Saturday, 25 January 2014


2 Days 4 Shows 1 Seminar

over the next two days i see four solo shows and one seminar with 7 speakers. i meet more people. i sit on the beach.

i also learn one extraordinary bit of news. the venue that was built for the opening ceremony - a massive wooden open-air ship on the beach, which could seat about 1000 - cost 600,000 euros to build. that's about 1 million dollars. and - as if that isn't impressive enough to a budget-conscious canadian - it was torn down the next day. yup. TORN DOWN. a gorgeous, one-night-use venue.

things operate differently here.

so. onto the next shows. the drill for going to the theatre is this: we meet in the lobby of our hotel and get on a bus. we are driven about 10 minutes to the nearby town of Dibba, where there are two theatres. we see a show in each one.

before the shows begin, we mill around an adjacent open area, where we can eat some emirati specialties, drink hot milk flavoured with ginger, or sweet tea and chat. sometimes a few people begin to dance or sing. sometimes kids play...

American UNESCO worker, Jeanette Coombs, and yours truly.

Me with Tunisian writer/performer Meher Awachri

Swedish ITI worker Lovisa Bjorkman with Mohammed (the actor-turned-polliceman!)

a common sight here (as seen above) is cameras and reportage on and around the festival. the whole festival seems to be an opportunity for an enormous photo shoot - in lobbies, in parking lots, inside venues. and, in fact, each day a glossy bilingual magazine is published outlining what happened the day before. it's impressive. but it's also distracting. for the first several days, flashes go off all during the performances, until this practice is finally discouraged (which doesn't mean it stops entirely!).

the shows i see over the next two days vary considerably:

1) A Woman in Waiting, from South Africa. 

this is a gorgeous show. it's directed by Yael Farber and stars Thembi Mtshali-Jones. the two of them co -wrote it, based on Thembi's life living in a township, and working in a white neighbourhood in South Africa.

This is the story of a woman who - like her own mother before her - missed her own child's growing up while tending the children of white women. it is heart-wrenching, and the performance is pure and honest and gripping. some of the more academically or dramaturgically-minded of the europeans here take issue with the structure, or the representation of a "usual" or "clich├ęd" african story without adequate context - but, while understandable points, these didn't occur to me while watching, or i'd hazard, to most of the audience. Thembi was captivating, and her story was direct from her heart - a powerful wedding of the political and personal.

2) Just Garbage, from Oman.

at this point, the problem of no simultaneous translation settles in comfortably to stay. this is a show about a prisoner who tries to kill himself several times, and fails. i think it was about the shame of having committed a crime. i don't really know, though. the performance seemed very much on one level - but that's about all i can say. it was written by Qassim Matroud, and performed by Abdulhakim Al Salehi. with all the funding evidently at this festival's disposal, it's curious that no effort has been made to make the shows understandable to the guests from around the world - guests (Eastern, Western and Arab) that they have paid heaps of cash to bring here. a stumble at the very last step.

3) Sighing, from China.

this was a fascinating show. a Beijing Opera performer, Tian Mansha, performs a play with three sections (written by Yu Rongjun and accompanied by live music). the first section is pure, traditional, Beijing (or Peking) opera. the next section is a big jump in time to a cleaning woman (probably during the cultural revolution) dancing a seemingly half remembered version of Peking opera movements, while afraid of being seen. The final section is the performer herself learning the complex movements needed for this show, and mastering them. She ends this trajectory with a face covered in tears.

it's a very slow moving piece - as if the sense of time on stage is utterly different from the demands of stage time that have been drilled into me by my own culture. yet - though slow - every moment is full. it is a terrifically virtuosic piece. and while i could not say i was moved by it, i was somehow captured by it, and perhaps something inside me has shifted as a result of seeing this.

4) Burning, from Sudan.

this piece was wild. there is very little tradition of theatre in Sudan, apparently - and no training whatsoever. again - i could not understand the performer/director (Huda Mamoun Ibrahim) or the text (by Farhan Alkhalil) due to a lack of translation. but this was riveting for some unusual reasons. the performance was intense. whatever she was saying she said passionately - it was a piece that was deeply invested, even if roughly performed. the piece seemed disjointed - full of sudden light changes (they'd never tried this with a lighting design before apparently - and didn't really know how to execute one). and she was obviously untrained - making some strange transitions, and often staying too long on one note.

and yet, it didn't seem to matter, because something else, something deeper was operating here.

i spoke to my new Tunisian friend about it afterwards (Meher Awachri). he said that the text was gorgeous - poetic and poltical - and anything, anything at all unpolished about the performance didn't matter to him, because of how important this theatrical gesture was. it was an enormously provocative and feminist text coming from a place where no theatre happens, let alone something as challenging to male authority as this. all i could tell was that this performer acted purely from her heart, and from a strong inner conviction. i wish i could have understood what she was saying.

The Seminar

the first of the festival's two seminars (i'm speaking in the second) is called "Monodrama: Text and Embodiment". The panel consists of seven people - six of whom are men. It is for the most part excruciatingly boring, and very very long. but there are a few highlights...

an older male Tunisian scholar opens the proceedings by talking about women. and he goes on for a looooooong time. "why does the Arabic woman like the monodrama form?" he asks. and then he answers because it is narcissistic. he also says because it opens up a political space for women. umm. ok. two points that could bear some discussion - perhaps by some women. but no. the monologue continues.

this time, unlike at the shows, there is simultaneous translation. but the speaker is talking so fast that the translator can't keep up. at one point, after being asked to slow down, the speaker says "forgive me"  and continues at light speed. the translator gives up, and says into our headphones "i will never forgive him". all the foreign guests burst out laughing - which must seem very incongruous to the speaker - who, of course, isn't hearing his translator...

the panel goes on - captured by a sea of cameras - but not so much by me. the moderator at one point says that they need to find a way to cure women of their depression, since it's natural that a depressed woman will give this depression to her sons and daughters. 

the one woman on the panel - from Syria - ignores all this and speaks about her russian training, and the difficulty of body language for the arab woman performer who might have too many constraints placed upon her.

a saudi speaker says that when monodrama works, it happens inside the viewer, and chases the viewer afterwards. i like that bit.

most of the others i give up on - the translation is difficult to follow, or absent, and my focus leaves me. my favourite points come from a russian speaker - Juri Alschitz - a respected teacher who now lives in germany. he makes the point that solo work necessitates a different mode of acting. the actor must not only have structure and presence - but must also be transparent. the audience must see through the actor to what is behind or above them, see through to meaning, and a "vertical resonance". the solo actor is not there to "give" to the audience, but to "get" from the audience - to be charged by them. that's how monodrama is different.

fair enough. but after this panel, i wish even more now that i could have understood the Sudanese show...

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