Arab Voices on a Venerable Paris Stage

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PARIS -- When for the first time in its 333-year history, France's premier national theater opened an Arab play, "Ritual for a Metamorphosis," in previews in May, a critique in the newspaper Le Monde heralded the arrival of "an Ottoman drama" at the Comédie-Française.

The headline outraged the widow and daughter of Saadallah Wannous, a leading Syrian playwright who died in 1997, known for his caustic treatment of hypocrisy and religion, sexuality and women, power and revolution -- issues still ricocheting through the Middle East.

"They were furious," recalled Sulayman Al Bassam, the play's director. "They kept asking, 'Don't they know how insulting that is?"'

The headline was eventually corrected by Le Monde, but it was an early warning of a misreading of the play that continues to baffle Mr. Al Bassam, a 41-year-old Kuwaiti-British veteran of the international circuit.

What has bothered him are not the reviews -- which have been mixed -- but the way the play has been perceived and even presented by the Comédie-Française itself. He finds it odd that at a time of upheaval and religious tension in the Arab world generally, and Syria in particular, a major play by a modern author should be treated as a historic relic.

"It's almost as if the fact that this is a Syrian play, the fact that it raises huge important questions around the role of orthodox religion, the fact that it is visionary of a revolution, all these themes were muted," Mr. Al Bassam said during a conversation at a Paris cafe. Instead, he said, he detected "a desire to present it as an exotic oddity, a comedy that was quaint, charming and from elsewhere, which somehow ticked the boxes of cultural tolerance."

Since September 2001, big cultural institutions in the West have gone on something of a Middle Eastern binge. Both the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Louvre in Paris have opened wings dedicated to Islamic art, generously supported by oil-rich Arab states.

In Mr. Al Bassam's view, this common purpose leaves little room for the contemporary Arab voice, or the contemporary Arab artist who has trouble being heard or seen abroad as well as at home. "In a way, the internal politics of the Arab states are allowed to dominate the thinking of the international institutions," he said.

The decision by the Comédie-Française to stage the first Arab play in its history was taken before the Arab Spring of 2011 and before the civil war in Syria. When the offer came to direct "Ritual," Mr. Al Bassam -- whose Sabab Theater, based in London and Kuwait, is best known for its Arab Shakespeare trilogy -- jumped at the chance.

"It was a very brave programming decision," he said. The Comédie-Française is no ordinary theater: Its director is named by the government, and it is linked by tunnel to the French Ministry of Culture. Its main mission is to pass on and preserve French theater, and when it moves beyond that, it does so carefully and slowly. Shakespeare made a debut in the 19th century and Chekhov in the 1950s. It was only in 2007 that a North American playwright, Tennessee Williams, made it onto the main stage in the Salle Richelieu.

Mr. Al Bassam had long wanted to stage a Wannous play. "He is a kind of a mentor figure, the Arab writer who over decades has been engaging at a very high level," he said. "He was someone who was seminal to my idea of what one could write, what is good and what is possible."

"Ritual," one of Wannous's last plays, is indeed set in 19th-century Damascus during Ottoman times, and it tells a tangled tale of power, intrigue and sexual obsession. A local notable and his concubine are arrested in mid-dalliance, but the local religious leader, the mufti, for reasons of his own, persuades the notable's wife to take the concubine's place in prison. The wife sets an unusual condition: She wants to become a concubine herself. This she does, very successfully, unleashing a sexual frenzy that engulfs the city, and ensnares the mufti himself.

The play -- which runs at the Comédie-Française until July 11 -- has had only one extended run in the Arab world, in Beirut in 1996. It closed after one performance in Aleppo, Syria, about seven years ago, when the local mufti interpreted the story as a personal attack. According to Mr. Al Bassam, it is widely studied in theater schools and conservatories, and often performed as a graduation piece. "But it has never really knocked on the door of civic space," he said.

Mr. Al Bassam, who has had his own tussles with Middle Eastern censors, expected a different reaction in France. Denis Podalydès, a star of the Comédie-Française who plays the local notable, told the news media that "Ritual" would be a bombshell.

But instead of a bang, the play landed with a thud in what Mr. Al Bassam calls the "golden aviary" of the Paris theater world. There was little talk of the playwright's intent and its relevance today. One critic accused the director of trying too hard to achieve "a universal vision." Another said the play was too "Orientalist" to be on an "Occidental" stage.

The charge of Orientalism hit a raw nerve with Mr. Al Bassam, who recoils at an age-old view of the Middle East as something exotic, all camels and belly-dancing, with no regard for history, politics or the individual.

"What I found unsettling was the growing sense that as the Syrian crisis developed, this piece came to have elements of the troublesome in it, that it could lead to problems, or scandals," he said. "If you present the piece as you would present Molière, then you are disserving its original purpose."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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