x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Resuscitation Theatre is taking it to the next stage

Better known for its Emirati versions of classic western plays, Resuscitation Theatre has branched out by presenting a contemporary play by a living Emirati writer.

Nancy Awar, left, as Betina and Khristene Astoriano as Baya, during a rehearsal for Resuscitation Theatre's latest show, One More Try, by Emirati writer Saleh Karama. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Nancy Awar, left, as Betina and Khristene Astoriano as Baya, during a rehearsal for Resuscitation Theatre's latest show, One More Try, by Emirati writer Saleh Karama. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Resuscitation Theatre’s latest production marks a notable change of course for the Abu Dhabi company.

Previously known for reinterpreting classic plays within an Emirati setting, the company’s forthcoming show, One More Try, is the group’s first attempt at contemporary theatre. The 2005 play was written by Saleh Karama, the renowned Emirati dramatist, novelist and filmmaker.

While the Arabic language version has achieved critical acclaim across the region – including being named Best Arabic Play at the 2007 Cairo Arab Theatre Festival – this is its English-language premiere.

The story concerns a young woman who catches her best friend in bed with her husband. Angered at his betrayal, she shoots him dead, while choosing to spare her friend.

The young woman is sentenced to death after pleading guilty. Disgusted with the mendacity and hypocrisy of the outside world, she longs for her life to end at the hand of the executioner and refuses legal assistance.

Subsequently, a young lawyer comes into her cell to persuade her to fight for her case and the drama begins to unfold.

Directing the piece is Maggie Hannan, Resuscitation Theatre’s founder.

Such was her esteem for Karama’s prose, she was prepared to mention it in the same breath as the true greats of modern theatre.

“When I first read it, I felt I was reading [Harold] Pinter or [Edward] Albee or another of the great absurdist writers of English and American theatre,” she says. “It is a divergence from our normal brand, which is Emiratising and resuscitating classic plays.

“This is a modern, edgy kind of play, a steep psychological drama that can be taken on many levels. But it’s such a great play we felt it was a risk we were willing to take.”

Previously the theatre company has tackled such works as Irish writer John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (reinterpreted as Playboy of the Western Region) and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

“Usually, the writers are dead and the plays are out of copyright, so I can do what I like. But to actually work while the playwright was sitting beside me presented a whole new challenge.

“I am so honoured that Saleh is allowing me to play with his work and he seems to be happy with what I’m doing with it.”

Speaking with the help of a translator, Karama heaps praise on her interpretation.

“I have seen the same play done all over the Arab world. This is the first time I have felt really touched by it.

“It is the truest interpretation. Maggie really understands my work. She has a high sensitivity to its meanings. It’s written in a way that has a puzzling philosophy about it, that not everyone can understand what it hides, but Maggie has understood it.”

Some could also accuse it of touching on controversial themes, but Karama insists this is not the case.

“Everything controversial in it is done to convey a part of life. It is not controversy for the sake of controversy. It is trying to interpret parts of life,” he explains.

“Yes, some people could interpret some of it as controversial, but if you look at it, it is about seeing, about being, about existing.

“I want to explore what it is like to live on the edge of life and death. This is something that it is hard to understand.”

Hannan’s version of the play contains some unusual, almost abstract, devices. For example, the guard character is part stagehand, part living prop and part dramatis personae.

In a city with a minimal theatre scene, it remains to be seen whether audiences will appreciate the unconventional nature of One More Try.

Karama believes that the production will provide a fillip to the city’s creative movement.

“Anything is good for Abu Dhabi as theatre deserves to grow here. It is seeing live people perform that brings an authenticity that is different to cinema,” he explains.

“I really hope Resuscitation Theatre will lead the way to a bigger theatre scene. They are doing very well but [the theatre scene] needs funding. It needs support.

“Theatre movements outside the UAE are much more vibrant,” he believes. “There are amateur and professional groups all going on and in universities, the students are all doing theatre. They get bigger crowds, so it touches more people.”

His association with the stage began in 1977, when he founded the Abu Dhabi Theatre in the city. Hence he’s seen its relationship with the growth of the nation. “I was born into theatre. I have lived theatre. I was part of the UAE’s theatre generation,” he says.

“It’s important to the UAE to have a thriving theatre scene. Theatre is part of life, it is part of our society. It throws a spotlight on life. Everyone who is part of theatre always has something to think about. It is philosophical, it questions our lives.”

For example, a recent visit to the Avignon Theatre Festival in France illuminated what could be achieved.

“In Avignon, I saw plays performed in garages and underground places. I would love to see this happening in Abu Dhabi.

“It has a real connection to everything that happens in the street. At the moment, it’s not big here. But if it’s given support it will get there.”

Karama says building a multicultural scene that reflects Abu Dhabi’s diverse mix of nationalities is essential to this.

So, having his play performed in English with a cast made up of Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan and Lebanese actors was particularly pleasing to him.

“My scripts need to be seen by an international audience. I really think that anyone can understand my plays,” he claims. “The writing in it is very metaphorical. So anyone can try to connect it with their own stories in their life.

“I hope people will see it and begin to ask questions about themselves and society.”

Likewise, Hannan believes the audience will be presented with something meaningful about the fundamentals of our existence. “This play is really about betrayal and trust. There is a duality of good and evil within it,” she says.

“There is the classic absurdist premise of invasion into someone’s personal space – like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. And a lot of Pinter is about this.

“But this is what Resuscitation is about – breaking boundaries and pushing the audience’s imagination.”

One More Try by Saleh Karama takes place at the Emirates Writers Union auditorium of the National Theatre at 8pm on June 26 and 27. Tickets cost Dh50. Visit www.resuscitationtheatre.com for more information.

Hugo Berger is a features writer for The National.