BEIRUT: “I hope one day we’ll be able to take [‘El Wewiyeh’] to Damascus,” Nidal al-Ashkar says. “When the situation will allow it, of course!” “El Wewiyeh,” (The Jackal), Nagy Souraty’s Arabic-language adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s classic work of epic theater “Mother Courage,” debuted at Masrah al-Madina earlier this year and has subsequently been revived for a run that ends in mid-March.
The play has attracted local media attention because it marks the return of Ashkar – the renowned actress, dramaturge and founder of Masrah al-Madina – to the Beirut stage.
Now select regional venues will be able to share the joy. After the play wraps its Beirut run on 15 March, it will commence a tour of the Arab World, starting with dates in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
Souraty and Ashkar have been invited to stage their play in the Gulf by culture ministries and a number of private associations there and have further plans to mount “El Wewiyeh” in Kuwait, Amman and Cairo in April and May.
The play’s lead, Ashkar looks forward to taking the work to overseas audiences. “This play has such a powerful contextual weight,” she muses, “the audiences will not know what hit them.”
A multilayered theater piece played out on a complex region-wide stage, “El Wewiyeh” benefits from several viewings.
Every element of the carefully lit stage is redolent of symbolic import. Ibn Arabi’s poetry is woven into the script in a way that touches on circumstantial topics.
The play revolves around the story of the eponymous El Wewiyeh (Ashkar), a single mother of three who believes her wartime commercial activities are justified in order survive and to feed her sons.
As she playfully travels back and forth on the detached wooden train tracks that separate the audience from the stage, El Wewiyeh recounts how her children were conceived.
On a trip to Damascus, she met a Palestinian who was born and bred in the Syrian capital. They conceived a child together whom she named “Dimashq” (Khaled Al Abdallah).
Her son “Baghdad” (Ali Hout) was conceived with another lover, a Syrian man from Baghdad whom she’d met in Jerusalem.
While visiting Baghdad, El Wewiyeh fell in love with a Lebanese man, who dreamt of visiting Jerusalem. With him she conceived a third child she whom named “Quds” (Abed Kobeissy).
“This poetic nomenclature, that hints at a dream of an Arab Nation, embodied by El Wewiyeh, does not serve [to transmit] an ideological message in the play,” Souraty insists. “I am telling a story but I am not a historian per se.”
To underline that his play is historical fiction, not proper history, Souraty cast puppeteer Hadi Deaibess to portray the rest of the characters, whom the director believes are two-dimensional.
“The puppets,” Souraty clarifies, “are here to remind one that this is a fiction.”
Aside from Ashkar’s several dialogues with Abdallah, “El Wewiyeh” is more or less a one-woman show. Hout and Kobeissy, both musicians, appear on stage to provide the production with a live soundtrack, while the puppets – elaborately decorated life-sized heads lent cartoonish voices by Deaibess – don’t give the formidable actress much to play off.
Whether intentionally or not, the puppets arguably succeed in breaking the audiences’ emotional connection with the drama, inducing the reflective detachment Brecht sought to elicit in his viewers. Souraty stresses, however, that his adaptation marks a significant departure from Brecht’s source text.
“‘Mother Courage,’ the original [play] on which this [work] is based, is an anti-war play par excellence,” Souraty explains. “‘El Wewiyeh,’ on the other hand, embellishes death in a way. Dimashq, Baghdad and Quds die in the play, whereas El Wewiyeh, the dream of an Arab nation, is the sole survivor.”
For Ashkar, the play is reminiscent of a time when national borders could be easily traversed.
“El Wewiyeh,” she says, “revives a nostalgia [for] when Arabs were able to travel the entire region.”