Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Signs of transformation

A play by Syrian dramatist Saadallah Wannous has been enjoying an extended run at the Comédie française in Paris, writes David Tresilian

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, famous across the Arab world for his plays examining the uneasy relationship between individuals and the societies to which they belong, has received the accolade of being the first Arab playwright to have had his work performed at the Comédie française in Paris.  
In a run ending early in July, Wannous’s play Ritual of Signs and Transformations (tuqus al-isharat wa al-tahuwwulat) was performed by members of the French theatre’s permanent acting company in the red-and-gold splendour of the recently restored Salle Richelieu in Paris, the main auditorium of the Comédie française, in a production directed by the Kuwaiti director Suleiman Al-Bassam and in a French translation by Rania Samara.
Established in the late 17th century and long associated with the classics of French theatre and particularly with the works of Molière, the company has been making efforts to widen its repertoire in recent years, including by the performance of more contemporary and foreign plays. According to Muriel Mayette, the administrator of the Comédie française, the idea has been to present more international work having something important to say about contemporary issues.
With the world pressing ever closer to Europe’s doors, she commented in the notes accompanying the production of Wannous’s play, it has seemed right to invite work by Arab dramatists into the repertoire of the Comédie française. Until his death in 1997 Wannous had been known in his native Syria and across the Arab world for “using his work as a way of resisting oppression”, she said, his plays being in their way “as subversive as those of Molière”.
Wannous was born near Tartous in Syria in 1941, later going on to study journalism in Cairo before working for newspapers in Syria and Lebanon. He studied theatre in Paris in the 1960s, beginning his career as a playwright with a series of one-act plays before launching on a series of full-length pieces on social and political themes as part of a “theatre of politicisation” that was intended to help develop and renovate Arab theatre.
He helped to found the Arab Theatre Festival in Damascus in the 1960s and was later the editor of a dedicated theatre periodical, Hayat Al-Masrah (Theatre Life), as well as a teacher at the Higher Institute for Theatre Arts in Damascus. His plays have been performed in many Arab countries, including at the Experimental Theatre Festival in Cairo.
Ritual of Signs and Transformations was published in Arabic in 1994 and translated into French two years later. According to the notes put together on the Paris production by its director Al-Bassam, the play, like Wannous’s other works, tries to link traditional popular literary forms such as orally transmitted stories and epic tales with contemporary political realities in order to develop “new forms of writing that can rid the theatre of its elitism and bring it closer to wider audiences.”
Wannous was influenced by the plays of Brecht and Beckett during his studies in Paris, Al-Bassam writes, and he was friendly with Genet whose influence on the theatre was then at its height. Like these writers, Wannous wanted to find ways of taking theatre to new audiences, in his case by linking traditional or popular subject matter with resolutely modern and experimental forms, a gambit made familiar from the work of Brecht or Beckett.
“Working with actors and directors in Damascus and Beirut, Wannous developed a conception of theatre that was not only linked to history” and traditional subject matter and narrative forms, “but that also exposed the ideology that characterised contemporary Arab societies, describing the broken promises of the nationalist movements and the transformation of these societies into outdoor prisons under military rule,” Al-Bassam writes.
His aim in The Rape, Miniatures and Ritual of Signs and Transformations, three plays written in the Indian summer of his career in the 1990s, was to “make a link between tradition and modernity as a way of joining popular literary forms with contemporary movements for political liberation.”  
Ritual of Signs and Transformations is set in late 19th-century Syria, when, in order to re-establish his authority, the mufti of Damascus sets a trap for one of the city’s leading notables, having him arrested in the company of a courtesan by the head of the city’s police and later thrown into prison. He then arranges for the substitution of the courtesan, still in prison, for the notable’s wife, with the intention of double-crossing the head of the police and hiding the evidence of the original conspiracy.
However, as a condition for agreeing to play her part in the plan the notable’s wife insists on getting the mufti’s permission for her divorce, with the intention of then joining the subterranean world of the city’s courtesans. This insistence, together with the chain of events that it entails, leads to the threatened overthrow of the masculine social order and its expression in the spheres of politics and religion.
The play thus seems to call a social order that depends on patriarchal, theological and military authority into question, while at the same time linking individual transformations to desires that cannot be accommodated within the framework of the established social order.
It also points to the corruption of the existing elites, suggesting that this prevents them from fulfilling their proper leadership functions. Competition for power at the top of the society is reflected in fragmentation lower down, with unscrupulous officials mobilising various constituencies in personal quests for power and shamelessly instrumentalising their political or religious authority in so doing.
Reviews of Ritual of Signs and Transformations in the French press have focused on the ways in which Wannous’s play might be understood as commenting on contemporary Syria, the reviewer in the French newspaper Le Monde, for example, writing that the play, a mixture of “an oriental tale and a Brechtian fable”, draws attention to the “weight of tradition, the instrumentalisation of religion and the readiness of the authorities to stop at nothing” in their desire to cling onto power.
“It is understandable that the play should have been banned in the Syria of Bashar Al-Assad,” the paper’s reviewer wrote, and Al-Bassam also comments in his director’s notes on its having received limited exposure in its country of origin. The play is apparently based on an episode from the notebooks of the early 20th-century Syrian nationalist Fakhri Al-Baroudi, and it would have been fascinating to compare this episode to Wannous’s dramatic treatment of the same material, given the new meanings that the author seems to have wanted to find in it.
Whatever one makes of the transformations signalled in the play’s title, these presumably referring to the changes experienced by the notable’s wife as she descends through the social ranks of 19th-century Damascus and the final change of heart of the city’s mufti, what comes across perhaps most strongly in reading the play, as it does in those by Brecht, is the way these individual stories are played out against a background of urban menace.
The masses, as Brecht might have called the alienated and exploited city population, are presented as being perpetually on the brink of rebellion, controlled, if they are controlled, only through adroit manipulation.
“An earthquake has struck the city,” comments one of the characters in the second act of the play, “destroying its peace and exposing its seamy underside for all to see”. Restoring peace may mean ever-harsher repression, the solution adopted by the city’s notables, or it may mean a deeper and wider form of transformation, perhaps signalled, though not unambiguously, at the end of the play.
What was missing from Al-Bassam’s production of Ritual of Signs and Transformations at the Comédie française was a sense of this social menace, perhaps related to what in his notes he calls his directorial strategy of “double distanciation”. Pointing out that the late 19th century was, from the European point of view, possibly the high point of orientalism, with a fantasy version of the Orient being expressed in the works of many European writers and painters at the time, Al-Bassam writes that the challenge for the director of Wannous’s play is to “keep the elements of the [19th-century] popular tale, while at the same time avoiding the trap of [picture-postcard] orientalism.”
This can be done, he suggests, precisely by heightening the orientalist aspects of the play’s characters, presenting them, in traditional form but washed-out colours, as if they had walked out of a late 19th-century picture postcard of Damascus or were figures from a chocolate-box version of Syrian history. However, while such a strategy of conscious alienation can draw attention to the artificial character of the tale, inviting a reading of it in symbolic terms, it can also reduce the characters to cardboard cut-outs, distancing them from the social conflicts and pressures that are so insistently drawn attention to in the text of the play.
This could have been one of the reasons for what might have been felt as a lack of charge in this production of the play. However, another reason may have lain closer to hand in the design of the Salle Richelieu itself, a traditional Italian-style theatre that gives the director little flexibility in terms of dramatic space or the range of effects possible on a stage that is at once rigidly framed and lacking in depth.
It may be that Al-Bassam also did not feel entirely at ease working in French and at the Comédie française, particularly since his career up to now has been spent in the very different context of Anglo-American theatre. The Comédie française is the pinnacle of public-sector theatre in France, but possibly precisely for that reason it can have an institutional feel that must have killed off more than one directors’ inspiration.
However, this was a rare opportunity to see Saadallah Wannous’s work performed on the European stage, and watching the play certainly sends one with new curiosity to Rania Samara’s French translation. It is to be hoped that the Comédie française will now extend its welcome to the works of other Arab playwrights, perhaps starting with the Egyptian canon.

Saadallah Wannous, Rituel pour une métamorphose, directed by Suleiman Al-Bassam, Comédie française, Paris, until 11 July.

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