Director of The Tree Climber Ahmed El-Alfy explains why Arab theatre should be more mainstream as Perdita Stott, who adapted the play for British audiences, describes the process of tailoring a classic while remaining faithful to the script
The Tree Climber is a play by Tawfik Al Hakeem, Egypt’s most renowned playwright of the 20th century and a major Arabic dramatist whose career spanned 60 years.
From 14 July, a new English adaptation will be played before audiences in London as part of the Shubbak Festival. Although Al Hakeem has been translated and performed in many countries, the playwright's work has enjoyed – until now - almost no recognition in the UK. The British premiere of The Tree Climber is directed by Ahmed El-Alfy and adapted by Perdita Stott.
Vision: What motivated you to bring The Tree Climber back to life?
Ahmed El-Alfy, Director: When I started as a director, my main work was directing western productions. I thought it would be great to incorporate my Egyptian and Arab background into my work. That’s when El-Alfy Theatre Company started. We looked at Arabic plays that are universal and focused on human interaction. The only Arab things about them are that Arab playwrights wrote them. They could be staged anywhere.
The Tree Climber is about a train inspector whose wife is missing and a detective investigates the case. It is humorous, thought-provoking and explores issues of death and resurrection, desire and disappointment and the instability of reality. Above all, it is hilarious. The only thing Arab about it is Tawfik Al Hakeem.
V: Perdita, what challenges did you face while adapting the play? What considerations did you have?
Perdita Stott, Writer: I was very keen to not take liberties with the script. The Tree Climber is such an interesting story I wanted to remain true to it. I did two adaptations. The first was a literal translation; I was working with a script that had already been translated once so I didn’t want too much else to be lost in translation. The next part of the adaptation was to add an extra layer to the characters and expand on their motivations in a way that British audiences could relate to. There’s a wonderfully bizarre sense of magic realism to Al Hakeem’s writing which I was eager to keep and there is a lot of humour which I hope I have brought out.
V: Ahmed, can you expand on the journey from the moment you read the play to bringing it to London?
A: I first read the play few years ago and it hasn’t left my mind since. It is so unique, twisted and funny that I kept it on the shelf, always keen to show it to UK audiences. When I asked Perdita to adapt it, we had several meetings talking about the script. We workshopped many times with actors. We even tested it in front of a sample audience, comprising both those familiar with and new to the play to see their reactions. Based on that, she redrafted to a point where the play was ready to be produced. It took between four and five months to complete the adaptation.
V: How did you go about selecting the cast?
A: Perdita's done a great job in making it relevant to a British audience. She has worked to flesh out the famous English wit and humour while being faithful to the original script. Our cross-cultural philosophy is reflected in the company’s multicultural cast and crew. We cast our play irrespective of any cultural background or race.
V: What are rehearsals like? You must have a lot of fun...
A: Every second of rehearsals is memorable. The cast can’t stop laughing. Look our for Walles Hamonde, he plays Whirling Dervish and whirls for more than 10 minutes in the play. It’s my first time directing a whirling dervish.
V: How do you think audiences will react to the play?
A: I think they will love it. I think there’s an expectation that it is going to be the typical play that talks about all Arab issues, political or social. They will be surprised; it is so universal and they won’t even feel that it is an Egyptian play.
V: And what are your broader hopes for theatre, particularly from the Arab world?
A: My hope is that plays from the Arab world are not labelled. You often see British actors speaking with a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent talking about their love of Moscow while playing an originally Russian role in a Chekhov play; that is accepted by the UK audience here. Why can’t British theatre-makers do the same with Arabic plays?
I consider myself a dreamer and want to produce an Egyptian play in London’s West End. I want our productions to reach the mainstream, for people not to even bother to find out whether the productions we do are originally Arabic or not, because the way I see it is that an Arabic play should be treated as a work of art, regardless of its nationality. Our dream is to have the audience say, ‘We’re going to this play’, instead of 'We’re going to this Egyptian, or Arabic, play,'. The Tree Climber will set that example.
V: Why do you think this play is a necessary component of Shubbak?
A: We were part of Shubbak 2013 with The Comedy of Oedipus by Ali Salem, and it was well received due to its political nature. We're very happy that it is our second time here. Shubbak is literally a window to the Arab world’s arts. It brings all artists from the region to perform here, which makes it a great platform for the audience and artists.
The audience gets to see something they are rarely exposed to. Artists have the chance to perform to a wider group outside their home country.
The Tree Climber is a piece of theatre that doesn’t shout 'Middle East', which makes it a necessary part of the programme I think.
V: What do you think Tawfik Al Hakeem would say after watching your production?
That’s a tough question. I wish he had seen it. I think he would be proud. He did believe, though, that his plays are to be read, not staged. If he saw this production, I hope he’d change his mind.
The Tree Climber is being played at The Cockpit from 14 July to 19 July at 7.30pm, with matinees on 16 July and 18 July at 3.30pm. For more details visit elaflytheatre.com