Resuscitation Theatre’s Al Khayef updates Büchner’s Woyzeck for an Abu Dhabi staging

Capital theatre company offers an adaptation of Büchner’s Woyzeck set in an unnamed Arab country.

The actors of Resuscitation Theatre during the dress rehearsals for the company’s version of Woyzeck. Victor Besa for The National
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George Büchner's stage play Woyzeck has all the elements of a good story.

Its themes of love, deceit, jealousy and tragedy are just as relevant today as when the play was written – but left unfinished – more than 150 years ago.

This week the Resuscitation Theatre group, in Abu Dhabi, are taking on an “Arabicised” version of the work, adapted to fit with today’s culture and trends.

Maggie Hannan, the founder of the theatre group and artistic director of Al Khayef, the adaptation, says it is important for the group to not simply "import" art, but to try to create something that not only blends with the local culture but also leaves a legacy.

“We are not amateur dramatics, that’s not what we do, we are really trying to make a dent on the society and leave something here.

“We try to merge cultures, we don’t want to impose our cultures. This is one thing that really gets up my nose, people talk about arts and theatre, and it’s all imported.”

Woyzeck was left unfinished when the German playwright died in 1837. It was first published in 1879 after being reworked by an Austrian novelist.

In its original form it focused on the young soldier Franz Woyzeck. In Resuscitation Theatre’s version, Al Khayef is a young labourer who lives a miserable existence sweeping the streets in an unnamed Arab country and running errands for a business executive.

When he suspects his wife is ­being unfaithful, his life begins to unravel. The female lead, originally called Margaret, is now called Lulu, which means “pearl” in ­Arabic.

"The original play is an example of modern theatre," says Robert Liddington, the former chairman of the Abu Dhabi Dramatic Society and the man responsible for adapting Woyzeck into Al Khayef.

“It could quite easily be the script for a television show as much as it is a stage play. It has a structure in itself that is quite modern.

“The reason I decided to adapt it was I like what Resuscitation Theatre does, they blow smoke up the skirts of old and quite often not currently performed plays and transform them into something which is interesting.”

The company was set up by Hannan in early 2008 when she moved to the UAE from England, where she had already been running it for seven years.

Her aim, she says, is to find plays – most of them very old – which have strong themes that still apply today.

Their most recent version was of Euripides' Trojan Women, which was written in 461BC.

“There’s no shortage of themes, and almost any plays that were done in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s can apply now,” she says.

Plays with such themes as the divisions between rich and poor, which feature in Al Khayef, are perfect to adapt for today's audience, she says.

“It’s a very dangerous play and we have to really sanitise it. It’s not the bad language in the play that makes the play, it’s the theme of the play itself and it stands just as well sanitised and Arabicised.

“You pick out one simple theme like poverty, the gulf between rich and poor. In the original he was a soldier, and it was in the military, but here we have made him a ­labourer. That in itself is controversial so we don’t need anything else.”

Al Khayef is being put on by the theatre group in conjunction with the Emirates Writers Union and the Goethe-Institut. The latter works in the UAE to promote the German language and culture.

The Emirates Writers Union, supporting Emirati writing talent, is also involved, holding a competition for Emirati and international artists to contribute a painting, drawing or sculpture inspired by the themes in WoyzeckAl Khayef. The best works will be displayed in and around the performances.

Al Khayef will be performed on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm at The National Theatre, off 15th Street, in Abu Dhabi. Visit for more details.

Mitya Underwood is a features ­writer for The National.