The London International Festival of Theatre blazed the trail in turning international drama events in this country from blue-moon rare occurrences to the normal part of the cultural fabric which they should be and now are. This is not to say that LIFT has outlived its usefulness and value – far from it – but it does mean that we are now much less likely to accord indulgent reverence to a production simply because it comes from a far-away land of which we know little. People from exotic parts can make dreary shows too.
Which brings me to Memory Of Ashes by Syrian company Al-Rasif. I cannot speak for Ismael Hamlet, the company's other show on display, but this one, even at fifty minutes, seemed tedious in the extreme; I saw it on the longest day of the year, and by gum, it felt like it. Chams (Roula al-Fattal) is a past-her-prime belly-dancer on the streets of Damascus; Hilal (Hakin Marzougi) is her drummer-accompanist, manager and pimp. They dream of obtaining visas for America; they argue with the tiredness of those long shackled together, and reminisce about their childhood days when they would play on the mule-cart as Hilal's father sold heating oil and Chams's wrote about Arab unity – those long-gone days before she acquired her fat belly, dyed hair and false breasts. (These are all almost verbatim quotations.) And that is all there is to it.
The staging is unadventurous: two people talking a lot in various kinds of half-light, and occasionally drumming and/or dancing for a few seconds. There is nothing to engage the eye. We must, therefore, focus entirely on the content. Unfortunately, the surtitling – at least on this first night – was erratic in the extreme: out of sync with the dialogue (as far as one could tell), repeating and missing out vast swathes of dialogue. This was even more frustrating, as the response of the Arabic speakers in the audience indicated that the script is frequently leavened with grim humour, but during every one of these remarks the surtitle board remained dark. All the rest of us could understand from the piece as presented was the not exactly revelatory message that it's grim up the Levant. Well, whoopee.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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