Editorial by Pierre Abi Saab, Al Akhbar, Lebanese Daily, 10th May, 2016.
Recently I witnessed a female director stand in front of the Beirut theatre where her work about the Syrian crisis was about to perform and announce to the assembled audience: “Everything you are about to witness is based on true events.” I wondered at that moment what feeling of insecurity might drive her to make such a statement and eradicate the notion that artistic truth differs from empirical truth; or indeed, that it is precisely the dialectical relationship between these two things that defines the uniqueness of an art work.
In art, it’s not important that you relay empirical truth, rather that you create truth through the way in which you relay it. The work I’m referring to above – without wanting to name it – was, as it happens, riddled with artifice, pretence, and shortcuts; soured with an overbearing desire (driven by ideology? By marketing?) to ride on the wave of the ‘Arab Spring’.
One needed to witness the theatrical jewel that Sulayman Al Bassam presented in Beirut on Saturday as part of the “Spring Festival” in order to be freed from the ponderous burden of that earlier play and finally be able to formulate an opinion about it; as if the distinguished Kuwaiti (Parisian – Londoner!) theatremaker had liberated us through his dark, dense, doubt-ridden and difficult piece.
Al-Bassam presented to us a unique example of how art might successfully approach the open wound of the contemporary Arab world. His production fuses artistic maturity (text, mise en scene and the direction of the brilliant female duo: Hala Omran and Rebecca Hart) with a technical mastery that harmonizes the tragic carnival (lights and scenography by Eric Soyer; sound and music by Brittany Anjou) and, if this were not enough, he adds into the mix a heavy dose of political courage and mental clarity.
Through In the Eruptive Mode, a piece that has been fermenting since 2012, when it began its life as a reading at Sciences Po in Paris and picked up its surtitle ‘Voices from a Hijacked Spring’, Al Bassam confronts us directly with the question of ‘what is truth in art?’
Al Bassam, who drew the attention of Arab and International stages from the late 90’s with his work on Shakespearean Tragedy (The Al Hamlet Summit 2002; Richard III, an Arab Tragedy, 2006) and their adaptations to the contemporary Arab world and, more recently, his exploration of the Syrian wound through his mise en scene of Sa’adallah Wannous “Ritual for a Metamorphosis” that entered into the Repertoire of the Comedie Francaise (Paris 2013), delves once again into the depths of the nightmarish reality of the contemporary Arab world.
Through six scenes, presented as narrative monologues, he lines up the faces of tragedy that besiege today’s Arab and Muslim worlds, with no clichés and no added special effects. Al Bassam does not beseech the sympathy of his audience: rather he shocks them and attacks major aspects of their taboo structures and prejudices. He builds scenic architecture through nervous tension, cries, images and stories; through tears and sweat; through shadows, sonic and gestural explosions that accompany his dense, difficult text; a text built on echoes, drenched in poetry and abstraction: in this way he moves the surgeon’s knife through our communal wounds: Yugoslavia, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf…. He names the murderer with courage, goes against what’s fashionable and subverts the dictatorship of mediatic truth, sidesteps the poisons of political correctness- poisons that so many Arab artists feel obliged to swallow in order to gain acceptance in the West.
In Beirut, the audience at “Sunflower” Theatre saluted his work, but the majority of the house seemed uncertain, confused and dazed. Was this down to the dense, dark and poetic text; or is it that the audience has grown too accustomed to another type of discourse; a superficial, celebratory ‘revolutionary’ discourse, and the types of demagogical truth that I began the article with shy reference to.
In The Eruptive Mode
JAN 24 – 28