Arab Theatre Festival draws large audience in Tunis
TUNIS - The tenth Arab Theatre Festival treated spectators to diverse shows featuring hundreds of actors from more than 20 countries.
The event kicked off in Tunis with Tunisian director Fadhel Jaibi’s latest play, “Al-Khawf” (“The Fear”), and featured 27 shows and more than 600 actors, directors and critics.
Founded in 2009 by the Arab Theatre Institute, the festival promotes theatre in the region and gives voice to distinctly Arab voices.
Jaibi’s play, which centres on a scouting group stranded during a desert storm, served as a metaphor for Tunisia’s political tumult and examines the role of fear and anxiety amid periods of hardship and uncertainty.
Many of the plays touched on pressing regional issues, such as conflict, extremism and women’s rights.
Mahmoud Mejri, the festival’s general coordinator, said that while the “festival celebrates Arab theatre, Arab theatre cannot be classified in one category.”
“There are different experiences and aesthetic movements and each country in the Arab world has its own tradition of theatre, which is enriching,” Mejri said.
“Some suggested that the festival should be more open to European and Western plays but I believe that such a request will hinder the accomplishment of the festival’s main objectives,” he said. “I mean, after all, do we, Arab countries, know each other? This is an opportunity to strengthen the ties through learning more about other countries through their theatre.”
With 600 participants, there was ample opportunity for those of different theatre backgrounds to exchange knowledge and expertise. Saudi Arabia took part in the festival for the first time this year.
Iraq featured prominently in the festival with its play “The Smell of the War.” The work, featuring Iraqi actress and theatre critic Awatif Naeem, depicts a grandmother torn between a grandson who has lost his faith and a husband obsessed with violence and power.
“Theatre as a genre is the product of its environment and it is highly affected by the political and social changes and disturbances,” Naeem said. “We can say that the theatre in Iraq can be divided into two periods — before and after the American occupation.”
“After the war, the theatrical discourse became invested in combating the attempts of the American Army to divide the unity of the people,” she said. “Iraqi theatre reflected these changes and witnessed the birth of a unified discourse. This play highlights the impact of the war and the generational conflict between the grandfather who calls for violence and war and the grandson who seems lost.”
Naeem said that generational conflict is a theme that resonates with all Arab society, not just people in Iraq. She encouraged artists to branch out and be creative in their theatrical direction.
“I worry that the Arab theatre has been trapped in a repetitive pattern over the past years, which makes me wonder about the selection conditions,” Naeem said. “One of the objectives of the Arab Theatre Institute is to promote theatre in the Arab world. It would be great to have festivals and shows in Libya, Syria and Iraq.”
The festival included new theatre methods, such as the use of photos and video screening as part of performances. While some praised the innovative forms of story-telling, others expressed concern about a shift from traditional Arab theatre.
“Theatre cannot ignore or exclude the changes that mark our daily lives,” Naeem said. “Today, technology dominates every aspect of our lives and that is what we tried to explore by highlighting the visual aspect of our play. The Arab theatre must reflect these changes.”
In addition to the performances, the festival included a conference titled “Authority and Knowledge in Theatre,” headed by 42 Arab critics and thinkers from across the region.
‘’One of the main and most important pillars of the festival is the conferences and the intellectual exchange,” said Mejri. “The theme being the power and knowledge in theatre showed how encompassing theatre can be as an artistic genre; After all, the theatre cannot evolve without philosophy.”
“Theatre hasn’t drastically evolved, which is why it is important to have a theoretical background for this genre of performing arts to understand its evolution and improve its different components,” he added.
The festival invited participants to take part in workshops headed by theatre figures such as Jaibi and Taoufik Jebali.
“What characterised this edition is the quality of the workshops that took place in Tunis,” said Hassen Nafali, a member of the organising committee. “With seven workshops, 200 participants learnt from the best theatre directors about the art of theatre.”
In addition to the 25,000 spectators who visited the theatre festival, more than 250,000 followed the events online through live video feeds.
During the festival’s closing, the prize for best play was awarded to Moroccan Mohammed al-Hor‘s “Solo,” which centred on women’s rights in the Arab world.
The festival’s next edition is to take place next January in Egypt.