Arab theatre and contemporary revolutions

22 March 2011

Could Arab theatre be a form of contemporary revolution? Could Arab theatre lead the people of the region to ask for greater freedom? I definitely think so. On 21st February 2011, whilst in Kuwait, I was invited to a theatre premiére at Dar al-Athar al-Islamiya, an innovative organisation promoting arts, culture and education and led by Her Highness Shaykha Hussah al-Salem al-Sabah.On stage, actors performed Sulayman al-Bassam's Speaker's Progress, an Arab variation on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.


Al-Bassam is a Kuwaiti playwright and director who has always challenged existing orthodoxies in his plays and now, after onset of revolution in the Arab world, is pushing the boundaries even further.

In his new play set in 2015 in a country in the Arab world where all art forms have been banned by religious dictate, the retired theatre director, Sulayman al-Bassam, sits in a closed theatre to share with a secret audience the story of a recently discovered recording of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" performed by a local troupe of actors at a public theatre in 1964.
Fascinated by his discovery, the retired director sets about reconstructing the "lost" performance and, in so doing, embarks on a journey through the exciting and contradictory worlds of contemporary Arab identity. The whimsical and visionary land of Illyria from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is reconstructed in the Arab world of the early 1960s. Drawing on film aesthetics, revolutionary ideals, music and love poetry that characterised this "Golden" era of contemporary Arab culture, al-Bassam creates a powerful dramatic metaphor out of the act of performance itself, exploring the themes of nostalgia, liberty, lost innocence and shattered dreams.
Torn between the past and the future, with one society ruled by religious dictats and the other driven by aspiration and beauty, the play explores cultural heritage, identity and the meaning of history. Al-Bassam shows that in the past actors could make fun of religion without being accused of apostasy or being an enemy of Islam and that in the past Arabs smiled and enjoyed life.
The play strongly attacks both radical Islam, with its shaykhs and imams, and Arab dictators, as well as dealing with controversial topics such as virginity and child marriage with courage and irony.
In a country like Kuwait, where Salafis and radical Islamists represent a majority in the Parliament, it is particularly surprising that actors and actresses kiss each other during the play and that religion is attacked in the name of freedom of expression granted by Article 36 of  the Kuwaiti constitution, as noted by al-Bassam at the beginning of the play.
Al-Bassam firmly believes in the revolutionary power of the fourth art as a powerful means of re-establishing the golden age of Arab culture where a poet could be both homosexual and  supported by the Islamic caliph. Last January the Kuwaiti director published an article in the national newspaper Al-Qabas drawing a link between the Jasmin revolution in Tunisia and independent Tunisian theatre. "The Tunisian authorities" al-Bassam wrote "did not succeed in the eighties and nineties in their efforts to put experimental theatre under siege or in their attempts to stop the popularity of the theatre, so that intellectuals and playwrights could continue fighting for their liberty and freedom, affirming the dignity of art and the need for freedom." Theatre is a free art and celebrates the spirit of democracy and pluralism. This is the reason why "the rebel constitutes a role-model in the history of contemporary Arab theater, representing a driving force, the same spirit that drove Muhammad Bouazizi to ignite himself during the recent uprising." As a matter of fact, theatre, like movies, reaches all kinds of people since it uses the language spoken in the streets, while standard literary Arabic is understood only by the more educated.
Sulayman al-Bassam is entirely correct and he is fully aware of the fact that, thanks to the Jasmin revolution, playwrights like him can and must increasingly push out the boundaries. Regimes in the Arab world are now being forced to smile and laugh at their provocations, they have to realise that if the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, they cannot change their minds at a later point.  Now is time for everybody to challenge existing orthodoxies in the Arab and Islamic world and even the very intellectuals who were the main victims of Islamic and State censorship must now follow al-Bassam's example.