5th Fujairah International Monodrama Festival, 20-28 January 2012, Fujairah, UAE.
What do we mean by theatrical monologue? The Greek origins of the word direct our attention to a speech for one, or a dialogue with oneself. In other words, it implies a “mode of linguistic individuality, a deviation from dialogical conventions of speech,” as Ken Frieden eloquently puts it in his Genius and Monologue (1985). Of course we are not bringing coals to Newcastle by stressing the importance of the theatrical monologue. This form of stage communication has been present throughout theatre history, yet never before has it experienced such popularity as it has in the last thirty years or so. Even standard dramatic texts such as Faust or Hamlet are translated into monologues by artists like Klaus-Michael Grüber and Robert Wilson, just as are works of fiction such as The Brothers Karamazov, Orlando, Finnegans Wake, and dozens more.
It is obvious that the very nature of postmodern culture and the idea of the “death of the subject,” are very much behind this intense interest in the dynamics of the monologue. The subject of postmodernity, divided, decentered and alone, searches for equally decentered modes of expression to articulate his/her subjective position.
And a theatrical monologue offers precisely this: a fruitful terrain for the articulation of lost subjectivity. A chance to speak to the audience rather than to another fictive character, thus raising the theatre viewing experience to a different level. Its ability to transform space and time into narrative space and time gives theatre a new quality, in the sense that one of the basic principles that defines it as a two-way communication system is severely challenged. This deviation from interpersonal discourse shows that theatre can exist without the “construction of a ‘fictional internal communication system’,” according to Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre. The representational qualities of language recede, giving more space and time to theatre as presence.
It is not only the “death of the subject” but also the shrinking theatre budgets that have their own story to tell. The gradual economic meltdown which has led to today’s unbearable recession, dramatically reduced state funding, thus forcing many artists to rediscover “poor theatre,” not in terms of quality but in terms of expenses. Most plays produced, especially by non-profit companies, are now either two or three-character plays or monologues. And the growing number of international festivals hosting plays of this nature testifies to that.
One of them, organized by the Fujairah Culture and Media Authority, is held every two years in the month of January in The Emirate of Fujairah, “the gift of beauty and miraculous creation of Allah, the city of charm and warmth,” as the Arabs call it. The aim of this Festival, as we read in the Festival’s booklet, is to “celebrate theatre as an art which takes people’s artistic awareness to a higher level, and directs their artistic taste away from the sparkle of trophies and competition as is usually the case in other festivals.”
Why the Emirates? The Emirates are rapidly becoming major trade centers, with connections to East and West. Art-wise, they are not players in world culture, yet they do not hide their international aspirations. The opening ceremony that took place at Fujairah Fort with a theatrical dance show tellingly entitled Fujairah: The World Passes through Here, written by the playwright, poet and Festival chairman Mohammad Saeed Al Dhanhani, and performed by Ornina Theatrical Dance Group, was quite revealing concerning the Festival’s international aspirations. As Al Dhanhani said in his own speech, the Fort is “an exceptional place to hold a ceremony. As you go up to the fort’s roof and look at the sea and the ships sailing in its waters, you realize Fujairah is indeed an important link between East and West.”
A total of twelve mono-plays were presented in the 2012 show case, six from Lithuania, Russia, France, Germany, Azerbaijan, and Poland and the rest from Arab countries. Unlike the plays from the West that revealed a concern with the monologue’s performative properties (that bring dance, theatre and installation closer together), most Arab offerings betrayed little or no interest in actual performance. They mostly employed realism mixed with local color in their subject matter with random expressionist ruptures.
A telling example of this was the play To Baghdad by Azal Yahya Idris, from Iraq. It is a story about the personal odyssey of a young Iraqi man who wants to find ways out of his suffocating environment where everybody spies on him. During his odyssey, he experiences all sorts of adventures until he finally arrives at a place which is real and unreal at the same time, a no-man’s land where the young man has to struggle with his own daemons, all alone, a struggle that leads him to an imaginary world of colors and surreal otherness.
A similar quest for freedom and identity run through the Lebanese production of Cutting Ties, written and performed by Rafik Ali Ahmad, and UAE’s production of Fools Rush In, written by Jamal Matar, a television personality, writer and theatre director, and performed by Ahmad Mai Allah.
Azerbaijan’s State Theatre of Young Spectator production of Peter Turrini’s play That’s the End—the story of a man reflecting on his own death (performed by Gurban Ismayilov)—was one of the shows warmly received, and so was Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, by the renowned Lithuanian actress Birute Mar, a tour de force that moved fluidly in and out of the main story’s time and space, creating communication possibilities for a more rounded and profound portrayal of the love affair between a 15-year old French girl and a wealthy Chinese man in Saigon in the 1930s.
The director Inna Sokolova-Gordon, in her attempt to reconstruct episodes from the protagonist’s life in Yukio Mishima’s play Confessions of a Mask by the Theatre Russian Stage, allowed technology and spectacle to overwhelm the actually fine work of the actor’s (Andre Moschoj) live body on stage. He could still have entranced the audience with much less. We missed the essence of the story of this young man struggling to be “normal.” As for Jolanta Juszkiewicz’s Desdemona (Kropka Theatre, Poland), a ritual of memory inspired by Othello, it failed to convince us of its intentions. Neither the diverse dance movement nor the symbolic usage of costume not the poetry of the language managed to make clear what the aim of this adaptation was. What we saw immersed us only superficially in the preoccupations of Shakespeare’s heroine.
Equally lacking was Bruce Myers’ performance of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, adapted by Marie-Helene Estienne and directed by Peter Brook. Little more than a talking “text,” with no pace, no punch, it was quite disappointing for an additional reason. Brook was the first recipient of the Fujairah Award for Excellence in Theatre, and this monologue that dissects the abuse of human freedom gave the impression of an uninspired and poorly rehearsed work.
Finally, the presence of Arab plays written and performed by women, definitely benefitted the Festival’s ideological and aesthetic aspirations by opening up an alternative space which gave a hearing to the narrative of the struggle of Middle Eastern women to survive in a patriarchal society. Without being radical, innovative or subversive, The Pianist (a UAE production written by Malha Abdula from Saudi Arabia and performed by Moroccan actress Latifa Ahrar) and The Guaranteed Way to Get Rid of Stains (written by Rasha Abdul Monem and performed by Reham Abdul Raziq, both from Egypt) succeeded in provoking the spectators’ imagination and understanding.
All performances were presented in two traditional box set structures, although my feeling was that some of these would have fared much better had they been produced in more intimate and less “already signified” spaces. Their removal from the traditional dark room to less marked spaces would have eventually enriched the Festival’s aesthetic scope as well as the momentum and energy of the stage/audience communication.
Also, what the Festival partly failed to provide was an effective handling of the translation problem. It was very difficult for non-Arab participants to contribute to discussions following the shows, as well as to receive things from those shows. But these reservations and critical comments do not subtract from the artistic and cultural value of the festival.
What I found remarkable about this festival is that it provided an environment in which artists and theatre people in general from all over the world (about 200), with vastly different cultural backgrounds, came together as an eclectic performance community and spoke in a variety of languages and forms. It is evident that in such an environment, the Festival will eventually establish itself in the Arab world in general and the UAE in particular, as an important venue for artistic creation and growth. Leaving Fujairah, I took with me images of people who are determined to offer the best and embrace the future. There are things to be done, of course, to reinforce the intercultural physiognomy of the Festival vis-à-vis a rapidly changing world, particularly among Arab countries, yet the bridges across the cultural lines that divide us are laid and this is something that offers hope for the future.
 Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre history and theory in the School of English, in the Graduate School of the Theatre Department of Aristotle University (Greece) and the Drama School of the State Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of nine books on drama criticism/theory and co-editor of another ten. He is also the theatre reviewer for the daily newspaper Aggelioforos. He is a member (and for two years vice president) of ITI (International Theatre Institute, Athens), of the Hellenic Association of Theatre Critics, of the editorial board of Critical Stages, member of the City of Thessaloniki Theatre Board and president of the committee for the best theatrical translation prize.