Includes: Exclusive Insight From Director Kay Adshead and British Syrian-Lebanese Actress Alia Alzougbi
It took over three years from first impulse-inspiration to gathering the necessary crowd and institutional funding to finally be able to deliver at The Arcola Theatre this week. ‘The Singing Stones’ is a triad of plays that creatively tackles the challenging role of Arab women during the Revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) starting circa January 2011 to the post-revolutionary period up until where we are today.
This is a play that will surely bring up the controversial hot topic of Arab women and how they have faired during and after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. It will parallel some of the real events that saw some Arab women truly suffer; and, for this, it will open itself to the charge of focusing too much on the negative and not highlighting any positive message. It may also be seen as framing Arab women as preys with little hope in sight to claim their rightful political, social and economic position in their countries after all the upheaval.
Created by acclaimed director Kay Adshead and developed for her unique repertory company Mama Quilla – that boasts a deliberately multi-racial and diverse female cast and that works to spotlight human rights issues from a female perspective - this three-part performance follows the Arab women who first took to the streets with their fellow men to protest in order to topple the old dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and in Syria; but, many of whom were later mistreated, some sexually abused and pushed aside.
I had lots of questions to ask Kay Adshead when we spoke recently and I wanted to know more about her views regarding Arab women and their role in the MENA Revolutions and about the production.
Adshead said: “I believe that Arab women were pivotal and crucial in terms of kicking things off. But I think their role was that they were very briefly celebrated, very quickly ignored and ultimately shamefully derided. And, now, I think they are struggling and they are not alone. A lot of people in the world with the current situation are struggling.
“It just feels as if for a very small brief moment in history there was a chance to do something wonderful. A chance to make real changes and that we all, the whole world, and I don’t’ mean just Arab women at all. It is the opposite. We all let it slip through our fingers and we have to think about why that happened and how we can do a damage limitation on that.”
As to whether or not the play hints at Arab women being inevitable victims, she said: “There is absolutely no sense in the play that Arab women are victims. Arab women are as diverse, interesting, powerful and sometimes weak like any other kind of women. This play is about universal things and what we found in the stories were scenes that affect everybody; not just Arab women, but every single woman on the planet.
“My company uses the line that women are not free anywhere in this world until all women in the world are free. And, I think we have a moral responsibility in the West to take ownership of other women’s stories and to publicise them and to try to improve their lives.”
‘The Women’s Spring’
The seed for the culminated three-part project was planted as part of another Mama Quilla Initiative titled ‘Theatre of Protest’ made for The Roundhouse Theatre in 2011; that looked at the phenomenon of protest all over the world, beginning with the young school students in England who were protesting against tuition fees and then moving on to the English Summer of Discontent aka the English Riots.
Adshead had then included a short play titled ‘The Women’s Spring’ which focused on the revolutionary events that were concurrently taking place in Tahrir Square, Egypt; when some women began to blog online about very shameful treatment that saw them being subjected to virginity testing, rape and other forms of sexual violence in the square. And, although, at one point they were promised redress by then incoming President Mohamed Morsi, this never really materialised for them.
This play has now been developed into six scenes which further incorporate the stories of women in Tunisia (looking at the constituent assembly and elections), Libya (taking the premise of the women who looked down the drain pipe at Gaddafi) and Syria (under the Islamic State and how people are trying to get in and out); as well as the female fighting forces on the borders of Kurdistan. It then all dramatically ties up with a group of female artists in Camberwell, London who are trying to make a play about women in the Arab Revolutions!
‘The Stones’ + The ‘Masasit Mati’ Puppeteers
More recently devised, another segment is titled ‘The Stones’. This was created in collaboration with the British Syrian-Lebanese actress, Alia Alzougbi, who is the only Arab woman within the cast. Its focus is more to ponder on the creative role of artists during times of war and revolution, which features the unusual addition of a life-size female puppet taking part as a theatrical twist to the piece.
Set in Syria, this was directly inspired by the real-life puppeteer company Masasit Mati, who are the anonymous group of ten young dissident Syrian artists who came together to make puppet shows mocking Assad. It tells the story of a young female puppeteer, played by Alzougbi, who has her hands smashed so that she is no longer able to perform.
I was able to ask Alzougbi about this role. She said: “I met Masasit Mati when I was in Beirut over the winter break and I was star struck… in the sense that I was sitting face to face with the embodiment of courage and wit in the face of danger. These guys were crossing the borders back and forth between Syria and Lebanon to do their puppetry theatre in the streets of war torn Syria, risking their lives to let people know that their story is not forgotten.”
She also added: “When you meet people like this, you feel that the work you are doing here is nothing compared to the work they’re doing. Our responsibility is to carry their work through so that others can see. It was an encounter that shook me to the core.”
‘The Singing Stones’
The last segment, which is titled ‘The Singing Stones’, is described as a revolutionary folktale, taking from the Arabian Nights and Arabic class poetry and the idea of celebrating folk political heroes. It is a made-up story of a woman who sings in Tahrir Square because her husband has been kidnapped and taken away; but then she is dragged off the square… and the women of the square come and play stones in her heels.
She is then kept prisoner until she is released to sing on the new president’s inauguration day. But instead of singing, she gives birth to a child and the birds all fly back to the square and go land on the stones. For Adshead, this is meant to be a magic realist ending to the play, to bring a sense of hope and the notion of resurrection and rebirth.
Also promised within the plays is a lot of humour and featuring some original films from Masasit Mati. Adshead said: “I was very inspired by Masasit Mati and by them saying the way you stop people being afraid and overwhelmed and oppressed is to make them laugh. That is what they did with Assad and I hope my piece will make people laugh as well. In all the horror of everything that has gone on, I hope it is funny.”
Altogether, there are 54 parts in the triad of plays and each actress and actor will play a whole range of parts. The multi-racial and diverse thespian ensemble includes eight women and one man: Arinda Alexander-Kaur, Alia Alzougbi, Sarah Auber, Tina Gray, Rhiannon James, Jody Jameson, Rus Kallan, Eugenia Low and Vivienne Rochester.
Last but not least, there will be an original musical score composed by the world-renowned musician-singer Najma Akhtar. She has been hailed a pioneer in using modern jazz influences with Indian vocals and helping to create a beautiful fusion of eastern and western instrumentals. She will perform live on some nights.
‘The Singing Stones’ will run from 4-28 February, 2015 at The Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL.
To book tickets: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/the-singing-stones
For more on Mama Quilla: http://www.mamaquilla.org/
For more on Masasit Mati: http://masasitmati.org/