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Bringing raw recent history to the stage is a delicate business. The worse the horror, the harder it is to resist polemic, sensationalism, excess. Go too far the other way and you’re into documentary. Either way, it’s a challenge to give media-worn material a distinctive theatrical form.
This production is doubly interesting because the play is an adaptation by Algerian writer Arezki Mellal of his first and prize-winning novel (Now Let Them Come). Its background is the terrible 1990s during which nearly 200,000 Algerians were massacred in the conflict between the government and Islamist rebel groups – and the author still writes under a pseudonym. But the play’s structure is intimate, interweaving messy individual stories with the unfolding national tragedy. Paul Desveaux’s direction and design finds the right note of simplicity, stark to the point of harshness. And not a drop of blood in sight.
The linchpin is an anonymous young narrator (impressive Fabrice Cals), overshadowed by an all-controlling sick mother dying on grainy video. Women’s uneasy place in this male society is exposed as he wavers between sensual pleasure versus sexual convention. The ease with which forces of social cruelty smother compassion is uncompromisingly revealed though his abusive divorce, his shamed ex-wife’s humiliation in the integrist stronghold of the Kasbah, the revelation of love for his baby girl he tried to get aborted.
Over this personal patchwork hovers the creeping smog of barbarism. Exchanges between the small band of characters, especially Slimane (Sid Ahmed Agoumi) and communist Salah (Serge Biavan), graphically mock fundamentalist excesses, evoke the impossibility of exile and the terror of making even a simple journey. Chilling passages analyse how normal people can inflict such cruelty on others in the name of unquestioning faith in authority. “It makes you an animal,” comes the sardonic retort.
The text is sometimes too wordy and turns didactic with clunky comparisons between different fundamentalisms (the “bearded ones” of Algeria versus the ayatollahs of Iran). But overall it’s a powerful poetic piece that resonates well beyond its Algerian context and certainly merits a live audience beyond the pages of a novel.
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