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Poetry, puppets and politics
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 10 - 2016

Besides the modern Chinese classic, Thunder Storm, that graced the opening night, the two solo pieces from Moldova and the UAE based on the lives of real historical personages, the riveting Juarez documentary from the USA, the controversial Lebanese essay at verbatim theatre, But I Love You, the two works inspired by war and ethnic-religious violence – the Armenian Mercedes and the Iraqi-Swedish Pillars of Blood (successively reviewed in five previous articles), CIFCET 2016 also featured a variety of other theatrical fare. This included new and challenging treatments of classical texts, works that used the art of puppetry creatively, or drew inspiration from it, and plays of political and social protest.
Since the festival was established (in 1988), there has never been an edition that did not include at least one Shakespearean play. This year, Shakespeare was represented by two of his most famous and popular tragedies. From Italy, the Teatro delle Ombre brought their Clan Macbeth – an intense, distilled version of the Shakespearean original, adapted and directed by Daniele Scattina and performed by Scattina himself, with Marzia Tidiski and Romeo Sirelli. Reducing the dramatis personae to three – Macbeth, his Lady and a mysterious, impish figure in white face and red suit that takes on the role of the witches, Scattina focuses on visualising the inner world of the characters and their states of mind. Eschewing realism in favour of a poetic, expressionistic approach that renders the mental landscape of the play in visual stage metaphors, he dressed the dimly-lit stage totally in black and, save for a red throne at the back and two small boxes, he left it chillingly empty, as if it were the dark pit of hell.
Into this black pit, Macbeth and his Lady are cast to enact their tragedy, bringing out with full force the emotional agony and mental deterioration that mark its progress in graphic physical and vocal terms. Throughout, the two characters are almost continuously and simultaneously on stage, as if the whole world has become for them this pit of hell, with no outside place to go, and are constantly shadowed, manipulated and observed – dispassionately, almost gloatingly – by the figure in the red suit, significantly nominated in the cast list as the Joker. As anyone who has read Macbeth knows, the dominant colours in the play are: red, for blood; white, for ‘the milk of human kindness'; and black, for the forces of evil. The stage image in Clan Macbeth stuck faithfully to these colours in terms of set, lighting and costumes. The latter item deserves special mention. The black evening dress of Lady Macbeth and black blindfold she wears throughout, the modern red suit of the Joker, and Macbeth's curious black and white outfit, half feminine and half masculine, denoting his split nature, together with the white facial make-up of all three, helped to neutralise the spatiotemporal context of the drama, removing all references to any real place or time, resetting the play, as it were, in the darkest regions of the universal human mind. In Scattina's reading of Macbeth, the play emerges as an existential tragedy about the betrayal of the self and one's real nature – a tragedy that can happen anywhere, any time.
The perennially ubiquitous Hamlet was the other Shakespearean tragedy in the festival and appeared on this occasion in two different stage versions. The first was the Egyptian Al-Mutaargeh (The Vacillator) – an adaptation by director Mohamed Abdel-Kader and dramaturge Mustafa Suleiman that resets the play in a circus wherein Hamlet, the son of the murdered circus owner, is forced to play the clown; Claudius, his uncle, usurps his brother's property, wife and role as principal lion-tamer; and Gertrude is unwaveringly interpreted as an active colluder in the uncle's crime. Using the circus as a metaphor for the world of politics, with all its corruption, intrigues and conspiracies, it came across as a spirited, boisterous, colourful spectacle, packed full of antics and gambols.
The other version of Hamlet was the Mexican Venom Hamlet, presented by the ArteFactum-ArteGuerrero troupe, contrived and directed by Alberto Santiago, who also wrote the Spanish script. An ingenious mix of acting, ritual, puppets, acrobatics, digital media, traditional folk music (mainly in the Son Jarocho style, played live on traditional, guitar-like, 8-string instruments called ‘jaranas') and live folk tap dance, the production steeped the drama in Mexican lore and folk art, resetting it in that country during the three-day annual Mexican holiday, beginning 31 October, known in Spanish as Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This temporal frame is fraught with irony, since the holiday (which coincides with the Western Christian triduum of Allhallowtide, or the Hallowmas season, encompassing All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day) is marked by gatherings of family and friends to remember and pray for their loved ones who have died and help support their spiritual journey.
Again, and indeed as in the majority of shows in this festival, the set design left the stage completely bare, with only a huge, white screen at the back for video projections, two microphones downstage, and a small altar at the tip of the forestage area, covered with a colourful cloth, embroidered in the tradition of Mexican folk art and bearing on top a skull, some flowers and glasses and a few candles – a simplified version of the ritual altars (called ofrendas, or offerings), traditionally built on the Day of the Dead in honour of the deceased and decorated with candles, sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. When the actor impersonating Hamlet steps before the microphone on the right to deliver the famous ‘To be' soliloquy in Spanish, the text is flashed in English on the back screen against a background image of a human skeleton. We never see this human Hamlet again, for he soon turns puppeteer and, joined with two colleagues, similarly dressed in black, disappears under a gigantic puppet in flowing robes, with a sad face and long hair, representing the prince of Denmark, to help in moving it around and manipulating its head and hands and different postures. Throughout the play, this giant puppet Hamlet towers above the rest of the cast like a mythical figure, dwarfing everybody, and is only matched in size by a frightful, insect-like figure, with an ox's head, long body, and extensively long four legs, who takes on the role of the ghost of Hamlet's father, acting as the driving force behind his actions. The rest of the characters, reduced to Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia, remain human.
Except for two scenes, in which the performers impersonating Hamlet and Claudius reeled off their soliloquies in broken English, standing before a microphone, the verbal text, reduced in this adaptation to some of the key soliloquies and major confrontations, was delivered in Spanish with emotion and expressive movement, usually to the accompaniment of atmospheric background music and projections of suggestive images. One important scene left out of the verbal text – namely, the wedding feast of Claudius and Gertrude – was rendered in the form of lively folk tap dancing, performed by the bride and groom in traditional dress, accompanied by live folk tunes and songs from the band on stage. Though the audience loved it, it went on a bit too long and was too joyful to suit the general mood of a tragedy.
Puppets made another powerful appearance in the festival as major structural components and meaning-generators in Poland's Moliere – a salacious, risqué take on the somber last days of Moliere in the form of a puppet show for adults that ropes in some features of the commedia dell'arte. Written, directed and designed by the Austrian-Dutch Neville Tranter, and presented by the Teatr Animacji, it used life-sized puppets with grotesquely exaggerated features, worked by manipulators who remain in view throughout and speak the dialogue of the text, in the tradition of the Japanese Bunrako puppet theatre, as noted by Roland Barthes. In the Polish show, however, the manipulators occasionally rebel and try to assert their presence as actors by attempting to usurp the roles played by the puppets.
Throughout, both the puppets and the puppeteers engage our attention in equal measure. Such a visualisation strategy which simultaneously exposes art and the skillful work that goes into the making of it ‘engenders a different, multiperspectival way of looking, in perfect accordance with postmodern terms,' to borrow the words of Dawn Tracy in The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance. Moreover, though it belongs to an ancient theatrical tradition, and despite all the fun and comedy, at a deeper level, Poland's Moliere seems to reject the idea of ‘character' as a representation of a coherent, unified subjectivity, visually projecting a postmodern view of ‘character' as ‘one of division and construction, surface and masks.'
From puppets manipulated by humans, we move in the UAE's Transformations of People and Things to human actors visually masquerading as puppets in order to metaphorically condemn the ruthlessness, materialism and utilitarian values of modern societies. Written by Qasim Mohamed, adapted and directed by Mohamed Al-Ameri, designed by Walid Omran, choreographed by Heba Mustafa, and performed by five skilled actors, mimes and dancers, it presents a community of string marionettes chafing at their bonds and the tyranny of their master and dreaming of freedom but fearing its risks and hazards. When the bravest of them takes the plunge and ventures out into the world of humans, thinking that there he can attain freedom and human dignity, he is exploited and abused then cast off, and ends up dying on a heap of rubbish. Brilliant as the show was in terms of artistry, it had a depressing message bespeaking the death of humanity and warning against any striving for freedom. The rebellious call for freedom which opens the play fizzles out at the end, giving way to a call for submissive acquiescence.
Infinitely more daring in the area of social criticism and political protest were Tunisia's Les Patientes, written and directed by Hamada Al-Wahaybi; Chile's Bunker, by Theater Cuerpolimite, directed by Paula Calderon; and Rwanda's Radio Play, by the Amizero Kompagnie, written by Elizabeth Senja Spakman and directed by Wesley Ruzibiza. The first, based on a real event, takes up the defence of the prostitutes who were attacked and hounded out of their legally sanctioned brothels by Muslim extremists in Tunisia, in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution in December 2010. A video of these attacks is played on a large, wall-to-wall back screen at the beginning by way of a prelude. When the lights come on, we see three of the prostitutes after their flight, stranded in a deserted public square, sharing its single bench, or leaning against its two lampposts. They are waiting for the son of the brothel owner to guide them back to it through a safe route.
As the play progresses and the son of ‘Madame' arrives, followed after a while by his mother, we learn the histories of all five characters – what drove them to the profession, the social injustices they suffered, their present plight and bleak expectations. At the end, the play seems to ask: What right has society to persecute and punish these unfortunate, patiently suffering women when society itself has blighted their lives from birth? Though the play stops short of fundamentally questioning traditional, conservative morality, and even makes concessions to it in the telling of the stories, and although it often teeters on the edge of melodrama, occasionally slipping into it, it has at least bravely aired a taboo subject in the context of a repressive religious society. Chile's Bunker similarly targets conservative patriarchal societies, but this time through the small family unit, and airs subjects considered taboo in the Arab world. A physical theatre piece, it shows how isolation, repression and patriarchal tyranny can crush and dehumanise individuals, turning them into soulless automatons, and distorts family relationships, leading to incest and filicide.
Rwanda's Radio Play, on the other hand, attacks political dictatorships by giving us a gruesomely humorous inside view of a radio station in some third-world police state, revealing the lethal mechanisms of censorship, its systematic falsification of reality and its fatal consequences, both for the individuals caught up in its infernal machine and for the nation as a whole. Perhaps I should also include in this section the Tunisian National Theatre's Lewseif Tower (adapted and directed by Al-Shazli Al-Arafawi and designed by Mounir Ben Youssef). Though essentially a family drama that projects Tennessee Williams's A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in an Arab cultural context that valorises procreation and female fertility, it openly attacks religious fundamentalists, portraying them through the character of the younger brother as cold, greedy and thoroughly hypocritical. In one particularly telling scene, the religious younger brother and his veiled wife are made to perform a prayer as a series of mechanical, rapid movements that reduced the ritual to a farcical routine, drawing laughter and applause from the audience.
With this article, the last in a series of five, I conclude my coverage of CIFCET 2016, hoping to have given the reader some glimpses of the foreign performances it hosted. My only regret is that the coverage is not thoroughly comprehensive and all-inclusive. Much remains to be said about the three shows I missed – the Armenian Mercedes (mentioned in a previous article), the Lebanese adaptation of the ancient Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh by the celebrated Zoukak theatre company, and the Russian You Shall Not Murder, which explores the psychology of murder, using three Russian Classical texts, according to the festival catalogue. And much more is yet to be written about the festival's prestigious guests, its workshops and discussion panels, the many cooperation protocols it launched with other festivals and international theatrical bodies and its divided reception in the media. Its general atmosphere and audiences are yet to be described and its many side-stories to be retold. Hopefully, I shall do better next year.

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