A scene from the play - FACEBOOK
CAIRO – 14 October 2018: "The Shroud Maker", a play by Ahmed Masoud, premiered last May in London, England at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art studio (RADA).
This came as part of the celebration of the Contemporary Palestinian Culture's programme of the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, also known as the Nakba or the “catastrophe”.
The play proved to be a huge success and so its tour around England continued with performances at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth, the Unity Theatre as part of Liverpool's Arab Arts Festival, and the Playhouse, ending its tour at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on October 5.
Egypt Today caught up with Ahmed Masoud to discuss "The Shroud Maker" and the idea behind it.
When asked to describe "The Shroud Maker" in his own words, Masoud explained that the play tells the story of an 84 year old woman who sells shrouds for the dead in order to survive.
“It's a black comedy on the current situation, trying to highlight the humanity of people, the sense of humour and the great instinct of survival that a lot of people around the world have.”
Hajja Souad grew up as the adopted daughter of the British high commissioner's wife, Lady Cunningham. After the Nakba of 1948, she was left alone in the big mansion. As she managed to escape, she found an infant on the side of the Hebron road whom she adopts as her son.
She then moves to the West Bank and becomes a refugee until the October war when she finds herself again forced to flee to Gaza with her son. Elian, her son, then gets married and has a son. Elian gets killed in the first Intifada while Israeli soldiers arrest his wife.
Her Grandson, Ghassan, runs away to the other side of the fence and goes to live with an Arab Druze family who shelter him and later gets him to grow up as an Israeli. He joins the army and leads an incursion on Shujaia to destroy the tunnels, where Hajja Souad is based.
It is a monologue play where all the characters are played by one actress, which is quite a gamble as usually the audience need a very strong and gripping actor to keep them interested and focused.
Masoud stated that the reason behind this daring and bold decision is to “play on the strong Arabic tradition of storytelling; it is the same as having a Hakawati (story teller on stage) who takes the audience on a journey using mostly text but also some props and a lot of sound effects to transport them to an imaginative place.”
Masoud told Egypt Today that the actress who solely carried out the entire play, Julia Tarnoky, gained the part upon a recommendation by actress Kathryn Hunter who did a stage reading of the play in Manchester in June 2017.
Although Tarnoky was quite convincing as Hajja Souad at the different stages of her life, but at various times during the play you can see that audience members were drifting away and losing focus. Not many actors can perform a monologue play and very few are successful at it.
Another question concerning the choice of Tarnoky is her ability to pronounce Arabic words; surely an actress with some Arabic background would have been a more suited choice as it would have given a realistic portrayal of an old aged Palestinian woman.
There are instants during the play that Tarnoky is almost irritating to hear as she pronounces Arabic words such as 'lakan' and 'habibi' with a distinctive foreign accent, making her less believable as Palestinian.
Masoud, a Palestinian writer, director and academic who grew up in the Gaza Strip – Palestine, moved to the UK in 2002 to complete his postgraduate studies in English literature.
Upon the completion of his MA and PhD research, Masoud wrote a few plays and a novel called "Vanished - The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda", which he started writing during his time in Gaza studying in the English Department, Al-Azhar University.
Masoud attributes the source of his thoughts and ideas to the classic English writers as well as the 20th century writers - Graham Swift in particular. In 2005, he started the Al-Zaytouna Dance Theatre where he wrote and directed many dance productions, including an adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani's famous novel "Returning to Haifa".
But it was during the war on Gaza in July 2014 that the idea of "The Shroud Maker" was born. Masoud recalls how he was very worried about his family - “I checked all the news agencies online to make sure that my family's name wasn't there. I didn't know what I would wake up to”.
One evening, he read an interview with a woman who had her shroud shop open. “So I started to imagine her life and how she ended up in this position so I wrote this play”.
The audience are made to feel connected to Hajja Souad as a "real human being" with flaws rather than a "perfect" figure, as she shrewdly makes profit out of people's misery, overcharging them for shrouds.
Although the character of Hajja Souad is based on a real person but Masoud is quick to establish that “the story is very different,” and that it is “dark enough to provide both comedy and deep trauma”.
There is a mixture of comical yet painful words that brings a unique balance of heartache and laughter to the dark satire of Masoud's script, and the audience are left with tears in their eyes even as they try to laugh grimly to Hajja's no-nonsense attitude.
The final scene is met with a standing ovation, with claps filling the studio which moments before trembled with anguish and heartbreak as Hajja Souad utters her last word to her grandson, “Major Ghassan Ellian, I told you I am not going anywhere…Follow your orders, kill everyone in this town and I will make shrouds for them all. I’ll give you 10 percent.”
Masoud proudly tells Egypt Today that “people have loved the play with a lot of feedback that I still need to go through and respond to, but overall people have enjoyed it so much.” And the fact that most of the performances were packed/sold out is an indication of how well received "The Shroud Maker" was during its England tour.
Masoud is busy getting his second novel published; he was reluctant to share its details preferring to keep it under wraps. “It's completed now. I just need to find a home for it.”