable format of performances in combination with a scholarly gathering rather than to create real dialogue between the stage and critical-academic discourse. Not so at Daba Al-Hisn, which was quite special in demonstrating a dialectic connection between the performances and the topic of the forum. Many scholarly interventions such as the papers by Asmaa Yehia Altaher (Egypt) and Hafiz Aldjedidi (Tunisia) presented a perspective that would later have an impact on our readings of the performances, one that did not only analyse the narrative differences between the two genres – drama and novel – but also reflected on the possibilities of intersection, adaptation, dramaturgy and inter-textuality.

A quick view of the participating performances testifies to a strong wave of adaptation and dramaturgy. Although not necessarily related to the field of the novel, this wave still expresses a profound link to the genre as a narrative form which does not coincide with the essential component of physical action in drama. The Tunisian production Punishing Someone is originally adapted from The Zoo Story by the American playwright Edward Albee. The director Ghazy Al-Zi’bany is the dramaturge as well as the main actor in this duo play. He clearly made an honest effort to inject the dialogue with cultural and political references to Tunisian society but in spite of that effort the performance remains largely in Albee’s original style and structure. Moreover, Ghazy maintained a theatrical mode based in the spoken language, with the physicality of the action and the interaction between the two characters absent. We were witnessing a theatricality that does not involve the body nor the physical actions of the performers but rather the verbal rendering of a situation. In this sense, the performance connected to the tradition of spoken word in the Arab culture, it referred to the craft of acting as a verbal and vocal craft as opposed to a body and movement craft.

I quickly realised how differently each performance in the festival interpreted the concept of duo-drama. While the Tunisian Zoo Story was restricted to the verbal, linguistic level and a mode of theatricality that does not help the conflict and the drama to escalate or touch the spectators, reducing the concept of duo to a kind of staged verbal debate, the Lebanese dramaturgy of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot took a totally different path. Page 7, directed by Essam Abu-Khaled and Fadi Abu-Samra, took the dramaturgy as far as possible into the context of Lebanese society. Their endeavour was largely appreciated by the audience and the critics as it did not stop at a re-interpretation of the dialogue but expanded to create a whole, genuine dramatic situation that invests the relationship between the two characters, presented as two homeless men, and directs it in relation to the Lebanese reality of loss and oppression. Page 7 was celebrated by the audiences as a performance that speaks about relevant realities nowadays so much that one forgot Beckett’s original play. The craft of the actors in this duo-drama exceeded the text and dialogue to embrace a physical presence and an organic performance that can easily be distinguished from the storytelling tradition that shapes many of the acting crafts we see in Arab theatre.

Along the same lines, it can be said that the duality of a duo-drama fluctuates according to the mode of theatricality the director adopts. In a strictly verbal mode it is difficult to take the duality beyond verbal debate or argument, while a mode that integrates the physical with the vocal, the alphabetical with the action, the heard with the seen and felt, manages to populate the stage and create a vast world of drama through the presence of only two actors. Duo-drama can be either a restrictive or enriching form, it depends mainly on the theatricality employed by the performance and what kind of drama it brings. On the other hand the tradition of TV serial has had a strong impact on the concept and delivery of theatrical dialogue, pushing it towards being reduced to the minimal level of a verbally spoken debate.


Dream

The performance from Bahrain, The Window by the only female director participating in the festival, Ghada Al-Fihany, is the only duo between a female actress and a male actor. Adapted by the prominent theatre maker Abdalla Al-Saadawy from a play by Izinos Iridinsky, the performance employs movement and mime in relation to the spoken text but the combination somehow feels forced and leaves us divided between two different types of expression without finding a unity on stage. The gap between the two actors’ styles of acting also played a role in undermining the presumed unity of a duo-drama. Although Al-Fihany worked very hard to create an impeccable scenography and fuel the imagination of the spectators with powerful images, the actress playing the lead role went in the opposite direction at the aesthetic level by insisting on screaming and overacting.

On the opposite side of The Window stands Dream by the Syrian Sary Mostafa: a piece that is more of a performance than a play. The acting is very natural compared to the exaggeration in The Window, yet it gradually loses its impact and looks as if held behind a fence. The aesthetic choices of the director are minimalist, the two male actors sometimes lose their force and the whole experience does not go anywhere. The best moments were the video projections of comments and testimonies by friends in Syria. Those moments of truth were not even slightly matched by the performance of the actors. The stage seemed void of the core of what a performance is, which is primarily communication. A plastic curtain separating the stage from the audience literally confiscated the performance and stood as a barrier to the audience while the aesthetic presence of such a curtain was not really employed in any theatrical sense.  

The final performance in the festival was that of the United Arab Emirates, Escurial, an adaptation of Michel de Ghelderode’s play directed by Hamid Sameeg. It featured two versatile actors – Abdallah Massoud and Raed Dalati – and presented the most creative and powerful scenography in the festival. It led me to re-think all the participating performances in retrospect, in order to evaluate how they dealt with the empty stage that stands most of the time as a big challenge to duo performances. The set and props, inspired by and created from recycled material, transformed the stage and triggered a new interpretation of the whole play while introducing new physical and visual aesthetics that are uncommon in one of the richest countries of the Arab world. It is to be admired how the director stepped out of the box and broke with the traditional aesthetics of wealth that are so often present in productions from the Gulf countries. The choices were to the point, and the acting and physicality of Raed Dalati brought to the festival a unique quality that was lacking in most performances. But once again Dalati and Massoud remained opposite each other in the method of acting that they employed, Massoud was stuck in traditional voice acting, overacting and continuously screaming on stage while Raed’s charisma and craft originated from total identification with the character and the situation to the point of melting within the emotions and actions of the character rather than putting himself in the foreground. If we use the terms of a novel, Raed would be the character of the novel that lives all the events, while Abdallah would be the authoritarian omnipresent narrator. Raed has the action while Abdallah has the voice, one has the an organic performance, the other an alphabet.

Only one of the five participating plays – the Syrian play – was originally written. Strangely enough it did not carry the striking theatricality you would expect of that process. The four remaining plays were all inspired by foreign texts in spite of the promotion of the festival as specifically Arab theatre. Only one play had a female character, the one directed by a female director. All five contributed to presenting a different face of Arab theatricality via the medium of duo-drama which is a valid sample of the anatomy of Arab drama. At the end of the festival one was left with the echoes of the speech of the prominent Egyptian theatre director Nasser Abdelmoneim when he was recounting his experience in directing Yehia Al-Taher’s famous novel Al-Toq wal Eswera (The Girdl and the Bracelet): it was the relevance and persistence of the issue that brought it to the stage, a certain necessity that transcends the distinction between literary genres and opens a path to artistic dialogue, embraced by a dramaturgy that recreates the issue and the experience using a theatricality of its own.

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