Review: La Casbah

Inspired by the events of the Algerian War, La Casbah explores the struggle between coloniser and colonised, as both sides exchange acts of ever-increasing brutality. Hassiba, aged 17, is a National Liberation Front (FLN) urban guerrilla, fighting for her country and tasked with carrying out bombing attacks against civilians.

The photograph on the programme for La Casbah features protagonist Hassiba standing in a red dress standing behind two soldiers, with surroundings in black and white. It definitely appears to be evoking the little girl in the red coat of Schindler’s List, and it seems only a fair comparison to me having seen the production.

I can’t say that this personally moved me or was as developed as Schindler’s List– it is, after all, only a third of the length- but I still have to applaud director Hiba Benhamed for her sheer inventiveness in portraying an entire cityscape on a very limited stage. She uses cloth to represent the walls of the city, but it feels fragmentary, mirroring the fragmented nature of society at this time of French intervention. I also admire her decision to multirole where a large cast could have been used. Seeing the same faces crop up as both Algerian and, later, French really highlighted the complex nature of the problem faced by the FLN fighters; placing the bombs is both a righteous act of revenge and a violent attack upon innocent civilians.

This tension was further built up by the powerful music which underscored the entire performance. Musical director Emily Winters deserves a large amount of credit for using violin, flute, and guitar to somehow create a world music sound which was interesting, but also dissonant and full of dread, implying the clash of incompatible cultures which the colonisation of Algiers resulted in. It furthermore felt vague and hazy somehow, as if drifting off into panicked sleep. The tone created here seemed to foreshadow the darker events contained at the end of the play.

This hazy atmosphere was expanded by the technical elements used to further heightened the tension and horror of the most brutal scenes. Technical director Astrud Turner is absolutely pitch perfect here; she seems to find the right colour and light intensity for each scene, and even creates visual motifs, such as the cold, intense blue lighting which accompanies the ruthless Colonel. As soon as the audience were ushered in, we walked into a room filled with a foggy effect, really creating the impression of a wartorn and fragmented city.

The acting was similarly passionate and heartfelt, particularly on the part of Gayaneh Vlieghe, who plays Hassiba and certainly meets the demands of quite a demanding role. She intermittently monologues to the audience in powerful moments which Gayaneh performs excellently, creating a character who is simultaneously passionate about the fight for her country and numb to the horrific acts of the colonisers. Her violence and the violence of the FLN is not portrayed as righteous, but the Algerians are incredibly sympathetic, causing the audience to further blame the French colonisers for turning children into freedom fighters, due to their actions making such a fight necessary. One other particularly powerful moment is the scene in which Petit Samia, played very capably by Fionna Monk, is tortured. Though it is mimed, her acting is raw and moving, and this combines with the lighting and music to create a scene which is upsetting in the best possible way.

My only criticism of this play stems from the overuse of the aforementioned Hassiba monologues. There became a point at which it became preachy, and disconnected the audience from the struggle we are meant to be empathising with. In general, the start of the play is its weakest point; the audience is not shown many of the atrocities or cruelties which the French colonisers impose upon the natives, and I felt that the play would have been more powerful had we seen these rather than merely had them passionately explained to us by Hassiba.

Overall, this play is an uncomfortable but important watch, and I’m glad I saw it. At the beginning of the play, Hassiba says, ‘I don’t expect you to know anything about the Algerian war’. There is an underlying anger at the White Ignorance that has been created in Western society, and it is a righteous anger which motivates this play. At the end of the play, the person sitting next to me said something which summed up, I think, the feelings of most of the audience: ‘How are we supposed to just carry on with our nights after seeing this?’

Wrong Tree Theatre’s La Casbah is on 9th-10th December, 8pm in Mark Hillery Arts Centre, Collingwood College.  

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