Leila and Ben: A Bloody History
Artistes Producteurs Associes
In this parable-thirsty collage of Shakespearian tragedies and Middle Eastern politics, part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London International Theatre Festival, the speculative and mythologised obscures what would otherwise be a formally playful, politically charged piece about Tunisian mentality and revolt.
Centered around the story of a ruler torn down by his political heritage and informed by a desire to prioritise that which appears before him, supported and manoeuvred by his wife, Leila and Ben: A Bloody History attempts an unlikely but surprisingly atonal marriage between Macbeth's storyline and that of a the rise and fall of a ruler in a country forever on the brink of a precipice.
At its essence, Leila and Ben is both a love story and a political drama, questioning the interconnectedness of autocratic rule and national mentality. Combining live music, footage, re-enactment, and working under dramatic allegory, Leila and Ben parallels the life and legacy of Bourguiba, the politician who gained Tunisia its independence, with that of Ben Ali, who led a state coup in 1987.
In the ways in which APA (Artises Producteurs Associes) tells the narrative, all wrapped up in the mysticism of live song, accompanied by images of predator birds shadowing the stage, bathed in gold and silver, there's a real sense of a willingness to transgress, turning politics into fables, coating reality in a tainted liberal propaganda. It's a noble scope that clearly brings a national flavour to a national problem—but it's a political anger that doesn't quite translate.
It's not solely the forced theatricality that makes Leila and Ben a space for speculative excess, it's the weight of the text that doesn't quite emerge in the subtitles that frame the action; there's a strong sense of the ritualistic, the plot-line interspersed with fantastical elements, like the ghost of Bourguiba appearing as a giant puppet, confronting Ben Ali. The piece then speaks of the Code of Personal Status, a set of laws imposed by Bourguiba—a lawyer before he was President—that dictated gender equality as historical fact, underlining the key role that women play in Tunisian society and politics. At the same time, the show is undermining of this history of autocrats chained by a hunger for power, and a people whose mentality has made them servile, accepting—and it's this tone that feels too patronizing.
History washes over the show with little access and unobstructed bias; and whilst there's nothing to say a production can't mix its politics and culture, Leila and Ben certainly suffers not only from an indecisiveness to ground its content, but also from a vague affectation with an imposed historical and social meta-narrative which feels out of place in the guises of an international audience. Whether you agree with its politics or not—I vaguely did—it still tries to keep you on the outside, resisting the reality of the narrative, always forcing for mysticism.
At different intervals throughout the piece, a documentary from what seem like Tunisian scholars—historians, lawyers, artists—discusses the ways in which Tunisian mentality has been shaped by its history, blaming the development of Sharia law as dominant in a country who tried to market itself as the democracy of the Middle East. Although this is probably the most potent element of the show that helps somewhat gel everything together, it's also highly obscured by a religious liberal propaganda that displaces the show's concerns and apparent transparency.
It's the story of Macbeth that feels imposed in Leila and Ben, unnatural in the same way that the scenes seems to topple over each other, not quite sure how to add up. It seems the underpinning interest was one of condemnation, but also one that sought to impose historical failure as a fire to the furnace of politics in the Middle East, and this particular damnation makes the show inaccessible and too heavy-handed to fulfil its intentions.
Tunisia might be a place of parables, but this commodification of politics and people feels problematically reductive.
Reviewer: Diana Damian