For twelve years people knew it as the Fujairah International Monodrama Festival, the platform that has brought new theatre to audiences of the region. As of February 2016 it goes by the name Fujairah International Arts Festival. It still maintains its established dates and leadership pattern. It takes place every two years in Fujairah, the small mountainous desert emirate on the eastern coast, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin al-Sarqui, ruler of Fujairah and the direction of Mohammed Saif Al Afkham, a native of Fujairah who is also the current president of ITI and a board member of the Fujairah Culture and Media Authority.
According to the organizers, the Festival fulfills its primary stated purpose, which is to “help spread the values of tolerance and peace.” What is more pronounced in this first edition is the desire of the organizers to show how interconnected and complementary arts and cultures are and also to showcase the UAE heritage and how it relates to the rest of the world. This was an aim particularly emphasized in the Festival’s spectacular opening on the 19th of February 2016—attended by well over 600 artists and journalists from 62 countries, who watched the Rise of Glory operetta, a seven-scene tribute to the UAE’s history and geography directed and choreographed by Nasser Ibrahim—and in the Festival’s closing concert with the Arab superstar, Kazem Al Saher.
As the emirate of Fujairah prepares to enter the post-petroleum era, the opening envisioned the day after, the resources that promise to keep the country moving forward.
The duration of the Festival was ten days. Its activities were accommodated in venues which spread from the City of Fujairah to the City of Dibba and to Masafi. Theatre performances attracted the standard international and local crowd of the Monodrama showcase (now number seven). Many good and grippingly realized moments came from the showcased plays whose diversity of styles, ranging from dance, to stand up comedy, to sentimental realism, to confessional story telling, to pantomime, to circus, enriched the festival’s interdisciplinary physiognomy and showed that the language of performance, if carefully tended, can indeed feel universal.
All other events (such as music, folk dancing and carnivals) attracted mostly a local, albeit heterogeneous, crowd. Among the highlights was the traditional sword-fighting competition, which brought together different swordsmen from the Arab Gulf region. Also, the Sohag Troupe from Upper Egypt, which staged a spectacular four-act show of songs, dance routines, traditional music, acrobatics and theatrics at the Heritage Village in Dibba, emerged as one of the major spectacles of the Festival.
In many plays coming from the West there was an entertaining playfulness. A case in point was Playing Maggie, a performance where audience interaction and direct address emphasized the process of co-creation by performer and theatre audience in the formation of the character of the show. It is hard to pin down exactly what the most appealing aspect of Pip Utton’s impersonations was. Costumed in the typical Margaret Thatcher dressing code, Utton nicely sustained his presence as an intermediary between audience and character. His smooth metamorphoses were successfully delivered in a non-psychological, non-representational manner.
Pip Utton as Thatcher
On a totally bare stage, lit only by a couple of spotlights, Olga Kosterina’s hybrid and highly corporeal performance Dilemma kept the audience entranced. Physical theatre, pantomime, acrobatics, circus and ballet were recruited by this talented Russian dancer to map her painful journey into the world of good and evil, the world of the living and the dead.
The Italian play Immota Mane (Luigi Guerrieri), based on stories inspired by the earthquake that hit the city of L’ Aquila, only partly conveyed the feeling of this traumatic experience. For the most part, the performance struggled to find its footing. Equally problematic was the adaptation of Lorca’s major work Blood Wedding, a tragic story focusing on the idea of individual freedom, directed by Pati Domenech. In this interdisciplinary show, neither the singing nor the flamenco dancing, neither the acting of Maria Vidal nor the video projections, managed to create the dynamics of this modern tragedy which involves the Mother, the bride and the moon.
The performance haMEmo, written and directed by Taina MakiIso from Finland, was about living and dying, about remembering and forgetting. Resorting to a Charlie Chaplin body language, Makilso as Tapikka the Clown, presented a show quick in movement, in character shifts and pacing, but not as successful in moving to a more challenging artistic expression.
Taina MakiIso in haMEmo
The Mongolian Lady Macbeth, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, could have been much better had the director found, especially in the second part—the first part featured a more resourceful personal storytelling—more imaginative ways to bring into better focus Lady Macbeth’s culminating thirst for power and glory. Nuri Akran, from Turkey, demonstrated qualities of a good dancer while performing Rumi’s philosophy in Rumination (directed by Emre Erdem).
Lady Macbeth in Moggolian dress
As for the Arab plays, the interactive Amchouta, directed by Hamza Bouleiz and performed by Jalila Talemsi from Morocco, drew on the local tradition of the hakawat—the dramatic narrator who sat in the principal coffee houses of large towns entertaining the all-male patrons by reciting stories—and told us the life of a waitress in a café in Tangier, who is fired when her boss finds out that she is pregnant. Amchouta, enraged by the unfair decision of her boss, directs all her anger towards him and towards the customers, who happen to be us, the spectators who are invited to sit on the stage, forming a circle and thus creating more intimacy by challenging the frames separating viewing from acting space.
The gift of storytelling and the magic of art’s ability to move the listerner was also evident in the Tunisian Khokha’s Tale, adapted, directed and performed by Mohammed Aroussi Zubaidi. The performer presented the love story of two orphans, Khaled and Khadeeja, who planted their seed of love in the house courtyard (Khokha=plum tree). While recounting the events, he resorted to different performative techniques ranging from body language, to singing, to drum playing, to humor, interplay that warmed up the stage-audience encounter.
Rawan Hallawi from Lebanon brought to the Festival the monologue Talejten Please [Two Ice Cubes, Please], whose storyline unfolds in a bar the woman frequents. In the bar’s loneliness the heroine finds freedom, freedom to talk, to start again. She does not care what others say about her. She wants to be true to herself. The “story of that woman is my story,” the writer confides to the audience, and closes her performance on a mildly feminist tone “with which not everybody agreed,” as the Festival program notes, “but it certainly was thought-provoking.”
Talejten Please [Two Ice Cubes, Please]
The Elegy for the Fifth String, of Mofleh Al-Odwan from the UAE, the winning text in the 4th cycle of the Arabic Playwriting Competition 2015, produced by Fujairah Culture and Media Authority and directed by Firas Al Masre, is an elegy performed with zest and confessional passion by Abdulla Masoud, whose lines somehow echo the theme of this first Festival edition: ”I am Ziryab. Over the ages I renounced hatred and discrimination… To preserve life I will play the chord of love, tolerance, creativity, beauty and peace…”
The narrator of the Elegy for the Fifth String
What I found interesting in a number of Arab plays is how they chose to move closer to a third place, neither strictly Arabic nor strictly Western, carrying their sameness and otherness in a harmonious whole. They recalled the past but also vibrated with questions being asked today, questions not so much political or religious but existential. They gave credence to the impact of live theatre to touch the spectator on a deep emotional level.
Seeing their full expressive potential, one begins to understand their growing importance in contemporary world theatre.
At a time of crisis, like the one the world experiences right now, international projects like this may not provide solutions to the world’s problems (after all this is not their job), but at least they offer a hospitable terrain to cultivate togetherness and also show the arts’ current diversity and reach. The people who run the Fujairah International Festival are aware of that potential and they do their best to create and maintain this very fertile theatre community, with followers willing to contemplate and formulate common goals based on intellectual and artistic friendship.
As in all Festivals around the world, not all invited shows met everybody’s expectations. Some were more inviting, daring and imaginative, and others more reserved and poorly conceived and realized. Yet, altogether they provided the ground for a complex, mutually supportive web of associations. By interconnecting worlds seemingly apart, they confronted the visitor with a wide and vivid sampling of artistic expressions, agonies and concerns, not easily encountered elsewhere. A worthwhile new start, a project to be acknowledged and appreciated.
First published in Critical Stages 13 (2016)