We meet the creative minds behind some daring new work
The refugee crisis has produced tales of knife-edge escape, but how many journeys have been made more terrifying by the smuggling of a puppet? That's what Rafat Alzakout had to contend with when he fled Syria for Beirut in 2011. The director's voyage was made extra perilous by his unusual contraband: a satirical figure of President Bashar al-Assad. One of the props for a series of 40 short films he'd made in Damascus, it did for the Assad regime what Spitting Image had done for Thatcher (look up 'Massasit Matti' on YouTube to see them).
Featuring a flat-faced finger puppet with a shark-fin nose and no mouth to speak of, it brought a knockabout Punch-and-Judy humour to an otherwise unbearable political situation. The films had the impudence to call Assad by his nickname, Beeshu ('top bully'), and portrayed him as feeble and friendless.
If the security services had discovered Alzakout with that in his luggage, he'd have been in serious trouble. 'It was so dangerous,' he says, now safely resident in Germany. 'Some of our artist friends were tortured to death. I was afraid to escape with the puppets. I left, firstly, to be safe and, secondly, to tell people the story from my side, as a Syrian citizen.'
We're talking in Mülheim, near Düsseldorf, where Theater an der Ruhr is in the middle of a festival featuring performance from all sides of the Mediterranean. Alzakout is here with his Berlin-based expat company, Collective Ma'louba, to stage an open rehearsal of Your Love Is Fire by playwright Mudar Alhaggi. The piece tackles the way war gets under everyone's skin and fractures domestic relationships, even for those who have not taken sides in the conflict. At this year's Fringe, the full production is part of a ten-show Arab Arts Focus, taking place at Summerhall, New Town Theatre and Dance Base.
'All of the shows give an insight into a part of the Arab world we need to be aware of,' says Cairo-based programmer Ahmed El Attar who whittled down the season from 120 applications. 'I told the selection committee that we weren't going to work geographically or by theme; we're just going to choose the best work we've seen.'
The lineup criss-crosses the region, platforming everything from Egyptian dance to a multinational cabaret, and embracing Arab artists living all over the world. In The Elephant, Your Majesty!, teenage refugees from Syria and Lebanon draw on the Arab storytelling tradition for an allegory about justice. In Jogging, Hanan Al-Haj, a Lebanese woman in her 50s, relates her experiences as a runner pounding the streets of Beirut. And in The Second Copy: 2045, Moroccan visual artist and choreographer Youness Atbane steps into the future to consider contemporary art.
Your Love Is Fire 'The roots of Middle Eastern theatre come from ritual dance and traditional storytelling,' says Rolf Hemke, a specialist in Arab theatre, who, as well as programming the Mediterranean festival in Mülheim, was on the selection panel for the Edinburgh showcase. 'Theatre in the Gulf is very different to the theatre in North Africa, which shows substantial differences to theatre in Syria or Palestine. If you know where to look, you find stunning artists and wonderful creativity.'
For audiences in Scotland, there are two focuses of interest. First, relatively little Arabic theatre has been seen in the West, so the season is an artistic primer. Second, there has been so much unrest in the seven years since the Arab Spring that the programme can't help but provide a political insight. 'All the shows have politics in them but they are also artistically solid,' says El Attar.
For many artists, responding to the trauma of war is a necessity not a matter of choice. Would Alzakout, for example, prefer to be the kind of artist who painted pretty landscapes, free of political concerns? 'I don't have that luxury,' he says. 'We have to talk about the situation.'
'For Syrian and Lebanese artists, the Syrian crisis is the biggest issue and the biggest theme they are treating,' adds Hemke. 'Every show you see from the Levant is dealing with this.' They are not, however, always dealing with it in obvious ways. In the case of Your Love Is Fire, refugee playwright Mudar Alhaggi pictures a soldier on 24-hour leave with his girlfriend and her flatmate, spending time at home, where the act of waiting – for peace, for resolution, for a return to normal – is as psychologically damaging as the war itself.
'We're trying to tell the story from a different side,' says Alzakout. 'It's a huge story of violence and a human fight, not only about power but about human existence, with brothers killing each other. We started eating each other because we don't have any solution or any hope. The idea of Your Love Is Fire comes from here, about how you can talk after all this silence.'
It's a play that deliberately tests the limits of its own naturalistic form, halting the drama, weaving stories within stories and allowing the action to be disrupted by a despairing dramatist. 'The characters are trying to make their life as normal as they can,' says Alzakout. 'But all of the circumstances make them tired and frustrated. Nothing in the text is clear and there's a lot of ambiguity. Everything is in the zone between life and death, like the Syrian people waiting to be at peace.'
The Elephant, Your Majesty!, New Town Theatre, George Street, 0131 558 9005, 9–17 Aug (not 11 & 12), 1.50pm, £12 (£10). Jogging, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 15–23 Aug, 11.50am, £12 (£10). The Second Copy: 2045, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 4–27 Aug (not 7, 14, 21), 10.15am, £12 (£10). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £8. Your Love Is Fire, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 4–27 Aug (not 7, 14, 21), 11.30am, £12 (£10). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £8.
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