The compulsion to make artistic work of consequence, acuity and beauty is what drives award-winning, independent Kuwaiti theatre maker Sulayman Al Bassam. This core motivation is ultimately what will take him to Paris in September to direct the first ever play by an Arab author that enters into Comedie Francaise’s permanent repertoire.
‘It’s quite a considerable historical and cultural moment for Comedie Francaise and I suppose for contemporary Arab drama,’ says Bassam. The play is by notable Syrian playwright Saadallah Al Wannous, one of Bassam’s preferred Arab authors.
Bassam has been active in the Arab theatre scene for the last ten years but has been practicing for much longer in a global context. His love affair for performing arts actually started when he was just 19 at the Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh, where he studied for a degree in Literature.
In 1996, Bassam founded Zaoum Theatre in London and then later in 2002 with his wife, British producer, Georgina Van Welie, he co-founded SABAB Theatre in Kuwait.
SABAB is a verb meaning ‘to cause’ and the company itself is unique, says Al Bassam, in that it has no fixed premises. Instead he, his wife and a group of associated artists tour internationally using theatre to raise issues of identity, history, language and culture.
Bassam says he founded SABAB ‘at a time when I came back to live in Kuwait and made the decision I wanted to make contemporary Arabic language drama and wanted the work I was making to address issues that emerged and were about the Arab world and its relationship with other parts of the world.’
The actors that tend to work with him are from different parts of the region – Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf, Iraq – and the creative teams are generally based in London, Paris or New York.
He recognises that while various countries in the region have developed a sophisticated palate for dramatic performances, theatrical interest will tend to outweigh its access, particularly in the Gulf. ‘Nowadays, most intellectual forms of drama are channelled into commercialised television dramas which use very basic dramatic tools,’ he says. ‘There is no sense of that history of exploration, form and content that (has in the Arab world historically taken) place’.
While for the most part Bassam says his inspiration is derived from Western directors, there are a number of his contemporaries in the Arab world whose work he admires and his outlook on the theatre scene in the region remains positive. He says that over the past ten years there has been a growth in the creation of independent work.
He describes his own work as ‘exploring a form of poetic realism and a form of engaged political theatre that has quite a rich history in the region.’ He explains SABAB was particularly conceived to ‘create a type of theatre that is really able to capture some of the enormous energies, traditions, horrors and absurdities of life as a contemporary global Arab with other horizons than just my immediate reality.’
This is presumably why he has been drawn to works of Wannous who often explored the relationship between individuals, societies and authorities.
When asked whether he has a life plan, Bassam pauses and then laughs. ‘I don’t have one of those you know,’ he says. ‘My long-term plan at the moment is to continue to develop the forms that I am working on and to make this piece in Paris and that’s as far as it goes.’
‘In many ways, this company and this journey that I’ve been on has been a maverick journey,’ he reflects. ‘Because it side steps so many of the obstacles that otherwise would have made that kind of project absolutely impossible.’
Ritual for a Metamorphosis opens at the end of April 2013 for Théâtre du Gymnase, Marseille and then transfers to Comedie Francaise, Paris in May 2013. Al Bassam is also working on a new playscript for presentation in 2014 called The Petrol Station.
1 – by Graeme Robertson
2 & 3 – by Laurie Bost
Featured image – by Hamad Al Najjar