Algéria, de Miel et de Braise

February 17, 2009By Nick WoodsArchive

Red Balloons and Barbarism

If you have never been to Algeria and can’t afford the airfare, then drop in at the Théâtre Aire Falguière, where you will be whisked off to the North African nation and treated to a rich array of anecdotes, fables and song courtesy of one-woman performer Catherine Gendrin’s Algéria, de Miel et de Braise…

Red Balloons and Barbarism

Red Balloons and Barbarism

Catherine Gendrin as Zinèbe.

If you have never been to Algeria and can’t afford the airfare, then drop in at the Théâtre Aire Falguière, where you will be whisked off to the North African nation and treated to a rich array of anecdotes, fables and song courtesy of one-woman performer Catherine Gendrin’s Algéria, de Miel et de Braise.

Starting in the mid-1980s and leading up to the present decade, she covers the run-up to the bloody decade of civil war between the military government and Islamic fundamentalists in the 1990s and its aftermath, the period of reconciliation. Her self-penned text, written on a deliberately blank piece of paper she took with her on her research trip to the country, is a mix of her own literary invention (based stories she has heard), true events she has rewritten in her own style and legends from the past that were recounted to her on her trip.

The thread of the piece is the story of a young girl named Zinèbe, who dreams of becoming a teacher. She has an especially good relationship with her grandparents: her grandfather always gives her red balloons, a symbol of youth but also of escape, while her grandmother tells her enchanting fables from the past.

We follow Zinèbe’s life from carefree youth to adulthood, but her path is marred by the violence of the mid-1990s as she is forced to witness the rape and murder of her mother and sister at the hands of Islamic terrorists who force their way into her home. She survives and later fulfils her dream. The trailing cotton of a red shepherd’s chèche headdress she notices represents both the trickling of blood but also the way forward.

Gendrin punctuates the various episodes of her colorful narrative with traditional songs, while the recorded voice of Algerian journalist Abdeslem Abdelhak, Gendrin’s guide in Algeria, gives the darker historical and political perspective, using the words of those who lived through the barbaric years. While he is speaking his moving texts, Gendrin attempts to construct a house of cards, which has collapsed by the time he finishes. During Abdelhak’s final contribution, however, on political amnestyand the fundamentalists’ supposed repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, the house finally stands.

The female characters in this text are bold, clever, independent thinkers, despite the patriarchal society they live in. (The same could probably said of Gendrin, judging by the comments she makes in an annex to the show on the current state of French cultural policy.)

It was not always easy to work out Zinèbe’s family tree or the sequence of events from the text, but Gendrin’s performance is warm and animated, her dark eyes shining throughout. She plays all the characters in the pieces she narrates and packs a great deal into her one-and-a-half-hour show, making me think that a matinee would be more appropriate than a late evening slot.

A lot of people were packed into this tiny theater, which that only seats about 40 people comfortably – one way of ensuring a full house, I guess – so make sure you get there early.

Nick Woods

Théâtre Aire Falguière: 55 rue de la Procession, 75015 Paris. Métro: Volontaires. Tel.: 01 56 58 02 32. Through March 4. Tickets: up to €15 aire.falguiere.free.fr © 2009 Paris Update

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