`We cannot do any more acting. The real drama is all around us'

Exiled Algerian artist and journalist Nafissa Boudalia returned to her country to discover the fate of theatre under Islamic fundamentalism
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Around 300 intellectuals, writers and artists have been killed in Algeria since 1992 when the government cancelled the general elections won by the Islamic FIS party. One cold and wet morning last month, accompanied by my 21-year-old daughter, I took the train from Algiers to Oran to see how the Theatre Regional D'Oran was coping after the assassination of its director, Abdelkader Alloula, in March 1994. He was killed by Islamic fundamentalists on his way to a conference on Arab theatre and modern society.

Masked soldiers swarmed around the train as it arrived in the town. They pointed us in the direction of the huge brown gates of the Moorish railway station with their kalashnikovs. When we got there, the theatre was closed.

Earlier that week, I had visited the Grand Theatre National D'Alger but it, too, was closed. I was told it had been brought to a complete standstill since most of the actors had fled abroad or gone into hiding after death threats from Islamic fundamentalists.

But some have stayed, either to prove a point or because they feel they have nowhere else to go. I found out from an old actor friend at the stage door of the National Theatre at Oran that they had just finished hosting the annual Festival de Theatre Amateur despite the numerous death threats they had received.

However, the famous Algerian actress, Fadela Assous, who still lives in Algeria, told me that since the assassination of Alloula, she has not been able to carry on working. She made her debut as an actress in 1970 in his production El Khobfa ("The Loaf of Bread"). Since 1973 she has played all the leading women's roles in the plays of Kateb Yacine, who won acclaim in France for his epic poem Nejma in 1947. In 1970, Yacine set up a theatre group called "Action Culturel Des Travailleurs" where Assous worked with him until his death from cancer in 1989. She has since produced her own play, directed by her husband: a one-woman show written by Omar Fetmouche, called The Wounded Smile. This play, written in colloquial Arabic, was a great success in Algeria in 1993 but despite being taken up as a figurehead of resistance, she has been forced to keep a low profile in Algiers.

"I am a prisoner in my own home," she explains. "My door is locked. I am afraid to go out into the street, the threats are becoming more and more persistent.We cannot do any more acting. The real drama is happening all around us - women who walk to the shops or to work every day, are frightened and hunted like thieves."

Another Algerian playwright, Fatima Gallaire, lives in France and has written prolifically for the theatre. Her most important play, Princesses, written in French, will be staged in London this week. Set in an Algerian village, the story is almost autobiographical. Princess is an Algerian woman who has married an "uncircumcised" Frenchman and has had children with him. For this she must be killed, along with those who try to help her. Gallaire speaks of the intolerance women face in Algeria:

"The official censors in Algeria have to be given the scripts to read. Some copies of my play have circulated for a while but people are afraid to do anything with it. The theme frightens them because it speaks against religious intolerance towards women."

Her plays were equally refused by other Arab countries, although she has had an offer to translate Princesses into Arabic. In its Russian translation, Princesses has been played in the Muslim independent state of Uzbekistan, directed by Baghadir Youldachev in 1993. In New York, it was translated into English and played with great success under the title "You Have Come Back..." by Franciose Kourilsky in 1988. "My greatest joy, of course," Gallaire says quietly, "would be to see my work played in colloquial Arabic in Algeria." As Algeria's tragedy continues to unfold, many will be sharing that wish.

n `The Wounded Smile' and `Princesses'(directed by Annie Castledine): 23 & 24 June at the Royal Court, London SW1 (0171-730 1745). Lift is hosting a debate on Algerian theatre following Friday's performance