Hands chained, a crouched young man remains motionless. He is fixed in a square of light coming through the window of his cell. The reflection of the bars is projected onto his bare chest. Moviegoers would say that this is a scene from Birdy, the cult American film by Alan Parker, released in 1985. And yet, it is rather “Le Couffin et la Gamelle” (The Basket and the Bowl), a Tunisian play presented at El Teatro in February in the framework of the opening of “Avant-Première”, an event dedicated to the young artists of Tunisian theatre.
Is this a reference to Birdy? The young theatre director Mohamed Saber Oueslati responds: “It’s spontaneous. Since this is my first play, I opted for a series of scenes rather than a succession of acts following a narrative process. I wanted to convey the feeling of isolation to the viewer. The darkness and the lights limit the actors’ playing area to squares. This allowed me to create the atmosphere that I imagined.”
Inspired by a novel on prison
“The Basket and the Bowl” is a “tribute to present and future prisoners of conscience in Tunisia and in the world”. Without doubt, this play is one of the first ones that were created after the Revolution in the political theatre genre.
The name of play is inspired from a novel on prison published in 2009, a novel written by Fathi Ben Haj Yahia, leading figure of the Pespectives Movement (*) . Like many of his comrades, the activist of this leftist dissident movement has been imprisoned and tortured in the late 1960’s and during the 1970’s under President Bourguiba’s reign. For the young theatre director, this book is a must. “I read it before even considering writing this play. When we started working, we invited Fathi Ben Haj Yahia and he came to a rehearsal. The book’s universe is identical to that of the play”, says Oueslati. So here’s a young artist from post revolutionary Tunisia, impregnated with the struggle of a generation that let the fight for over than three decades: “I talked to some other prisoners of conscience. We talked about their everyday lives during their imprisonment. This has really helped me and inspired me a lot”, says the artist who has included in his play, an extract from the book read off screen. The performance also includes extract from the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich’s prose.
Transmission of a theatrical heritage
Produced by El Teatro and interpreted by El Teatro Studio’s actors, “The Basket and the Bowl” abounds in the tragicomic style. One passes from smiles to tears in a subtle way. Like for example in this scene where a woman tells her lugubrious experience with the police. State crime, arrest, assault, torture, rape and humiliation…eight years of imprisonment – all faced with laughter. The play is ironic about the resigning mentality, this defeatist culture whose catchword is “let go”.
Three monologues are clearly inspired by Klem Ellil [which literally means “Evening Words”]. This is a dramatic saga, written and directed by Taoufik Jebali that marked the beginning of the 1990’s in Tunisia. Artistic director and founder of El Teatro, since 2007, Jebali has designed the El Teatro Studio, a training workshop dedicated to performance arts.
Mohamed Saber Oueslati took courses there. His first creative work drew on Klem Ellil’s universe. “It has helped me develop one of the main axis of this play’s dramaturgy. It is the one where I address political discourse, lies and the way politicians retain information while pretending to answer questions. After all, I have learned everything from Taoufik Jebali so it is normal that I’m influenced by his acting and by his writing style”, explains the theatre director who is also an actor. Wearing a suit and standing against a desk, he intersects the different scenes of the play with monologues. He sometimes announces the set-up of a party opposing the décor while he sometimes presents his opinion on the controversy over the separation between State and religion and his vision on the need of separation between State and people. To make it short, off-beat satire and humor are present in large doses.
Besides the cinematographic, literary and theatrical references quoted, improbable musical ranges intertwine in the “The Basket and the Bowl”. The experimental electronic music enhances the feeling of doubt and confusion of certain characters. The “Erdha aâlina ya lemmima”, a ballad by Salah Farzit from the 1980’s is the soundtrack of a recurring scene where the prisoners’ families are lining up to visit their relatives. “A picture, rooted in memory, a photo witnessing History” repeats an actress in a monologue towards the end of the play. With this combination of inspiration, “The Basket and the Bowl” relates History and draws a connection between different generations of artists and political activists.
(*) - Left-wing movement.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech