For Iraqi playwright Farouk Sabri, Arab theatre has a mission

“It is only through the art of theatre that we can escape oppression to a world of freedom and can start to connect with people and their lives, with their problems, their frustrations and their dreams,” says Iraqi playwright Farouk Sabri.

Sunday 19/05/2019
A knight of modernity. Iraqi playwright Farouk Sabri.              (Courtesy of Farouk Sabri)
A knight of modernity. Iraqi playwright Farouk Sabri. (Courtesy of Farouk Sabri)

Farouk Sabri is one of the knights of modernity in Arab theatre, touching all aspects of the field — playwright, actor, director, producer and critic.

He left his native Iraq 40 years ago but his New Zealand residency has not prevented him from being at the heart of the Arab cultural scene, whether through his plays such as “The Red Rose,” “The Princes of Hell” and “Questions of the Executioner and the Victim,” with his theory of “sequential monodrama” or through his participation in conferences and festivals in the region.

Amid groundbreaking developments in acting and writing in Iraqi theatre — and Arab theatre in general — that shook the delineations of the genre and developments in contemporary theatre in the Western world, Farouk Sabri stands out. He is one of the engines of excellence and progress towards a different future in theatre and liberation from stereotypes and narrow frameworks.

Sabri told The Arab Weekly that he has been passionate about innovation and going against the grain since his graduation from the Department of Theatre and Cinema at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1974.

Sabri worked with the Syrian National Theatre before moving to Auckland, New Zealand. He has participated in theatre in the Netherlands, Denmark and other European countries. His play “The Red Rose” was performed in Erbil, Iraq, and his plays toured Basra, Baghdad, Sharjah and many other Arab cities. Sabri is an unavoidable reference in modern Arab theatre.

Sabri said he did not choose to leave Iraq but was forced to it 40 years ago. He said that exile, despite its evils, gave him opportunities for reflection and freedom that playwrights in some Arab countries do not have.

“Through the performances I gave inside and outside Iraq, I tried to highlight the sweet hustle of freedom that is deep inside me. In doing [my plays], I realised that there is no sacred besides what is creative and shocking,” said Sabri.

Through his attendance of performances in the Middle East and North Africa, Sabri said he noticed the emergence of a new class of artists able to free themselves from the shackles of politics and stereotypical models.

However, “there are still people who brandish the sword of proscription and taboos,” he said, “and these do not necessarily come from the pits of politics. They are also called playwrights, unfortunately, especially in Iraq.”

Despite its overwhelming aspects of modernity, Sabri’s theatre experience does not seem completely cut off from its Iraqi and Arab roots. It is open to the experiences of theatre pioneers and innovators in Iraq and the Arab world.

Sabri said he has been keeping up with developments in Iraqi and Arab theatre and has noted the interference, interaction and continuity between the various generations of Iraqi playwrights, who, despite differences between their eras, have used theatre as a space of research, discovery and innovation.

He cited the experience of Iraqi playwright Jawad al-Assadi, describing him as “a steed racing with and battling the winds of the times. There was no lull in his creative genius and, for almost half a century, Assadi continued to innovate while sculpting his aesthetic and intellectual vision on the stage, his Garden of Eden.”

Theatre festivals, especially those in Sharjah, play a vital role in enriching the Arab theatrical scene with performances and discussions. Sabri said that, through its festival, Sharjah is seeking to become the hub of theatrical creativity coming from the region.

Sharjah teaches theatre in its primary schools and through colleges and universities. “I hope that the sultan of Sharjah theatre will make them spaces freed of the usual taboos and familiar no-nos,” quipped Sabri.

“In my experiments with the sequential monodramatic text (‘Questions of the Executioner and the Victim’), by playwright Sabah al-Anbari at the Toronto Show, and in the same show titled ‘Manicanat’ performed in Baghdad, I used swings on the stage and turned them into places where the executioner tortures his victims,” Sabri said.

“What I did here was reverse the symbolism of the swing from an expression of love and child innocence to a tool for the cruelty of executioners, who have transformed aesthetic spaces into death wards.

“I did not stop at my own reading of the significance of the swing and I went ahead and researched it in history until I came across a Roman emperor who had had dozens of swings set up in his country’s forest and had the peasants who rebelled against him hanged on them.”

Sabri said his “sequential monodrama” project was a theoretical text of the truth. Its title was the creation of Anbari, who wrote three monodramas for the project that Sabri started in 2011.

In 2016, the project came out as a play, “The Executioner and the Victim,” that Sabri performed in Toronto and then as “Manicanat,” performed in Baghdad in 2017. A third performance is in the pipeline. It is to be based on three sequential monodramatic texts titled “Eve” written by Tunisian playwright and director Naoufel Rayene.

This project is an attempt to change the scriptural and cinematic structure of the monodrama, to move beyond the usual monodrama model based on the narration of past events by one actor, who recreates the drama’s characters but does not dwell on their present. In the sequential monodrama, the past, present and future are all represented.

Thus, the mono-dynamic narrative of the monodrama is changed and the same story is told by two or more characters in separate and successive ways using different and conflicting discourses. In this way, the audience remains alert, with many questions going through the viewers’ mind during and after the performance.

In the Arab world, theatre has always been the king of arts because it has been daring in broaching taboo topics in politics and social reform. It has exploited the small margin of freedom it enjoys to knock down walls of conservatism and censorship. Sabri said this aspect of theatre is part of its nature because theatre is the twin of life itself.

Sabri insisted that theatre cannot be framed in a delineated specific definition. It is comprehensive, diversified, always in motion and mutation and always alive, like life.

Its rites make use of music, dance and the body, while words and songs embrace the colours of the stage lights and decors. The stage represents a space for revealing what is hidden and for raising questions.

To achieve its mission, theatre requires excellent text, a cultured director and a multidimensional and cultured team of performers.

Sabri said “It is only through the art of theatre that we can escape oppression to a world of freedom and can start to connect with people and their lives, with their problems, their frustrations and their dreams.”