Meet Hossam Madhoun: the theatre director who is determined to bring Tolstoy’s War and Peace to a stage in Gaza
Usually, when journalists want to talk to a theatre director about their latest project, we send a few emails, arrange a time to speak and begin compiling our questions. With Hossam Madhoun, from Theatre for Everybody, however, it wasn’t quite that simple.
He was able to reply, but only to say: “I am so sorry that we in Gaza do not have the luxury of fixing any appointment, in particular when electricity availability is a condition [for a Skype conversation].”
When I suggest a general day and time that we might at least try, Madhoun agrees.
“I will do my best to be available,” he says. Adding: “As a matter of fact, I want to be available. It will mean that I am still alive in this madness.”
Sent during the latest Israel-Gaza war, Madhoun’s words were absolutely chilling. And even though we ended up speaking just after the August 26 ceasefire was agreed, it was with some trepidation that I make the call.
Thankfully, Madhoun answers – looking absolutely exhausted.
“I am very sad,” he says. “The violence and killing may have stopped, but everything is bleeding.”
In such traumatic circumstances, it seems almost ridiculous to talk about Madhoun’s plans for a new Arabic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that his company is planning. He admits that the continuing situation in Gaza has meant Theatre for Everybody hasn’t produced a single show in six years. Now the company consists of just him and Jamal Al Rozzi and they use their training to put on therapy workshops for traumatised children.
“We can’t exactly prepare scenes right now, when everyone is watching their back and trying to get back to daily life,” he says.
“In fact, it’s incredibly tough to concentrate on anything, let alone be creative. But there are still people who want to be involved in theatre or art because it allows them to be normal for a while, to express themselves in very hard times.”
To that end, the link-up between Theatre for Everybody and Az Theatre in London is crucial. The relationship, which goes back 12 years, has seen the companies develop work with young people.
On Sunday, September 14, in London, Az Theatre is holding an event to raise awareness of and money for the War & Peace project. Alongside music from Soufian Saihi and Billy Adamson, a company of actors will read new work from Hassan Abdulrazzak, Caryl Churchill, Ahmed Masoud and Haifa Zangana – all of which will connect in some way to Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
“I’d seen the 1966 Sergey Bondarchuk film War and Peace and was immediately struck that in Gaza, the intifadas, the conflicts, the internal struggles and the individual stories all have the same, generational, epic quality,” says Jonathan Chadwick, the artistic director at Az Theatre.
“And I think it is important to try to make this production happen – there’s a need in Gaza to try to do things that appear slightly impossible, to allow people to find a space within theatre where they can think, reflect and imagine something different to their immediate surroundings.”
Chadwick admits that though Az Theatre has the money and resources, artistically the link-up is a proper two-way exchange.
“We have a lot to learn from Theatre for Everybody,” he says.
And it is difficult not to be inspired by Madhoun’s dream that War & Peace will be performed in Gaza. Even though he never did manage to hold a workshop that was supposed to lead to a live-stream of a few scenes at the Sunday event at Az Theatre, Madhoun is determined that it will happen some day. In the meantime, he will talk to the London audience, via Skype, about his experiences.
“The situation here is agony,” he says. “For example, I love watching films – on my television, obviously, as we don’t have cinemas in Gaza. But I can’t concentrate for 10 minutes now on any movie – and I haven’t even lost anyone. My home is safe. So imagine how the families of the 2,200 people who died must feel.
“You see destruction everywhere, and it’s painful and heartbreaking.
“But I will never lose hope – I can’t,” he says. “I have a daughter who told me the other day, when she was about to turn 13, that she was ‘four wars old’. But she still looks forward to school.
“The hope that one day we will see our people free keeps us all from despairing completely – and what War & Peace does is offer this strong message that war can never prevail.”
• War & Peace: Gaza – London is at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green, London, on Sunday, September 14. For more information and to read Madhoun’s blog, visit www.aztheatre.org.uk
Updated: September 13, 2014 04:00 AM