A handcuffed young man is crouching, motionless, like frozen, in the square of light coming from the window of his cell. The shades of the bars are projected on his bare chest. To cinema enthusiasts, this would look like a scene from Birdy, the 1985 Alan Parker cult film. But it is not.
This is Le Couffin et la Gamelle (The Cradle and the Bowl), a Tunisian play presented in February at the Tunis El Teatro theatre as part of “Avant-Première”, an event dedicated to young Tunisian talents. So, what does the director Mohamed Saber Oueslati say, is the scene a reference to Birdy?
“It just happened this way. This is the first play that I set and directed, and I decided to go for a series of stills rather than going along a narrative, act after act. I wanted to convey a sense of isolation. The darkness and lights reduce the play area to mere quadrangles. It allowed me to create the atmosphere I envisioned.”
The influence of prison novels
Le Couffin et la Gamelle is dedicated to “current and forthcoming prisoners of conscience in Turkey and worldwide”, and is one the very first political plays written after the Tunisian revolution. Its title actually comes from a prison novel from 2009 written by Fathi Ben Haj Yahia, an activist and key figure of the former leftist opposition movement Perspectives. Ben Haj Yahia and many of his comrades were jailed and tortured in the 60s and 70s under Bourguiba’s regime. For Oueslati, this book is was a must-read. “I had read it long before starting to think about writing this play. When we started working on it, we invited Fathi Ben Haj Yahia. He also came to a rehearsal. The play’s ambiance is drawn from the universe of the book.”
Oueslati carries the heritage of a struggle led over three decades ago. “I interviewed other political prisoners. We talked about their daily life in detention. It helped and inspired me a lot.” As a sign of this heritage, excerpts from writings of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish are read during the play.
Passing theatre from generation to generation
Le Couffin et la Gamelle, which is produced by El Teatro and stars actors of the El Teatro Studio, has a definite tragicomic edge. It switches from tears to smiles in a subtle way: like in the scene with a woman who recounts her dreadful experience in the hands of the political police. State violence, arrest, physical abuse, torture, rape and humiliation – eight years of detention are dealt with with laughter.
The play’s acidic humour targets the defeatist culture of resignation, which is illustrated well by the French idiom “Laisse tomber” (Drop it). It includes three monologues, all inspired by Klem Ellil (The Words of the Night), a theatre saga by Taoufik Jebali which became famous in Tunisia in the early 90s. Jebali is the founder and art director of El Teatro, and he created El Teatro Studio, an institution at which Oueslati was a student, in 2007. In his first work, Oueslati draws from the Klem Ellil universe. “It was been very useful for developing a core aspect of the play’s dramaturgy, that in which I’m dealing with political discourse, lies and empty words. I’ve learned everything from Taoufik Jebali. Both as an actor and a writer, I’ve been influenced by his style.”
Dressed in a tuxedo, positioned in front of a stand, Oueslati delivers his monologues between the different parts of the play. At one point he announces the founding of a phony opposition party. At another, he speaks his mind on the issue of separation between the state and religion. His vision: the state should necessarily be separated from its people. You got it – it is all satire and offbeat humour.
Beside the references to cinema, literature and theatre, unexpected music styles come together in Le Couffin et la Gamelle. Experimental electronic music serve to strengthen the levels of doubt, confusion and uncertainty of some of the characters. Erdha aâlina ya lemminma, a mezoued ballad from the 80s, is used as the musical background for a scene where the families of inmates are waiting in line to visit their relatives.
In a monologue at the end of the play, one of the actors repeats the sentence “A picture rooted in memory, a testimony of history”. With its many references and sources of inspiration, Le Couffin et la Gamelle tells a story that spans generations, linking artistic creation to political activism.
Written by Thameur Mekki, published with the courtesy of Babelmed and translated by Gregory Dziedzic.