Monday 9 July 2012

Pained but resilient

Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History, Riverside Studios, London


The title says it all, really: there’s a little bit of ‘Macbeth’ in here and a whole lot about Tunisian politics. Specifically, this Tunisian-French LIFT production (presented by Artistes Producteurs Associés in collaboration with the RSC – boy do they get around) is about Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the recently exiled and imprisoned president of Tunisia, and his wife Leila Trabelsi. Documentary extracts, speeches from professors and abstract visuals help to establish the bloody history of this regime, initiated by President Bourguiba and only heightened by his predecessor, Ben Ali. It’s highly informative and thoughtful – but god damn is it hard work.

As was the case with dreamthinkspeak’s, The Rest is Silence, it’s assumed the audience will know their Shakespeare. Those who don’t will be completely baffled. Familiar scenes and phrases from Macbeth bubble up in odd places but they’re often hard to spot. You’ll need to read the surtitles pretty carefully and try not to be bothered by them constantly dropping out of synch with the show. It’s a bit like a really elaborate treasure hunt, in which the gems are very hard to find and invariably soaked in blood. 

There are plenty of sign posts along the way, supposedly there to tease out the parallels – but all the signs point in different directions. In attempting to say an awful lot, Lofti Achour’s production risks saying very little indeed. The production opens on a woman with a bag on her head, screaming like a banshee. One assumes, then, that this show will focus on the repression of women in the Arab World, channelling those ideas through Shakespeare’s tragedy. One assumes wrong.

This angle is pretty quickly dropped. The focus shifts again. In an odd twist on the porter scene, we see a henchman chat, glibly, to an imprisoned man, streaked in blood. Perhaps this production will focus on the parallels between Shakespeare’s bloody rulers and Ben Ali’s vicious regime? A walk on role from a professor temporarily confirms this, when he muses: ‘Muslims became convinced the sword was the only way to solve their differences.’

But then the production veers off again, now focusing on the strange power that Bourguiba still holds over his predecessor, Ben Ali. This has promise – after all, the idea of regal ghosts haunting their successors has a rich, Shakespearean twang to it. There’s a wonderfully weird scene, in which a larger than life model of Bourguiba taunts Ben Ali, mocking his achievements. But this idea is sustained only for a few minutes before the show scampers off again, eagerly in pursuit of other ideas.

The most effective scenes are the seemingly slight ones – the simple scenes that, almost incidentally, throb with immediate meaning. There are a number of wrenching songs that say far more about Tunisia and its trapped citizens than the rest of the show put together. The style of singing – the same singing you hear calling people to prayer at mosques – pulses with revealing contradictions. That searing wailing sounds pained but resilient, too.  It’s a little bit ugly but there’s also a raw beauty and power to the music, which screams out on behalf of all those citizens who have neither the strength or means to make themselves heard.

Run over


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