Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Speaker’s Progress:Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre: Written and Directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam

The Speaker’s Progress
Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre
Written and Directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam
October 12-16, 2011
Presented by ArtsEmerson
Playing at the Paramount Center Mainstage
Special Post Performance Discussions

For information and tickets:

Review by Amy Tighe

At the end, the stage is chaotic. The sand that has been flowing from the rafters to the stage has stopped, time is gone now, the unused costumes whisked on stage during the liberation are still neatly hung in a dangling makeshift closet while the costumes that were used, are strewn all over the broken lab equipment. The sail boat has crashed in center stage, and I am not sure if the colleague who was a car mechanic, then a Tourist Board Director, then betrayed his co-workers, then was caged and tortured, is still in his cage. Two women are talking in a soft poetic rhythm. It’s up to the audience to decide what just went on, and in fact, after the play ends, there is a strong hesitation throughout the audience before we start to applaud. I think it’s because we don’t know if we have, indeed, witnessed the end.

Strangely enough, this ending is easier to watch than the beginning of The Speaker’s Progress. The beginning is like walking with a third leg which is not level with the other two—you limp, you regain balance, and then in the next step, you lurch left. You take a few good steps, you understand what is going on and then, without warning, you get unbalanced again and lurch to the right. It’s not arabesque --it’s just unsettling.

The Speaker’s Progress, presented by ArtsEmerson and showing at the Paramount Theatre in its New England Premiere, is written, directed and performed by the Kuwait-based Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre. Showing for one week only, it is an uncomfortable experience of witnessing censorship, coercion and creativity through a retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It is definitely worth seeing. Written like nesting dolls that don’t quite fit right, it is a world within a world within a world. Choices in one world stressfully impact all the other dolls, and choices are made frequently throughout the play.

Performed in Arabic with English subtitles, the piece exposes audience members to many facets of Arabic culture. I had the good fortune to sit next to one of the few Arabic speakers in the audience. She told me there were many nuances and exquisite images I missed as a Westerner. I knew I had felt haunted throughout the entire performance and so I simply believe her. Tom Ashbrook, who moderated the discussion afterwards, said this piece breaks stereotypes that many of us in the West may have. Good to know.

The Speaker, our disingenuous guide for the evening, as well as the main character, starts the play from his podium. He explains how Shakespeare’s work was pivotal in building an empire for the British and this can impact Arabic culture as well. Although the play is performed in Arabic, The Speaker speaks flawless English. We rely completely on him to tell us what we see. As a Western audience, we are allowed in to witness Arabic repression and political inertia.

A 1960s performance of Twelfth Night is used to instruct us on current censorship guidelines. Actors playing actors recreate the 1960s version. But inexplicably, mid-scene, an actor, who is playing the car mechanic turned Tourist Board Director, motions subtly to the Speaker, who is still at his podium explaining scenes to us. The two quietly and viciously walk off stage and when The Speaker returns, he recants everything he has just so eloquently said. We witness him participate in his own silencing and we are lost.

In another scene, The Speaker cautions us to cover our eyes—we, of course, still want to believe in him. Bright spot lights are turned on us, O! Innocent Audience, while verses from the Koran are flashed on the screen which we are forced to watch. I think I might be being brainwashed. This is not an easy night of theatre to experience.

In the post performance discussion, Al-Bassam says several times that the ability to express oneself is the first thing to go in a repressed system. He is asked “Who is this written for?” and he laughs. At first, he says, he wrote it as a cry of despair and frustration. But now it is a tribute to the Arab Spring and “the undreamt-of leaps of change that have been made in the Arab world, and that are still to come.” He continues, “For an Arab who is 18 -- to live these last few months alters that 18 year old’s life forever…”

I can’t help it. I think of occupyboston, literally just 6 blocks away. I have been quietly donating to them. The evening at ArtsEmerson has been uncomfortable, but I am getting used to it. Our local and global political and environmental landscape is changing and old forms are falling. I want forms, but which ones? Will the next script have A Speaker who changes in a way I don’t accept? What am I supposed to do?

The placards that the occupiers write are intimate accounts of a system that is deeply unbalanced. “When I am in debt, I am alone. When I occupy, I am with all of us.” “Are you in control of the state we are in?” “I have a job. It’s not working. Now I have an occupation.” “You’ve got money. Use it right.” “I am the 99%.” It makes me clear to myself. I am the 99%. I am here. Just, where the hell is here?

Tonight at the General Assembly the occupiers are discussing what their message is. They have been criticized for not having a clear message, or a list of specific demands. They know they are creating a new language and a new form of community, but they don’t know what it will look like in the end. They know they are willing to occupy their lives to learn and to create. I know I am a witness to democracy gestating. This time it is not a theatre production.

At the post performance discussion, Sulayman Al-Bassam is pointedly asked “What is your message?” He says, “We worked hard to remove a message. This is about getting beyond prepared answers. We actors even used our own names in the play. We are finding a new territory. We are proud that the Kuwaiti government supports this production.”
ArtsEmerson’s motto is “The World on Stage.” Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” Al-Bassam challenges us to see that on and in every stage of our common human pursuit for self expression, there are infinite worlds of possibilities. As a playwright, he asks me to accept this challenge. I do.

My favorite sign at occupyboston is “The beginning is near.” Through a profound performance by Arab artists at the thoughtfully resurrected Paramount and presented by ArtsEmerson, and at the General Assembly by the fragile tent city at Dewey Square, the unscripted expression of human courage and what we all can create is alive in the cement heart of our city. I hope you can enjoy it.

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