Article published in University of Sydney News
Amro Ali from the Department of Government and International Relations responds to the Sydney Festival production In the Eruptive Mode, on now at the Seymour Centre until 27 January 2013.
When I was asked last month on ABC News 24 if I had ever imagined the Arab Spring to descend into the mess that it is two years later, I could have pointed out that In The Eruptive Mode would have been the last scenario(s) on my mind.
Kuwaiti-born Sulayman al-Bassam has directed an intense and complex set of six monologues of “ordinary” individuals who have been caught up in the historical tidal wave of the Arab Spring only to be left in its debris. The darkness and horrific tone of the play strikes a far cry from the nascent days of the Arab Spring when the narrative and roles were relatively defined and clear-cut: urban-based Tunisians and Egyptians rising up against authoritarianism to demand “freedom, bread, and dignity.”
Eight tumultuous seasons later and the Arab Spring is aptly expressed “No spring breezes in this neck of the woods” by Kim Vercoe who plays an opportunistic Australian public relations official for an investment firm, and makes a case to support a questionable “153rd-in-line for succession” figure from a morally bankrupt clan in which their power moves are cloaked in a religious guise.
The other outsider kicks off the hour-long play as an idealistic journalist in her death throes yet still eager to report to the world the events unfolding. The scene is poignant for two reasons, it was inspired by Marie Colvin, who was killed on a reporting assignment during the Homs siege in Syria almost a year ago. The other is that 2012 saw a dramatic increase in the number of journalists being killed and serves as a reminder to the danger the profession faces when placed on the front battle-lines. The journalist is epitomised as the window to the Arab Spring (sadly no mention of activists and bloggers here), which illustrates even an outsider is sucked into the downward spiral of the Arab Spring nightmare.
Raymond Hosni plays well the character of a young man from a post-revolutionary Islamic movement who sells his soul for the sake of foreign funding. He also plays a father in a scene that signifies the generational divide in the Arab Spring states in which Hosni goes against his revolutionary-driven daughter whose action would bring harm to the family from the regime.
A bittersweet, at times maddening, aspect of the play is no location is offered to the characters and Al-Bassam justifies this as “each of the characters exist in a distinct relationship to the geographies and timelines of the Arab Spring” without mention of either geographies or timelines. The countries that arguably come closest to representing the sombre scenes are Syria and Bahrain. Yet the factors underpinning the plots – desire to reclaim dignity, counter-revolutions by regimes and power vacuums filled by Islamic movements – are certainly applicable, in various degrees, across the Arab world’s socio-political spectrum.
I have no doubt in Al-Bassam’s creativity and the miseries of the Arab Spring certainly need to be expressed, yet the play comes disturbingly close to conservative-Gulf-elite discourse that pushes “An Arab Spring is just not worth it” narrative.
But it could not be easy for Al-Bassam. He needs to tread a fine line as he maneuvers between his Kuwaiti patrons and projecting strong messages about the Arab Spring’s progressive goals. Kuwait, interestingly, is considered an Arab Spring state on standby, with the rise of the protest movements in the oil-rich state demanding reforms, the monarchy has responded with a mixture of concessions and repression.
Al-Bassam goes into unchartered territory and touches on taboo issues. A prostitute, played by Hala Omran, ends up in hospital pregnant and caught up in the Arab uprisings and the regime crackdowns she did not anticipate. She bewails the world that cheapens the suffering all around her: “They call us events?” She comes across as a marginal figure who, like many of the collateral Arab characters, sits on the boundaries of experience whose only blame was to be born in this particular era of history.
Invoking fable technologies can be a delicate act so as to not disturb the seriousness of the nature of the suffering. Yet social media effectively figures into the calculation of a woman sniper from a Christian minority sect, played by Omran, in the trenches of a horrible civil war, cleaning her gun and anxious as she laments Facebook’s ability to disclose the whereabouts of activists. This is very much the line of thinking amongst opposition activists on the Arab streets.
Having the Arab Spring presented as complex and confusing is one thing, but it is another to showcase a series of disjointed monologues lacking coherence and climaxes. Having the lights switched on for the investment opportunist to walk down the stairs should be a strict no in theatre. What was a creative attempt of entry ends up rupturing the suspension of disbelief for the audience.
For the extent that it can be understood, the play leaves a dark cloud on the trajectory of upcoming events. Yet the strong will of long-oppressed peoples, and the – neglected from the script – youth that have “a voice that remains a work in progress,” as Al-Bassam notes, inspires some optimism.
With the Arab Spring staggering and limping into its second anniversary, and in light of the modern day Arab tragedy with its discomforting omens that Al-Bassam has given us, one only hopes that 2013 will not turn out to be a case of life imitating art.