Director Ziad Abou Absi Returns to the Theater for the Arab Nora’s Revolt

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A snapshot of Ziad Abou Absi 's latest play: "A Doll's House." Al-Akhbar/Marwan Bou Haidar

By: Mona Merhi

Published Friday, February 13, 2015

Lebanese director and actor Ziad Abou Absi has returned to Monnot Theater to stage Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece “A Doll’s House.” It is an appropriate choice at a time when Arab women are still deprived of most of their rights, and are treated as mere dolls.

Ziad Abou Absi (born 1956), who played the role of “Abou al-Zelouf” in Ziad Rahbani’s play “Shi Feshil,” has returned to us, safe and sound, and full of an old and everlasting love for theater. The actor and director previously told Al-Akhbar, in an interview on August 8, 2011, that he was going to retire and teach at the Lebanese American University (LAU). It seems, however, that Abou Absi could not resist the appeal of the stage, and so returned to his audience as a director, knocking on the door of the “Doll’s House” by Ibsen (1828 – 1906).

This play is an appropriate choice, at a time when Arab women are still deprived of their most basic rights, and continue to be treated as mere dolls. When the Norwegian playwright first wrote “A Doll’s House” in 1879, he had no idea that the play would become a “feminist manifesto,” as it is seen by many. The play faced harsh criticism, as it was interpreted as an attack on the institution of marriage. At the time, no one defended the play except for Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. As for Ibsen, he did not want his play to be categorized, and thus stated that he was not sure what women’s rights really were.

To him, it was more about human rights and mankind’s sacred obligation towards itself. He believed that all people, men and women, must have the courage to overcome the rules and boundaries imposed by society, and form their own views. People should not give in to a system that turns the husband into the sole provider of the family, and limits the wife’s role to “the obedient housewife.”

The rendition of “A Doll’s House” takes place at Nora’s house. Her husband, Ziad, holds a senior position in a bank. It is a traditional house and the family is financially stable. However, this was not the case a few years back. Nora, who is today as spoiled as a doll, used to work hard just like her husband in the first years of their marriage. When Ziad fell ill, she had to borrow money so he would be able to receive treatment abroad for a year. But she did not tell him this, so as not to hurt his pride. To get the money, she forged her father’s signature, who was supposed to sponsor the loan she obtained, with the help of Karim.

Karim, a junior employee in the institution managed by her husband, blackmails Nora after receiving a suspension warning from Ziad, and sends a letter to her husband telling him about the forged signature. Although she did all of this for his sake, Ziad decides to punish his wife and forbids her from raising their children. Concerned with his reputation and status, he forces her to stay at home.

Only moments after reading the first letter, a second one arrives. Karim apologizes to Ziad’s family and presents the loan agreement. The husband goes back to spoiling his wife as if nothing had happened. However, Nora revolts, and decides that she no longer wants to be treated like a doll in her own home, the same way she was treated in her father’s house. She exits the living room and closes the door, choosing freedom and self-liberation over a fake marriage.

Meanwhile, another woman also chooses to search for her true self, even if only once. She has abandoned her first love and married the first well-off man she met, to support her mother and siblings. She is Christine, a friend of Nora’s, who visited the couple’s house in search of a job. She felt unneeded after her husband and mother passed away, and her siblings got married. She wanted to fill her life with something that would enrich her, and no one else. At Nora’s house, she meets her first love Karim and convinces him to send a letter of apology to the couple, after Nora had confided in her.

In this production, Ziad Abou Absi wanted to adhere to the elements of theatrical realism, especially since the play was written by the father of realistic drama. This reflects in different components of the show: the decor (by Hassan Sadiq), the lighting, and the actors’ costumes.

Ziad added Lebanese elements to the play, but remained faithful to the original script (despite some omissions), which Ibsen had left as a valuable heritage in the history of world theater. Some lines uttered by actors sounded contrived, as if Ziad had opted for a literal translation of the original script. One cannot but wonder — in his “Lebanization” of “A Doll’s House,” why did Ziad not go beyond a “literal translation of the events using Lebanese words?” What was the role of dramaturge Khalil Matbouli in relation to the script, the actors, and other components of the show, if the director had already decided to remain faithful to the original text?

As for the actors’ performance, actress Zee al-Khawli played the role of Nora with ease and spontaneity, and was a shining part of the play. Meanwhile, Bassel Madi mastered the role of Ziad, contradicting al-Khawli’s acting style. The director, in fact, intended to create this contrast. The actors’ performance in the scene when they return from the masquerade was particularly stunning.

The Lebanese audience undoubtedly needs to see more similar shows, which liberate women from the idea that they are subordinate to men, and urge them to “take their masks off.” This play is not the first to address the issue of injustice and oppression faced by women. We have seen recent similar works, such as “Mara La Wahda” (A Woman Alone) by director Shadi al-Haber and actress Khouloud Nasser, and “Hayda Mesh Film Masri” (This Is Not an Egyptian Movie) by Lina Abyad.

As of today, choreographer and dancer Malek Andary will also be showcasing Imra’a Taht al-Satr” (Woman Below the Line) at the Sunflower Theater. It is a piece that highlights the reality of women in oriental societies — and in Lebanon, in particular.

“A Doll’s House” by Ziad Abou Absi will be shown until February 15 at Monnot Theater, Achrafieh. For more info, call 01/421870

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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