Stage Door Review

Besbouss: Autopsy of a Revolt

Thursday, November 21, 2019

✭✭

by Stéphane Brulotte, translated by John Van Burek, directed and adapted by Majdi Bou-Matar

Pleiades Theatre with Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto

November 8-20, 2019

Djebara: “Justice has left the premises”

Pleiades Theatre with Crow’s Theatre is presenting the English-language premiere of Besbouss: Autopsy of a Revolt (Besbouss - Autopsie d’un révolté) by Québécois playwright Stéphane Brulotte. The play is a fictionalized account of the event that set off the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. When the play premiered at the Théâtre de Quat’Sous in Montreal in 2014, it was solo play. John Van Burek’s English translation as adapted and directed by Majdi Bou-Matar has changed it into a play for two actors and this has given work a dynamism and air of magic realism that its previous incarnation lacked.

The play looks at the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, nicknamed Besbouss (“deserves to be smothered with kisses”) by his family. The 27-year-old father of seven children was a street vendor of fruits and vegetables. After having harassed Bouazizi for years for not having a vendor’s permit (none is needed), in 2010 the authorities confiscated his goods and his wagon and thus deprived him of his only income. He went to the police to complain but instead he was beaten. On December 17, 2010, In desperation he attempted to commit suicide by burning himself alive in a public square. With burns over 90% of his body he lived long enough for the President of Tunisia to have a publicity picture taken of him while visiting him in hospital. He died on January 4, 2011. The public, long angered by the autocratic regime in Tunisia hailed him as a martyr and the protests that his death inspired led then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down on January 14, 2011. The success of the Tunisian protests inspired the Arab Spring that spread throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

Brulotte’s play posits that a pathologist Dr. Karim Djebara (Saïd Benyoucef) is sent to perform an autopsy on Bouazizi with the purpose of proving that the vendor had not been beaten before trying to kill himself. This causes Djebara, who knew the young man, to reflect on Bouazizi’s life, on why Bouazizi would take such an extreme action and on his own long complicity with the government in providing it with convenient medical “evidence” to exculpate it from crimes.

Knowing that Majdi Bou-Matar, Artistic Director of Kitchener’s MT Space, is directing, some may wonder during the first third of the play how a play that seems to be simply a monologue will ever involve the type of physical theatre MT Space is known for as in such productions as Body 13. That question is answered when the body of Bouazizi (Adam Paolozza) that Djebara has been examining comes to life – at least in Djebara’s mind.

Bou-Matar gives Paolozza some of Djebara’s lines but mostly Paolozza gives Benyoucef someone to play against. This is especially useful when Djebara recalls playing with Bouazizi as a boy or when he wonders how such a fine young man could feel such despair that he would destroy himself. Bou-Matar’s brilliant idea of bringing Bouazizi to life brings the otherwise sombre monologue of Djebara to life with it.

Algerian-Canadian actor Saïd Benyoucef gives a fine performance of a man who has compromised his integrity so often in trying to please a corrupt government that he wallows in cynicism. The fact that someone he knew would have the courage to protest this corruption in such an extreme manner causes Djebara, once a revolutionary himself, to call his assumptions about the possibility of change into doubt. Benyoucef gives us a man wrestling with himself and, when Bouazizi comes alive, literally wrestling with what the young martyr represents. Benyoucef is making his acting debut in English which is not his first or second language. His English is heavily accented yet somehow that fact gives his playing of the role the feeling of authority.

Paolozza is superb as Bouazizi. He lay so still as a corpse I spent time wondering what craftspeople Bou-Matar had used to create so detailed a mannequin. Paolozza’s ability to express himself through physical poses and gesture is amazing. His expressionless face helped suggest that this animated Bouazizi was merely a figment of Djebara’s imagination. In turn, the fact that Djebara could imagine such a lively Bouazizi when faced with his corpse seemed to signal a resurrection of the young man and all he stood for.

The action takes place on the expressionist set designed by Teresa Przybylski where the two steel walls and floor meet at far from right angles. This off-kilter set, eerily lit by Jennifer Lennon, joins with the suitably disquieting soundscape by Daniel Morphy and Bou-Matar’s carefully choreographed movement to take the questions of play out of their specific historical setting and present them as existential questions of resistance, protest and integrity in the face of corruption that any one of us might have to face at some level at some time.

After seeing how Bou-Matar has staged the play it is very difficult to imagine it staged any other way. Bou-Matar has taken a rather stolid text and found a way to give it even greater impact than it had before. Many thanks to Pleiades Theatre for programming such a thought-provoking play and for bringing it and Bou-Matar together.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Saïd Benyoucef as Dr. Karim Djebara and Adam Paolozza as Mohamed Bouazizi. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.crowstheatre.com.