The Arab Theatre Institute Festival – Tunis January 2017

As anyone who watched my acceptance speech for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture will know – I was shocked to win the prize. I still am. But it all became real on 12 January when I boarded a plane to Tunisia to attend the Arab Theatre Institute’s 10th theatre festival there, as part of my prize generously funded by the British Council.

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I brought a copy of Hanan Al Shakyh’s Arabian Nights, a swimming costume (I’m an optimist) and, most importantly, Alia Al Zougbi with me. Alia is a brilliant theatre producer (and actress and storyteller) who worked on my play Scenes from 68* Years and who I’m proud to call my good friend. On this occasion she was also my voice, as my French is poor and my Arabic worse. I needed a translator and Alia had kindly agreed to come with me for that reason.

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The Municipal Theatre

 

When we arrived in Tunis it was raining (we’d brought the weather with us!) but the sun quickly came out in the form of Imed Belkhodja , who is the Projects Manager for British Council Tunisia and one of the nicest and most hospitable humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He was the mastermind behind my packed three-day schedule which saw me attend six plays and meet a host of Tunisian theatremakers, both veterans and from the emerging generation.  He’d also kindly allowed time for eating which was a delight, my first taste of Tunisian food (and wine) at the wonderful Fondouk El Attarine had me hooked. Particularly the local Tunis special: Brik a filo pastry triangle with meat and a runny egg in the middle – I’m salivating at the thought of it.

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Brik

 

On the first day Imed was sure to show us where all the theatres were and instruct us how to collect our tickets for the shows. Over the course of the visit we saw many plays: A Moroccan production of Genet’s The Maids directed by Iraqi luminary Jawad Al Assadi; The Escape by Tunisian actor and director Ghazi Zaghbani – whose theatre, L’Artisto, is a small but perfectly formed black box any director in London would kill to work in.  On Sunday we saw In the Heart of Bagdad by Mohannad Hedi (Sweden/Iraq) ,  and Lebanese director Roger Assaf’s The War of Troy at the gorgeous and sumptuous  Municipal Theatre (Alia and I even managed to seat ourselves in a box as it was open seating).  Then Monday brought two Tunisian shows, a delicate puppet show The Encounter at the cavernous Ibn Rachik Cultural Centre and finally an impressive piece of physical theatre/ modern dance by Nejib Khalfallah called Miscarriage.

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The beautiful ceiling of the Municipal Theatre

On Sunday, Robert Ness the head of the British Council in Tunisia graciously hosted a lovely lunch where Alia and I had the opportunity to meet a host of interesting people from many different walks of life, not just theatre. He even organised some sun for the occasion.

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In other meetings we encountered  veteran Tunisian critic Abdelhalim Messaoudi; actresses Chekra Rammeh and Khaoula Hadef;  and Wafa Taboubi a director who was the first woman to take the Best Director award at the Carthage Theatre Festival last year for her play The Widows. Alia and I were sad to have missed that one, especially on glimpsing the recorded version which was theatrical and compelling, even on a small screen.

After our whirlwind trip I felt exhilarated and inspired. I’m really hoping the trip will lead to further fruitful conversations and hopefully, in time, collaborations with some of the impressive people I was privileged to meet. Watch this space…

This blog originally appeared on the Arab British Centre website.

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My best of 2017

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Yes yes I’m very late to be publishing my cultural highlights from 2017 so I’ll keep it pithy. Experience wise being part of The Bush Theatre’s Project 2036 was an important thing for me. But in terms of my cultural highlights, in no particular order my faves were:

Theatre

Wonderfully all but one of these are written by women. Some EVEN had female directors:

This Restless House – Zinnie Harris (Lyceum Theatre)
Lions and Tigers – Tanika Gupta directed by Pooja Ghai (Sam Wannamaker Playhouse)
The Interrogation of Sandra Bland – Mojisola Adibayo (Bush Theatre #BlackLivesBlackWords)
Glory on Earth – Linda McLean (Lyceum Theatre)
The Great Tamer – Dimitris Papaioannou (Avignon Festival)

It would be arrogant to also put The Scar Test my play here, as I wrote it but I was very happy it was produced this year at Soho Theatre and very proud of all the brilliant women (and the odd clever chap too) involved in bringing it to the stage.

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TV

Handmaid’s Tale (of course)
Broken
Quacks

Yup those were the special ones for me in 2017 🙂

 

Highlights from December 2017

My December highlights are child’s play to choose… in that all of them are plays for young people.

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The first is the RSC’s new Christmas Carol adapted by David Edgar. You might think Dickens for Christmas is a bit chocolate box but not in this version. Not at all. It’s an angry social commentary, urgent and relevant to now. Time and again I was struck by different brilliantly resonant lines, at one point Marley says to Scrooge (in a wonderful performance by Phil Davis):

“We are all dead if we can’t see ourselves in the hundreds, the thousands” – this gave me tingles. Hopefully a few politicians will see this one… It continues until 4 February so do get to Stratford Upon Avon if you can (Tory MP or not).

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Next was a magical panto – Rapunzel at Theatre Royal Stratford East. I took mini-me and she and I both adored it, she for Baby Bear and the songs, me for the brilliant performances and cheeky winks to adult culture (the witch makes her potions in a Winnebago with walls covered in post-its in a nod to Breaking Bad). I can safely say a new tradition has been born and I’ll be taking my daughter to TRSE for panto every year from now on.

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Finally I travelled to the Lyceum for a taste of Arabian Nights. Suhayla El-Bushra’s clever adaptation makes the naughty stories work for a young audience without straying too far from the spirit of the original work which winds stories into stories in a magical kaleidoscope. Once again there’s great songs, lovely performances, plus here the addition of talking goats to make a classic Christmas show. It was super.

In January I’ve already been to the Arab Theatre Institute’s Festival in Tunis – what a place… my Jan Highlights blog is already writing itself…