Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Early reviews of the Tunisian Macbeth

The surtitles caused problems, but the show seems to have been effective at least in stimulating people's emotions, if not in teaching them anything very new about Tunisia or Shakespeare. The big achievement - scenographically as well as politically - seems to have been the commentary on the "puppet" nature of Ben Ali's regime: a puppet to Bourghiba, to his wife, to the authoritarian structure of events demanding a dictator to come and fill the space.

Ibrahim Darwish's long column (in Arabic) focuses on the dis/similarities between Shakespeare's Macbeth (motivated by ambition and some idea of masculinity) and the Tunisian Ben Ali; he also highlights the production's critique of the original sins of the Bourghiba regime, conveyed through inter-scene documentary footage (including discussion of Ibn Khaldun), the voice of the narrator, and the puppet show.

A kind but ambivalent blog review by Miriam Gillinson (also here) faults the show for trying to overload on ideas, but somehow settles on the cliche of praising the "simple" and "raw" (not to mention "pulsing" and "throbbing") qualities of African-produced theatre. I think the song she refers to at the end is Abu Qasim al-Shabbi's poem, "If a people one day wanted life" (multiple translations and discussion here), which has played such an important part in the Arab uprisings:
But then the production veers off again, now focusing on the strange power that Bourguiba still holds over his predecessor, Ben Ali. This has promise – after all, the idea of regal ghosts haunting their successors has a rich, Shakespearean twang to it. There’s a wonderfully weird scene, in which a larger than life model of Bourguiba taunts Ben Ali, mocking his achievements. But this idea is sustained only for a few minutes before the show scampers off again, eagerly in pursuit of other ideas.
The most effective scenes are the seemingly slight ones – the simple scenes that, almost incidentally, throb with immediate meaning. There are a number of wrenching songs that say far more about Tunisia and its trapped citizens than the rest of the show put together. The style of singing – the same singing you hear calling people to prayer at mosques – pulses with revealing contradictions. That searing wailing sounds pained but resilient, too.  It’s a little bit ugly but there’s also a raw beauty and power to the music, which screams out on behalf of all those citizens who have neither the strength or means to make themselves heard.
Another reviewer's experience provokes a diatribe against subtitles:
Throughout, the giant screen at the back keeps up a running subtitle commentary in rather disjointed English. It is more confusing than enlightening and muddles the effect of all of the hard work by the actors. The screen is so big that reading full sentences really gives your eyes a work-out and there are parts where they flash by so fast it is a struggle to keep up. Why choose to base a production on such a well-known Shakespeare, if you then feel you have to provide a word-for-word translation to keep people up to speed?
For more on the show, including pictures of the interesting puppet sequence, see director Lotfi Achour's Facebook page, particularly this album.  And there's still time to catch it in Newcastle (and respond to my discussion questions)

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