A semi-nude woman walks onto the stage and lets out a shriek that reverberates throughout the theater – one of horror and pain – before the scene plunges into darkness. When the lights come on again, the audience meets deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi in the Tunisian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“Leila and Ben Ali: A Bloody History,” the adaptation currently playing in Tunis, charts the thirst for – and ascension to – power of the former first couple. Once they seize control of the country, “the bloody history” begins.
When invited to participate in the World Shakespeare Festival in London, Tunisian playwright and director Lotfi Achour decided to present a Tunisian adaptation of Macbeth, saying he noticed similarities between the 17th century play and the history of Ben Ali’s regime. Following its July 2012 premier at the festival, the play garnered much critical acclaim.
“When reading Shakespeare, it is hard to believe that it is an Englishman from the seventeenth century,” according to a press release from Artists Producers Associates, Achour’s production company.
“We have lived this story several times before in Tunisia and the Arab world too. Is it going to be a fatality? Are our societies and collective unconscious only meant to create monsters? We hope that this play, ‘Macbeth: Leila and Ben Ali,’ triggers an awakening of the conscious lest the history becomes an eternal resumption,” reads the release.
While Ben Achour’s Macbeth employs elements of the Shakespearean play, it tells the history of Ben Ali, who ousted former President Habib Bourguiba and eventually had to flee the country during the 2011 uprising. In Tunisian dialect, the script retains and embellishes on the original text.
According to the press release, the play is meant to be “a particular Macbeth” that “questions our political imagination and our individual responsibility in promoting dictatorship and possibly its perpetuation.”
The narrator in the introduction exclaims, “How many Macbeths do we have?”
The play blends theater with documentary interviews with religious and political figures ranging from Tunisian blogger Azyz Amami to prominent Ennahdha member Abou Yaareb Marzouki. The interviews also include a conversation with an anonymous prisoner from the Bourguiba era during which Ben Ali started his reign of terror as a minister of the interior. Such documentary clips invite the audience into a reflective reading of historical events.
Scenes of torture were powerfully performed and had a profound impact on audience members, who gasped audibly as a character portraying a political police officer described how victims were tortured while hanging upside down, dripping with blood.
“This is the job, and it is a tough one,” yelled the actor.
In addition to videos, the play employs musical scenes. Composed by Jawhar Basti, the music aids transitions from one scene to another, and sometimes from one era to another. Dummies are also employed as an alter-ego for Ben Ali, and to resurrect Bourguiba, who engages in a witty yet humorous conversation with Ben Ali.
Not only does the play reflect on the history of Ben Ali, but it also provides meta-commentary on the history of Arab civilization in criticism of the play itself. One character appears on stage between scenes commenting on the play and drawing on Ibn Khaldoun’s thoughts.
Quoting Ibn Khaldoun’s saying that adhering to tradition does not make the dead live but makes those living dead, he criticizes an obsession with recreating the past and reliving the golden age of Islamic civilization.
Whether through the image of Leila’s hands drenched in blood, Ben Ali’s last moments before he flees the country, or the Salafist who appears onstage for a brief period of time to give political commentary, the play offers a powerful historical account of politics in Tunisia. It exposes the conflicts that characterized Ben Ali’s regime and reveals the extent to which he was haunted by the legacy of Bourguiba.
“I am the child of the political history of Tunisia,” Ben Ali’s character explains.
The play’s events culminate in the recital of Abu El-Kacem Chebi’s poem, the verses of which became slogans for the revolution.
Sunday’s March 10th performance will be subtitled in English. The show will start at 5 p.m. at “Théâtre 4ème Art” in Tunis ( avenue de Paris). A debate with the artists will follow the performance.