On Tuesday 20 May, as part of this year’s Spring Festival, Downtown’s Falaki Theatre hosted the Tunisian play Ghilan (Monsters), directed by Ezzedine Gannoun and written by Leila Toubel, who had previously collaborated on several works that proved successful in and outside of Tunisia.
Monsters is Gannoun’s first work since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. It was performed for the first time in Tunis’ Hamra Theatre in mid-2013, one and a half years after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the capital.
Five characters share the spotlight throughout the play, symbolising the different stereotypes that led Tunisia astray after its awakening: a corrupt businessman and parliamentarian, a sultry informant with a smooth singing voice, an opportunistic media mogul, a two-faced computer geek and a politically savvy socialite with a shady past.
The only props in Monsters are five chairs, one for each character, representing the power and position they hold so dear. Most of the time, the actors are glued to the chairs, rolling and gliding across the stage. In a memorable monologue, Guitano, the businessman, addresses his chair directly, clinging to it as it slithers away, begging it not to leave him. He is suddenly in a vulnerable situation, threatened to lose his status, and the idea drives him mad. “I’d lie for you; I’d kill for you… I love you more than my children, more than my country,” he wails.
In another scene, two characters open up about their previous lives, reminiscing on their older, purer selves. As they speak, they tango, each seated atop his chair. Their movements, though laced with a strange, elusive gracefulness, are awkward and restrained. The chairs hinder their dance; their newfound authority keeps them from reconnecting with their better side.
Alternating between a direct narrative such as that in Guitano’s imploration of the chair, and a subtler poeticism found in parts similar to the tango, Monsters delivers an introspective look into a society torn apart between a troubled past and uncertain future, suspended in a revolutionary moment, faced with a myriad of existential and moral questions that threaten its very foundations. Beneath the pressures imposed by such variables, individuals struggle and often crack. The five ‘monsters’ are no different.
Each time one speaks about values and ideals, shedding light on any redeeming quality they might enjoy, another would chime in, reminding them of their sins. In a way, each character becomes a mirror for the other, where they can be seen stark naked, the ugliness within emphasised.
Monsters also serves as a close documentation of the human brain as it seeks to justify the actions of the person whose head it inhibits. One by one the characters find excuses for themselves, and the audience gets to experience the transition from doubt to conviction; how they eventually manage to persuade themselves and believe they had no other choice; they’re not that bad, they have their reasons. Even near the end of the play, when the characters all find themselves in need of rescue, and decide to appeal to ‘the people’, begging for forgiveness, they confess their deeds, their voices soaked in repentance, only to later rejoice in their choices, acknowledging the fact that they will never really change.
The desolate image of cold-hearted pragmatism and corruption is bracketed within an opening and an ending that brim with nostalgia, as a female narrator recounts events from the first days of Tunisia’s uprising. Closing on a heartrending lament, she says, “I miss the revolution; I miss myself.”
The play may be criticised for bordering on preaching at times, and for being overly philosophical at others. However, all five actors (Bahri Rahali, Rim Hamrouni, Bahram Aloui, Cyrine Gannoun, and Oussama Kochkar) give indisputably solid performances strengthened by an impressive physical agility and an impeccable synchronisation of body language. Their interactions on stage keep you absorbed, and – although the performance in Falaki had English and even Egyptian subtitles – the Tunisian dialect, as pointed out by Gannoun himself before the performance, has a musical feel to it that is almost entrancing.
Overall, Monsters is quite an unsettling feat, but that’s probably exactly what it was meant to be.