The Scottish Play in Tunisia

Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody HistoryRiverside Studios, 6th July 2012**Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was President of Tunisia from 1987 to 2011, when he was driven out of the country by protests against his rule. Since fleeing the country he has been sentenced in absentia on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking. His wife, Leila, has likewise been found guilty of embezzlement from the state to fund her own luxurious lifestyle, as well as the crime of high treason.Leila and BenAll this seems very far from the Scotland of King Duncan in some ambiguous distant past. Yet the likeness grows clear before long, when subtitles on the screen that stretches across the back of the stage explain that in the years following Ben Ali’s departure, saying his name felt like a kind of jinx, in the same way that actors will avoid naming the Scottish play. A spotlight illuminated a woman on stage with a bag over her head, clad in only her underwear, who then proceeded to shriek and scream for a good few minutes, making me sincerely question whether I was going to be able to stomach the rest of the show. From then on, however, the surrealism became a little less stark. Leila approached her sleeping husband on the bed, recounting a dream he’d told her of in which he seized power, and prayed for strength and masculinity of her own not unlike Lady Macbeth.The style of the production was sometimes jarring, mixing obscure footage of animals with interviews with people about Ben Ali’s rule, interspersed with music, puppetry, and speeches given by the actors rather than their characters. Even the appearance of the actors was a cause for confusion, as the top halves of the principal actors’ faces were so thickly made-up as to give the impression of artificiality – in the first scene I couldn’t be certain whether the unmoving Ben Ali was an actor or a puppet. The appearance of four Ben Ali puppets later in the show which were carried around by his supporters served only to complicate matters. A strange, abnormally tall witch-figure seemed to be an actor on stilts, but she rose up from the ground so smoothly it was difficult to comprehend and more than a little eerie.Occasionally the play did become very difficult to watch; when footage of a slaughtered pig hanging from the ceiling was projected onto the screen, as one example, or when Ben and Leila appear on stage wearing only their underclothes, splattered in blood and staring out into the audience. There were also moments of humour, such as the scene in which a man singing a song of loyalty to Bourguiba (Ben Ali’s predecessor) is interrupted by a man who whispers in his ear; he seamlessly continues his song, though the name has now changed to MacZine.Before I saw the play, as a volunteer for LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), I was able to glance at a couple of evaluation forms for the show. One said simply ‘It’s not Macbeth’. The other had checked the box labelled ‘Brilliant’ with two enthusiastic ticks. For me the parallels with Macbeth were clear, though the play wasn’t a direct translation into the Arabic. I fall somewhere between these two opinions. The performance dragged me out of my comfort zone but it also enlightened me to real historical events in a form I enjoyed. And you’d be surprised how easy it is to follow projected subtitles on a screen while a performance of Macbeth takes place in Arabic and French before you. Alex MullarkyImage by Kean | Lanyon