The film and theatre director Lotfi Achour talks about adapting Shakespeare's Macbeth with the Arab Spring in mind and rekindling an appreciation of the Bard's plays in his homeland.
Tunisian director adapts Macbeth for the World Shakespeare Festival
Ambition, tyranny and violence - the key ingredients of William Shakespeare's bloody tragedy Macbeth. Though some 400 years old, the play is thoroughly modern to the film and theatre director Lotfi Achour, who believes the very same issues triggered the Arab Spring in his native Tunisia.
"Some of the parallels between the two stories are astonishing," he says. "The repression of a rebellion during which the former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Macbeth use their positions to promote themselves; the betrayal of the established leaders; the couple who revel in crime and cut themselves off from the rest of the world; paranoia, witchcraft, irrationality. All these themes reflect the life and reign of Ben Ali."
Achour will stage his adaptation of the Bard's Scottish play Macbeth: Leila & Ben - A Bloody History, in Arabic with surtitles at this summer's World Shakespeare Festival in Britain as part of the London 2012 Festival.
His central characters Leila and Ben represent the exiled Tunisian president and his wife, who, following a month of violent opposition protests in late 2010, were forced into exile with their children to Saudi Arabia. In June last year, the pair was sentenced, in absentia, to 35 years in prison for crimes including embezzlement, theft and corruption.
The English playwright's version tells the story of a Scottish General named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that he will become the fated King of Scotland. With the unconditional support of his wife, and consumed by his ambition to take the throne, he commits regicide and untold subsequent murders to hide the fact and secure his position. In a reign characterised by oppression, injustice and paranoia, an unrepentant Macbeth and Lady Macbeth come to a bloody end.
"I knew immediately that I wanted to work on one of Shakespeare's plays, which focuses on the frenzy of power, so that I could relate it to power struggles not just in Tunisia, but also the wider Arab world. And in my homeland, the reality of these struggles far surpasses any fiction," says Achour. "I had actually decided to direct Macbeth before the fall of Ben Ali - and the way history has unfolded since then has justified my reasons for choosing this play and in my eyes makes the project even more important and necessary."
Helping the director bring this vision to life are the two other members of his theatre company APA - Artistes Producteurs Associés, based in France and Tunisia and founded in 2009. The home-grown, budding actor and songwriter Jawhar Basti takes the title role of Macbeth, while the French-Italian-Tunisian actress Anissa Daoud, as a writer and performer, plays his accomplice Leila Macbeth.
"This play for me is as much musical as it is theatrical - songs play an important part," says Achour. "Accordingly, my choice of actors was influenced not only by acting skill, but also by musical talent - the play is cast with singers who can act in order to fulfil my vision of a production that incorporates singing, theatre and film. And I wanted Anissa to take up the challenge of interpreting the legendary character of Lady Macbeth to bring to the stage a living person with a public persona that still provokes the hatred and bitterness that this woman does."
Achour has remained faithful to Shakespeare's framework and sequence of major events, yet transposed his text into a modern-day context and reality. Plus, through his use of archived video and reportage, he has succeeded in creating a living, breathing "mockumentary".
"We have introduced citizens - the people - as they played a major part in our recent history in Tunisia, marking the end of the dictatorship," he says. "Our adaptation will try to convey the link between fiction and 'real' history - between documentary and poetry. On top of this, we have layered other texts that relate specifically to the reign of Ben Ali, to the Arab world and to the relationship to power in Islamic culture."
This type of hybrid-production is typical of Achour's recent work, most notably Hobb Story: Instructions for Arab Love, which was widely praised during its run at LIFT - the London International Festival of Theatre two years ago. It marked the starting point of Achour's journey into multidisciplinary theatre and he has experimented with mixing genres ever since.
"As a company, we share the same artistic vision and aesthetic - which is to reflect the contemporary world in our work and break down boundaries between different artistic disciplines," he says. "We are very politically engaged and believe that it is our responsibility to produce work that has an impact in Tunisia at this significant time in the country's history. We also want our work to change the way in which others view the Arab world, which is a lot more complex than it is often perceived to be."
The stage looks set to be Achour's political and creative platform for the foreseeable future and his reputation at home and abroad continues to soar. It was his unique approach to theatre production that first brought him to the attention of Deborah Shaw - the associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the director of the World Shakespeare Festival, whom he says he "cannot thank enough for the invitation".
"It's the first time I have directed a non-contemporary text and Shakespeare is the only classical playwright that I have ever considered exploring," he says. "I am curious as to how our adaptation will be received by the British public and its avid Shakespeare fans. I feel a real responsibility in representing Tunisian theatre, as it remains largely unrecognised in England."
Seeking to redress the balance on both sides, Achour's production will bring Tunisia to the fore in the UK and, he ardently hopes, reignite a passion for Shakespeare in his homeland.
Adaptations and classical Arabic performances of Shakespeare's plays were staged frequently from around 1910 to the late 1960s in Tunisia, he says, one of the most significant productions having been Mourad III, an adaptation of Richard III by Ali Ben Ayed, whom he fondly referred to as the father of Tunisian theatre.
"Then, the generation of 1968 rebelled against the classical texts and invented a different type of theatre and a new language of theatre that reflected Tunisian realities," says Achour. "As a result, Shakespeare is very rarely performed today and the work is not as well known by young directors and audiences.
"I hope that our version of Macbeth, which will also be performed in Tunis this autumn, will encourage audiences and artists alike to rediscover this playwright, whose writing is for all times."
• Macbeth: Leila & Ben - A Bloody History will be performed from July 4-7 at LIFT, Riverside Studios, London. For ticket details and more information about the World Shakespeare Festival 2012 go to www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk
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