Wrong Tree Theatre finished their short run of La Casbah last night, closing the curtains on this unique Durham creation for seemingly the final time. Performed at the Mark Hillery Arts Centre in Collingwood College, La Casbah was excitingly creative but also profound: this was not mere theatre but art.
We are taken back to 1950s Algeria, and led through the developing civil war from the perspective of a female Algerian National Liberation Front fighter Hassiba, played by Gayaneh Vlieghe. Wrong Tree Theatre have taken a complex, typically-overlooked period of history and condensed it into a simple tale told through the experience of one woman. This has the perfect touch of being informative whilst avoiding being overwhelming, as we are merely asked to “listen to my story”. Director Hiba Benhamed has avoided orientalising Algerian culture: it is presented as a modern city with crime and with poverty and with a population that are not markedly different to any other. La Casbah is a piece which demonstrates the humanity and normality of those ensnared in this period of history.
As the central character, Vlieghe is soft-spoken and modest. With clenched jaw and tight fists, she challenges us to listen and reserve our judgement until she is done, yet maintains ambiguity over what Hassiba’s actions mean. There are devastating killings perpetrated from both sides of the conflict, but Vlieghe handles this with maturity and sorrow. We watch as our heroine is influenced by the evil that surrounds her city to commit atrocities, but we are left to reach our own verdict. Is she deluded or brave?
La Casbah is a piece which demonstrates the humanity and normality of those ensnared in this period of history.
The multi-roling cast supporting Vlieghe were essential for the pace and tone of La Casbah. Griffin Shelton, Anusha Persson, Fionna Monk, Alex Cohen and Vlieghe use sparse props to create some stunningly visual ensemble sequences, with Benhamed employing fresh innovation throughout. Their movement of chairs to show bomb victims, and their swift change of expressions to show death were appropriately reserved, to allow the audience to comprehend the horror without the assistance of cheap tricks or clumsy props. Asking adults to act as children has a tendency to become surreal or grating: this was risked by Cohen and Monk, and although their babyish voices were a little jolting, this decision didn’t detract from the overall success of the play. The entire cast mastered elements of French, emphasised further by a complementary set sprayed with Arabic graffiti. Technical director Astrud Turner managed to perfectly synchronise her smoke machines, spotlighting and blackouts with the talented live music.
Tucked just into the curtains, this piece was carried by a soundtrack written specially by Emily Winters. Flutes, violins, guitar and voice all contributed to keep the pace of the play stamping relentlessly forward. With a steady refrain, quiet moments were accentuated and emotions were strengthened to plug any possible lapses in the action. There was capacity for greater use of silence to contrast the endless noise, but overall it was a sterling composition. As focussed as La Casbah was on the direct human experience and moral questioning, one would hope for a little more emotional engagement. Vlieghe delivered some eye-wateringly passionate speeches, but seemed to cut off just before the audience was forced into a stronger reaction. Perhaps this is due to the time constraint of the piece: running at roughly an hour long, there is definite room for further plot developments, if extended. It was refreshing to be wishing it would not end so soon. La Casbah is innovative, engaging and meaningful: just what Durham needs more of.
Photography: Wrong Tree Theatre