Monday, August 20, 2007

gulf delegates attend british council's 'edinburgh showcase'

picture above: Sulayman Al-Bassam

Bring together a leading British playwright and an adventurous Kuwaiti theatre writer and director, leave them for 24 hours to devise a play, and what do you get? The result will become clear at 9.30am on Thursday August 23 when the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, stages the half-hour “Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast”, in cooperation with the award-winning theatre company Paines Plough. The two playwrights involved are Mark Ravenhill and Sulayman Al-Bassam, whose collaboration is being described by the British Council as “a unique clash of iconoclasts”. The subject of their play is expected to be the war on terror.

Al-Bassam has attracted much praise and attention in Britain for his theatre work. He obtained a Masters degree from Edinburgh University in 1994, and went on to found the Zaoum Theatre in London in 1996. The theatre’s Arab arm, Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, was set up in Kuwait in 2002. Al-Bassam produces work in both English and Arabic. His production, as writer and director, of “Richard III an Arab tragedy”, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was performed in February at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon as part of The Complete Works Festival. It received rapturous reviews. Al-Bassam has said: “I look forward immensely to working with Mark Ravenhill and the creative challenge of producing a new work in this format, especially for Edinburgh audiences.”

The Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast is part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase. The Showcase takes place every two years during the Edinburgh Festival, the world’s largest festival of the performing arts.

The “Arab-UK Theatre Breakfast” will be followed by refreshments and the opportunity to speak to Sulayman Al-Bassam about his collaboration with Ravenhill, and to talk to the other delegates from the Middle East about their reactions to UK performances in the Edinburgh festival so far. There will then be a one-hour panel debate on Arab theatre, involving members of the Middle Eastern delegation comprising more than 25 theatre specialists from the region.

This is the largest delegation the British Council has ever brought from the Middle East to the Edinburgh Showcase, and is part of the Council’s efforts to widen the scope for creative dialogue between people in the region and in the UK. The Middle Eastern delegates will see a diverse mix of contemporary UK performance.

Al-Bassam says: “The Edinburgh Showcase comes at a critical time in Arab-West relations. As a theatre practitioner, this is a fantastic opportunity to exchange new ideas and engage with contemporary UK theatre, start new dialogues and explore new ways for collaborations in the future.”

The British Council’s director of drama and dance Sally Cowling notes that the Edinburgh Showcase has provided an important marketplace for British theatre makers looking to build an international profile for their work, and is an exciting gathering point for theatre presenters from all over the world. She says: “We are delighted to welcome our largest-ever delegation from the Middle East this year and for many delegates, particularly from the Gulf region, it will be the first real engagement with contemporary UK theatre.”

The delegation includes five theatre practitioners from Saudi Arabia. Hail Ageel is a member of the Saudi Arabian Association of Arts and Culture in Jeddah and of Jeddah Theatre Club. He has worked as an actor, writer, director, lighting manager, and music and sound effects manager. He says: “Attending the Edinburgh Showcase is like a dream come true. I hope I can learn and see something new that will increase my knowledge and that I can try to pass on what I saw and learned to my friends when I came back.”

Tahani Al-Ghureiby, Assistant Professor of English Literature at the Riyadh University for Girls, did a PhD on Western concepts in Arabic drama. She initiated and directed the first play ever performed by female actresses at the Riyadh University for Girls. She is a lecturer on Western and English Drama, “in a country where drama needs to be introduced to the public as a means of expression and as a reflection of many crucial cultural and epistemological issues. I write articles in local papers and periodicals to enhance public awareness of the genre.” Al-Ghureiby says that her attendance at the Edinburgh Showcase will help her see how theatre is being used to express human experience and “will give me a new kind of understanding which I hope to bring back to Saudi Arabia.”

Ahmed Al-Huthail is General Manager of the Fourth Saudi Arabian Theatre Festival to be held in Riyadh in November. He studied Theatre at the University of Florida, having performed in radio, TV and theatre since 1965. He was formerly manager of the International Relations and News Exchange Department at Saudi TV.

Writer, actor, director and producer Abdullah Al-Jafal hopes to “meet the best UK theatre artists to discuss training opportunities.” Al-Jafal is a participant member of the Theatre Festival for Short Shows in Damman. He is leader of Afnan theatre group, and a member of the Theatre Department at the Art and Culture Institute, Dammam. He has participated in numerous plays with support from the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Art.

The director of the Saudi Theatre Festival Abha, Ibrahim Assiry, is a founding member of Theatre Workshop at Taif, establisihed in 1992, and a member of the Arab Committee of Arts and Culture in Taif. He has worked as production manager on 20 plays in Saudi Arabia, as well as in Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, Jordan and Tunisia. “I hope to see British culture and to watch performances by the world,” he says of his invitation to Edinburgh.

The other Middle Eastern delegates are coming from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Yemen. The strong emphasis on the Gulf reflects the fact that the British Council is launching its first comprehensive theatre program there, working with local partners to develop a program of tours, capacity building and collaborations. This builds on successful similar projects in other parts of the Middle East.

The British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase has programmed some 30 productions. The Traverse Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of the play “Damascus” by one of Scotland’s best-known writers, David Greig. It was inspired by Greig’s experiences in Syria as part of the British Council’s new writing project in collaboration with London’s Royal Court Theatre. The play tells of Paul, a Scottish businessman, who is in Damascus trying to sell his new English-language educational software. He has a brief encounter in his hotel that leaves him grappling with language and love, meanings and misunderstandings. “Laughter, romance and tragedy meet as he faces the complexities of truth, faith and love.”

image from Gecko's "The Arab and the Jew"
photo credit: Sheila Burnett

Another Middle East-related production comes from the theatre company Gecko, founded in 2002 by Amit Lahav and Al Nedjari. Gecko’s production is the world premiere of “The Arab and the Jew”, a two-man show in which the two actors explore their relationship as performers and friends. The preview states: “With almost no text, they tell a story of brotherhood, loyalty and conflict, as seen through the mist of their own Arab and Jewish backgrounds.”

Among the other productions, Hoipolloi Theatre’s production “Floating” examines issues of belonging and national identity. Hugh Hughes, an inhabitant of the Welsh island of Anglesey explores these issues with na├»ve wit when Anglesey is cast adrift from the mainland during an earthquake.

“Alice Bell”, performed by Lone Twin Theatre, is “a story of a fictional character born into a fictional conflict, told with the aid of songs, dance and ukuleles. Alice seeks happiness in a divided land, but finds love and companionship at a terrible cost.” Like these productions, many of the other productions ask questions about individual and national identity in an era of increased globalization – questions that are of much relevance to the Middle East.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette August 20 2007

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