News Column

The courage and downfall of a mother

December 2, 2013


Dec. 02--BEIRUT -- Stage director Nagy Souraty and founder of Masrah al-Madina Nidal al-Achkar have collaborated on a unique project this winter -- together they have given Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" a makeover. Adapted and translated into Arabic by Elie Adabachi, "El Wewiyeh" will mark a long-anticipated return to the stage by Achkar. Souraty and Achkar -- both prominent figures on the Lebanese theater scene -- talked to The Daily Star about the production, opening at Masrah al-Madina Dec. 7.

Q: This play is an adaptation of Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children." Though it plays out over a 12-year period during the 30 Years' War, Brecht is said to have written the play in response to Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland. Your press release suggests you were compelled to stage this play at this time because of the situation in the Middle East, post-Arab Spring. When and where was the adaptation set?

NS: "Mother Courage and Her Children" by Brecht was the initiation point, if you want. You will not see it on stage, you will see something else. Although all the texts that are in the play are from "Mother Courage," we have three scenes which are taken from texts by Ibn Arabi, who is a very controversial philosopher.

In Brecht's play, you have 27 characters. I took the four major characters, which are Mother Courage and her three children. [As for] the 23 other characters, I reduced them to five characters ... portrayed by puppets. So you actually have five actors onstage. The three children -- two of them are musicians, one is a singer -- Mother Courage [Achkar] and the puppeteer. The musicians and composers are Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissi and the third son [who has talking parts and silent parts] is Khaled El Abdallah.

Brecht's text was written at the time [of the 1939 German invasion of Poland], but it is set in the 16th century. I disregarded this completely. It is considered the greatest anti-war play ... in the history of theater. It is the story of a woman who is surrounded by internal wars, and who understood that wars are to be continued. ... She decides she has to take advantage of these wars and to make use of them. She becomes a trader. She sells and buys everything, and her aim is to survive with her children. For us, the play is not situated in Europe. It could be anywhere, and it does not have a time frame. It can be anytime. At the same time, we have geopolitical references because the names of her children here are names of three [regional] cities. Automatically, you link it to what is happening around us.

Q: The character of Mother Courage is a notorious war profiteer who loses her three children while chasing after money. Does this side of her character survive Elie Adabachi's adaptation?

NS: She is [a war profiteer] but she is not a mean person. She just automatically decided to survive, and that was her only way of surviving. In our adaptation, her name is not Mother Courage, her name is "El Wewiyeh" which is the vixen -- the female jackal. It is an animal that survives, that tries to make the best of [its surroundings].

Q: Nidal, Beirut knows you as a multitasking theater entrepreneur -- actor, writer-director and founder of Masrah al-Madina -- but we haven't seen you on stage recently. When is the last time you acted in the theater?

NA: It's not very accurate to say that I haven't been on stage for a long time, because I have been touring [doing] poetry readings all over Lebanon and [abroad] for thirty years.

... In the '90s, I did a play about the wars, "Al Halaba" written by Paul Shaoul. ... When we came to Beirut, it was dark. There was no electricity. ... It [was] a great success. We were supposed to go all around the Arab World and [to] Paris, but the Iraqi war started. That was the last play I acted in.

In 1994, I opened the theater Madina in Clemenceau. ... I've been really busy these twenty years. I [directed] many plays that were great hits in Beirut.

A few years ago, we decided that we wanted to start something. We wanted to do an experiment with "Mother Courage." The play has the skeleton of "Mother Courage." It is very modern now, Nagy [transformed] it. In fact, this play is not about the war. It is about a woman living in the war and living off the war -- it is a very flourishing business for her. Peace is her enemy. She thinks it's death.

Q: Nidal, Brecht wrote Mother Courage as an essentially unsympathetic character who never learns her lesson. Do you plan to depict her in more sympathetic terms or retain her as he imagined her?

NA: She is sympathetic in her own way. She is a woman who is struggling to survive. We can say it is a black comedy. She is quite a character, this lady. She is as she is, you know. She does not care, she is very straightforward. It is fun to play her. ... This woman is very touching ... but it is not a sad play. What would have been easy was to do something about what is happening now, but I never liked this direct theater. Nagy did a good job in reconstructing the play and Elie Adabachi ... made it ours. It is now an Arab play, about an Arab woman.

Q: Nagy, how is this play different from the previous ones you've directed?

NS: I think the audience should answer this question. They will see if it is different or not. I see my work as one continuous working process. I don't consider my plays separately. You can find elements that are in all my plays. The most important [is] music.

I have the chance to work with two fantastic musicians, Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissi, who composed and created the music and who are performing it live on the stage. And I have the great advantage of having with me Khaled Abdallah, who has a very special voice. Maybe it is the first time I go that far in terms of creation of music and in terms of interpretation, because I have three great interpreters of music.

And our big scoop is that Nidal will be singing on stage and not many people have heard her sing before. Actually she has a fantastic voice!

The aesthetics are there. I have been working with the same team of designers for more than ten years now. It is my family of designers without whom I cannot work. This is what gives the signature to my plays, I think.

Q: Is the choice to adapt Brecht's text a means of expressing your personal views on the situation in the region without explicitly taking responsibility?

NS: I'm not someone who uses theater to [convey] an opinion. I don't believe this is the objective of theater. I am someone who uses theater to ask questions and maybe to let out a certain number of worries and anxieties.

This is an extremely topical text ... to reflect what is happening in the world today, hence the need for me to work on it. ... I consider that what I am working on imposes itself on me. The choice of "Mother Courage" was of course initiated by the character itself. I have the great luxury and luck to [work with] an actress like Nidal al-Achkar, so I needed to find a character that suits her, that challenges her.

Q: There will be a combination of music, puppetry, dialogue and singing. Why chose such a mix instead of sticking to dialogues or monologues?

NS: When I was rereading Brecht's text, it [struck] me that this sounded like a puppet show. There's a two-dimensional aspect to all the characters, except Mother Courage. The only two real characters in Brecht's text are Mother Courage and one of her children. All the others are flat and two-dimensional, and I visualized it as a puppet show or a cartoon. This woman exists alone. She is surrounded by all these people who are just puppets. ... The only people she cares about are her children. ... She often says in the play: "I will find myself alone."

My reading of Brecht's play is a monologue by Mother Courage where all the characters are just puppets. Otherwise I would have never been able to reduce all these characters down to five.

"El Wewiyeh" will take place at Masrah al-Madina from Dec. 7-14. For ticketing, please call 01-999-666 or 01-753-010.


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