Classicism as experiment (Blood Horse)

Sonali Pahwa sent me her review of the Iraqi Macbeth, performed at the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre this week. She makes the point that staging old-school classicized Shakespeare in today’s Iraq is a pretty daring experiment in its own right. As my teacher Farouk Mustafa once put it: “art for art’s sake, for life’s sake.” Thanks, Sonali!

On entering the Miami (formerly Fuad el-Mohandes) theatre to watch the Iraqi play Hussaan al-damm (Blood Horse), I thought it inevitable that the performance would draw a gathering of Iraqi expatriates. But I didn’t expect to see a large satin Iraqi flag hung at the entrance, signalling that this was no ordinary CIFET event. Inside the theatre, the air echoed with the distinctive ‘j’ and ‘ch’ sounds of Iraqi Arabic as groups of early arrivals waited for the show to begin. The crowd was considerably more elegant than your average intellectuals. Men in suits and women with fulsomely coiffed (and uncovered) hair comported themselves as if at an embassy party. Only the well-loved oudist Nasseer Shamma came in his customary t-shirt.
The Patriotic Troupe for Acting presented a much-abbreviated adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, seemingly a relevant text through which to comment on the power struggles of contemporary Iraq. It was done in classical fashion, however. The performance was composed of a series of monologues and dialogues, enacted in dramatic lighting, which relied quite straightforwardly on the power of the text. The actors playing the adumbrated cast of Macbeth, Banquo, Lady Macbeth and Macduff all delived their lines with a creditable command of fusha and with visible passion. Perhaps the lone experimental touch was the use of a video screen to stage Macduff’s version of the prophesy of Macbeth’s death. In much of the play, the conception was stagey and the monologues delivered in the textbook style taught at acting schools.
On the other hand, I felt that the insistent classicism of Blood Horse was intended to demonstrate that Iraq did still have theatre, according to cherished old norms that validated Shakespeare in fusha translation as a benchmark of high culture. Those of us who came looking for an experimental performance wanted to see the fragmentation of Iraq dissected on stage, but others in the mostly Iraqi audience cheered the grand Shakespearean performance, perhaps in memory of days when they could go to the theatre in their finery and watch tragedy in measured
cadences rather than the violence now seen on the streets and on television.
At the end of the half-hour performance, audience members who had been clicking away on their digital cameras gave a rousing ovation and rushed onstage to greet the troupe. Many had their pictures taken with the better-known actors and with Shamma. Reporters from the al-Iraqiyya television were among a handful of satellite television crews interviewing the director and cast. There were smiles and hugs all round. At this effusion of national feeling the non-Iraqi critic was something of an outsider. I left, but trust that a party followed and that a good, nostalgic time was had by all.

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