A Prologue to the Past and Present State of Things
Sulayman Al Bassam in conversation with Ala Younis
Between Progress and the Lamentation for Destruction
The State of Performance Art in the Arab World: Sulayman Al Bassam in conversation with Ala Younis
Sulayman Al-Bassam is a writer and director. His vivid performances are dramatic objects that allow for echoes made across vast stretches of time. Heavily based on research, his mapped narratives utilize found and imagined material, borrow geographies and combine cities, and claim other stories to relate to what’s happening now. His newest work, The Lamentation for the Destruction of Ur (2015), is an experiment that bases a script on a historical tablet that laments the destruction of the world’s oldest city, by questioning the unlisted causes of such destruction through fragments of scenarios borrowed from ancient and contemporary times. In The Speaker’s Progress (2011) he created a work in the past, to bring it later under the hands of a team of renowned researchers of great achievements and high morals to work tirelessly in a laboratory attempting to understand and dissecting that play which was performed in the sixties, at the height of the country's golden age. In this play, that came as the third phase of Arab Shakespeare Trilogy, a Ruler makes a furtive appearance as the embodiment of the 1960s: a unifying symbol that hypnotized the crowds. In this interview, Ala Younis talks to Al Bassam about his productions, and how he views these within the frame of performance.
Ala Younis: What I find interesting about your body of work is that it borrows geographies, combining other cities and claiming other stories. I would like to focus on your newest work, The Lamentation for the Destruction of Ur (2015) and also on The Speaker's Progress (2011), which are both very curious in terms of how they use research, finding artefacts and facts and relating them to what's happening now. It's like a commentary but also, in some ways, a reaction to current events. Ur is related to the destruction of a city – it is a lamentation of this destruction to be more precise. You decided to have this work or story take place in Failaka, an island of the coast of Kuwait, which has its own prehistoric history from the times that relate to Ur but also the very recent history such as the war in 1990. In your discussions of Ur you also so you draw parallels with ISIS and the fall of Mosul. It seems to me like a very deeply researched project, as if you've been working on this for many years, but then the destruction of Mosul happened not even a year since ago. So perhaps you can tell me how these different events came together; what came first and why?
Sulayman Al Bassam: The lamentation tablet itself that was brought to my attention by my partner and the dramaturge of the project, Georgina Van Welie, about five or six years ago. The tablet is, firstly, a beautiful piece of writing and, secondly, a very moving artefact in that it is a lamentation around Ur as the world's first city. So The Lamentation for the Destruction of Ur focuses around the destruction of the first city construction – the city and all that that contains from the idea of social space, legal space and space for beliefs. It is an icon of something that I feel is very much under threat – cities in the Arab world today are threatened spaces. The movement of militarization in the middle of the twentieth century was actually also a movement to undo the modernist concept of the city through the importing of rural communities into the city and the empowering of a new rural elite, which was the case in parts of Syria and Iraq. Beyond that, the city today is the locus of desertification of public space, private space and human space. It's all taking place through the emptying of the sense of meaning of the 'contemporary Arab' in the same way that the Arab national project was emptied of its meaning – they seem to be symbols of so many things that are not going right or the way we want them. So all of it is hugely contemporary in metaphoric potential.
For a long time, I didn't really know how to approach the text or what to do with it. I thought it was clearly a liturgical text, perhaps something that was linked to ceremony in temples. It's a text with a massive emotional charge in which there is an individual female voice, the voice of the goddess, and a choric voice or the voice of the group – these speakers who are unidentified but act like a chorus. So it wasn't until very recently, many years after I had initially started working or thought about using this text in some way, that I was able to clearly identify this chorus and protagonist structure. I was re-reading Greek tragedy at the same time and the links started to make sense in my head. The geographic element of Failaka was really quite coincidental because I had retreated there to this very strange, mysterious island off the coast of Kuwait. Beyond having been a cradle of civilization throughout history, it lies between Shatt al-Arab, the Persian shores to the east, and the Kuwaiti shores to the west. It's a stopping point on the road to what they think was the civilization of Dilmun, which included Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the eastern coastal regions of Saudi Arabia. So Failaka has a very charged civilizational history but it is also a very odd place today because since the Iraqi invasion in 1990 Failaka has been depopulated. It's a place with a lot of buildings that look like they should be inhabited – a fire station and a bank and all of these facilities – but it's actually completely empty and has been for 30 years. The whole atmosphere of the place is very out of sync with time and it hasn't been developed – it hasn't undergone the Dubai transformation, the post-modern glitz. It is as it was, as if time stopped in 1990, which in itself is also a very powerful metaphor for Kuwait on a more local level. I had gone on this retreat in Failaka so as not be disturbed by the noise of the city and then these ideas began to come together. It was a magical moment. This is why I was then very keen to start thinking about it as a part of a new cycle of work, which is The Icarus Cycle, Icarus being the Helenistic name for Failaka.
Extracts from a public showing of development work on UR, a new play by Sulayman Al-Bassam.
We did part of the research and development phase in Failaka with the artists, musicians and actor. As I said, I had established that there was a chorus element and a protagonist's voice but there was no causality and no narrative. So I thought up a story that became the protagonist's narrative and she became the central character in this tragic narrative. She, as a character, interested me. The name of the goddess in the tablet is Ningal and, to me, she seems to be an interesting character not only because she's a woman but also because she's a woman who's in confrontation with her society, her fellow gods. They punish her by destroying her city, not once but twice – first by a natural cataclysm that scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists are confused by the nature of. It could have been anything from a tsunami to a series of earthquakes and the thinking is that it was the same natural cataclysm that brought down the Sumerian civilization and ended it almost overnight. After the natural cataclysm came the invasion of the Elamite army; a foreign army that came to invade the city and destroy everything that was left. And so in the middle of all of this is a really magnetic and curious figure and I wanted to give voice to that character and to give voice to her own sense of revolt and aspiration. So the play became a play about this woman.
When and the idea of eliminating the history of pre-Islamic civilizations began to play itself out over the artefacts in Nineveh and Mosul and all of these places it struck me that the piece I was making everything had an even more urgent significance. For me the significance was already very urgent because the idea of the deserted, empty, dead city in the Middle East region already has high frequency - Homs, Baghdad, Benghazi, Sana'a – it's already present.
AY: That's sadly true. I think its interesting that you were informed of this artefact a few years before you managed to develop it. And you have called this 'stage one' – the first stage of experimentation?
SAB: Yes, I want to also trying to find new ways of making work that rely less on a calculated production logic and move more toward a fluid way of developing work that allows for more exploration through different geographies and different versions of work. I have had the opportunity to make this phase one and now there will be a second phase that will be a reading of the play in Paris on the 26 September at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. It is a very modest production step in a way but I am trying to think of how best to use that to feed the second phase of the work. We will see how the work develops. But one of the aims from the very beginning with this piece was to play it in non-conventional spaces, in theatres that have been left by civilizations that have ended – Greek theatres, Roman theatres, theatres across the Middle East – but most of them are inaccessible. There are also spaces such as the Arènes de Lutèce in Paris – all of these places that carry vestiges of civilizations that are no longer.
AY: I think it's somewhat haunting to find the story of the lamentation for Ur and then find that its echo is still valid for many Arab cities today and this idea to play all of this in theatres left by civilizations that have ceased to exist. It's very scary.
SAB: We try to make it less scary. The music is very nice and we have uploaded some of it on the SABAB theatre website. I would like it to be part of the new body of work maybe. As I kept saying these last few months with all of the people that I am involved with here or elsewhere, creating a cycle of work is what I need. I think that this is the case for many people – what artists need is strategic partnerships particularly in this region. It's not necessarily going to work to just have production partnerships so that you do individual pieces on commission and on an individual event-to-event basis. It's difficult to create momentum in a place where there is so little infrastructure and so it's the strategic partnerships that are so much more important. In a way I have chosen this dead island, Failaka, as my strategic partner.
AY: In your first production for The Lamentation for the Destruction of Ur the audience sit on both sides of the stage?
SAB: Yes, that was a nice idea that was proposed by the French scenographer who collaborated with us on the project, Eric Soyer. I wanted it to be outside and I wasn't sure on the position for the audience but to have them on either side of this very plain, 1980s school courtyard space was very nice. It made the diametric aspect of playing and them looking at each other. It was beautiful, in fact.
AY: When people sit on both sides of the platform, everything about the actors is seen. This must not only be difficult for actors and their self-consciousness but there is also the element of the spectator watching the spectator as well. You have mentioned your scenographer and your partner Georgina Van Welie and, in fact, there are a lot of partners in your project. There's also as Alia Farid who created the costumes.
SAB: Everyone involved, including Alia and the musicians, really entered into the spirit of the research and development of the project. Of course, it was only the momentum of our enthusiasm that led to what was in the end a quite epic event – a fully fledged performance when really all we'd set out to do was to make a research and development period. Theatre has that ability to push for the show – it wants to show. So, of course, any opportunity you give to a theatre maker to perform they're going to make some kind of performance. There are many different elements in the whole thing – the Sumerian aspect, the contemporary aspect, science fiction elements, the abandoned US humanoid targets. I don't think all of them work, necessarily, and they need filtering, rethinking and moving around. That process is a very difficult process to defend, to find patience for and to find support for. There's always an escalation – not just with the theatre maker's point of view, as I just described, but the production point of view – there's always that escalation of wanting the result. If you want the result go and look at Mosul. Go and see downtown Cairo. That's the result.
AY: Can we speak a little bit about The Speaker's Progress? This was the first piece of work of yours that I came across and I found it fascinating that it's about bringing back to memory again a work from the past, yet for it to be fictive anyways, and trying to give it a presence today. But at the same time it's a about rulers and people changing positions of favour. There are so many elements.
SAB: Yes, there's a Borgesian aspect to The Speaker's Progress in that it takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. It presents itself as a reconstruction of a play from 1963, performed in Kuwait. The play itself is a total artifice that we made up. And so we set about making a fake play that we filmed as a fake; used archive footage of as a fake; that we created audience response for; and even recorded the actors' 'memories' of it later in life. The fake event was symbolic or iconic of the kind of style of theatre – the type of social satire and the type of freedom of expression – that characterized Kuwait and other Arab countries at that time. And so it was like an artefact of the 'Golden Era' of Kuwait in the 60s and 70s. From that departure point, the play explores the boundaries of expression and freedom in what has effectively become a theocratic police state and it uses those two extremities to render its tale. It is a story whose pattern is familiar to many people in the region. It's not a new story – that particular narrative of the 'Golden Age' in the middle of the twentieth century, its loss and then the subsequent search for the centre of ideological direction and its final re-centring around religious discourse is a familiar tale of woe.
The other thing that was formally invented in that piece, at least for me, was the way in which it was so clearly deconstructed but at the same time intent on articulating its dramaturgy and its entertainment in a very accelerated way. I have a great fondness for that piece. It was the last piece in a trilogy that was inspired by Shakespeare texts, which dealt with questions that concerned me around freedom, individuality, gender, religion, politics and those issues that I find important in the region but that also provide an interface between the Arab world and the west. That was a long-time and overriding concern that runs throughout that trilogy. I thought I was done with Shakespeare, but as it happens I am going to be based in London next year on a residency programme at the Queen Mary College in the East End. They have invited me to consider a fourth Shakespeare play that engages with elements of the population in the East End and Bethnal Green, which is the capital of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. So I guess I am going to revisit some of that in a different way next year.
AY: I am looking forward to that. These plays demonstrate how you mix geographies, backgrounds, cultural performances and languages in your work – by bringing Shakespeare to the Arab world and setting Ur in Kuwait. You also select your cast from different Arab cities.
SAB: It's because for me, the Arab world represents an abundance of riches in a very simple, naïve, almost orientalist way, which I don't find available to me in any parochial, nationalist, ethnically segregated or sectarian prisms that are increasingly powerful and dominant forms of practice, behaviour, control and education. In my artistic practice, I intentionally choose to position myself outside of that very destructive, closed and programmatic death that is prescribed by these ideologies of nationalism or ideological intolerance. So, of course, it makes sense for me that a fictive artefact created from the palette of a progressive, forward-looking, small, quirky Arab state in the 60s be played out by committed actors from Damscus, Beirut, Baghdad, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia – wherever, I don't mind. Their nationality is secondary, I am not the border police. I am not the Schengen trying to keep people out of my territory. That's not my job.
AY: I am not just interested in nationality but in these scores of performances each country and each region has its own way of performance – their own writers, history and references – and you bring all of these references together.
SAB: Acting traditions in the Arab world are mixed even within the same territory. In the 80s in Baghdad, for example, directors who had been sent to study in Bulgaria, East Germany, St Petersburg or Moscow all came back with certain notions of what it was to act, write, or read a text. It was very different from the influence of the Egyptian school that also has its proponents and defenders. There's no unifying performance style in any one city – in Damascus you could see a piece of what would be called commercial theatre, which would be performed in a very different way than in the workshops of Samer Omran, for example. The difference in performance styles is rich and important. I've worked with companies and actors from these different places where one of them was a graduate from the conservatoire in Moscow, one was working with Commedia dell'Arte in Milan. The first one was Iraqi and the second Lebanese and from different generations. The list could go on. At different times in the company there have been Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Christians and atheists. I think that that's something beautiful.
AY: Do you like that there are so many references that are drawn from each city? Do you think we already have particular styles of performing or are we missing that?
SAB: I think generally the level of acting art as a performance art, as opposed to live performance or dancers or video artists and so on, across large swathes of the Arab world is lamentable. It's bad.
AY: In your opinion has it always been bad?
SAB: I think it's got much worse since the power of television, driven by Ramadan-style episodes of tele-dramas, which have been one of the most lucrative and essential forms of performing for many actors. That type of performance style has become a standard of reference and I think that that has done untold damage to the ability of actors and performers to explore their skills. That's one element, but the other is, of course, linked to the way in which acting is taught and the kind of references that are used in the teaching of drama.
AY: That is to speak about the most popular acts of performance, not other areas?
SAB: No, that's just to say that, generally speaking, that in the graduates that I've seen and the actors I've been exposed to in the last few years there's increasingly that tele-drama tendency in Arab schools of acting. Of course, there are individuals who work differently and there are performance styles that are quite distinct – for example, the Tunisian style is very distinct and it is more physically oriented with more focus on what they call expression gestuelle. That's without going into some of the more ethnographic forms such as Rawi and Shadow Theatre and so on. However, there are a handful of individuals who do work differently, for example, Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh, Roger Assaf, Oussama Ghanam, Jawad al-Assadi.
AY: Many artists avoid speaking or producing works that relate to current events and who prefer to wait rather than comment straight away but you have done this and continue to do so. Are you interested in being an immediate commentator and do you ever change your mind on your comments afterwards?
SAB: The process of making the work is a lot less controlled and a lot less opportunistic than that. It would be difficult for me to make work to order like that, as was often the case for artists with the Arab Spring. With The Speaker's Progress it just so happened that we were making a piece at the time that in its themes, content and scope was about revolution and failed revolution. So, of course, if you are making a piece like that and the Arab world erupts you have two options: either you ignore it and say, 'I have a plan for the piece and that is the most sincere form of my expression at this time' or else you can't ignore it and it becomes an element in your thinking. More often than not for me, that's been the case because we are dealing with themes that are not domestic but are already oriented to having an inflection somehow with current themes. They are around issues of power, struggle and overpower so inevitably those kinds of events feed into the practice and the shape of the piece. But then the piece will always carry its own distinctive subjectivity. The pieces are not dramatic versions of twitter feeds from the location of the event. I think such feeds are brilliant but these are not pieces that take them and then present them in a documentary style; verbatim production of news from the front; anonymous voices at the location of an event; or witnesses of an element of a crime. That's not the point. Such pieces continue to be very scripted and they are not porous. My works are written in the reflection of artefacts and a poetic imperative that is open to those events but not the vehicle for a relaying of those events. I feel the function of the piece needs to be more than a testimony of blank fact. The process of the making and presenting of a drama is the call to go beyond blank facts. So the pieces are made in order to provoke subjectivity. They are issued out of subjectivity; they don't aim to enlighten.
AY: I think that's very important for people when they are in the middle of a mega event. These are the moments that people are puzzled or lost or looking for guidance, but not necessarily the kind that will take over or control them. An inspiration.
Sulayman Al Bassam (b. Kuwait, 1972) founded Zaoum Theatre in London in 1996 and the Arabic arm, SABAB Theatre, was established in 2002. His plays have been published in various languages and study of his work forms part of higher education curriculae at universities in the USA and the Middle East. He produces work in both English and Arabic languages and lives between Paris and Kuwait.