Foreign playwrights are a rare species on the Comédie-Française’s main stage, particularly when their name isn’t Shakespeare or Chekhov. Three cheers, then, for the theatre’s long-overdue first production of an Arabic-language play (albeit performed in French translation). That the lucky winner is Syria-born Saadallah Wannous’s Rituel pour une métamorphose (Ritual for a Metamorphosis) shows the troupe to have nerve, too, as this tale of crushed female emancipation pulls no punches in Sulayman Al-Bassam’s emphatic staging.
Indeed, nearly 20 years after it was written, Wannous’s play is more politically loaded than ever. With its harems and power struggle set in a timelessly traditional Damascus, Rituel toys with the conventions of Arabian legends to probe the mechanisms of social orthodoxy. The first scene sees the shaming of Abdallah, a powerful official, set up by the local mufti to be discovered with a prostitute. The real story, however, starts when Abdallah’s wife, Mou’mina, sets a condition for helping secure his release: to be repudiated and hence for their marriage to be dissolved. Once the deed is done, she sets out to become a courtesan herself, ditching her veil and her “honour” to live by her own rules.
Her extraordinary move shakes Damascus to the core: the men’s obsession with her grows as the finest perfume and tea is named after Mou’mina, who now trades as Almâssa, “the diamond”. There is no happy ending, obviously, and Wannous shows with masterly clarity that women are never seen for what they are in this setting: if they don’t fit into existing categories, either honourable woman or whore, their very existence becomes a threat. Even as he falls for the heroine, the mufti issues a fatwa against prostitutes.
Not that the place of women is the only issue at hand. With it come the notion of family honour, the politics of shaming and the confrontation between religious and executive powers – all deftly handled in the finely tuned text.
It’s chilling material, and Kuwaiti director Al-Bassam delivers a production that plays to the Comédie’s strengths as an ensemble. The sets, the walls of a Damascus house where every door is an iron grate, are ornate yet unostentatious, and the traditional costumes avoid the Orientalist trap in subdued colours. The final scene is left to a bare stage, with Almâssa still in the centre, a sacrificial victim among candles.
The cast bridges the cultural gap very well on stage, led by Thierry Hancisse, imposing yet human as the mufti, but it is the spellbinding Julie Sicard who holds the play together. As Mou’mina/Almâssa, she gives the full measure of the heroine’s hypnotic independence and yearning for sensuality. The audience filed out in stunned silence after her demise – a bleak cautionary tale, with echoes far beyond the confines of the Arab world.