Theatre in this port city has a century-old tradition that was sparked in 1904 when an Indian acting troupe on its way to London performed the first play ever seen by an Aden audience. It left a lasting impression, raising the curtain on a new art form in the city not long afterwards.
Fast-forward to 2019: following four years of war in Yemen that forced a suspension of stage productions, the city’s theatre scene sprang back to life when the Khaleej Aden Troupe, under the direction of prominent Yemeni director and playwright Amr Gamal, presented a work whose title is a slang expression that translates to On the Edge. The play, a satire on the war’s debilitating effects on citizens’ lives, had a run of more than twenty performances.
A Storied History of Aden’s Theatre Scene
In 1910, six years after Aden’s first exposure to actors on stage, a local group translated and performed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, making Yemen the first Arab country to stage this kind of production.
Behind the initiative was Hamoud al-Hashimi, a local cinema owner, according to Abdul Aziz Abbas, 70, a playwright and professor at the Jamil Ghanem Institute of Fine Arts in Aden.
We are working to reclaim the nights of performing that made Aden shine.”
Hashimi’s effort would be followed by decades of theatrical creativity. “Aden had enjoyed a high level of cultural and intellectual activity since the 1940s, when many theatre ensembles were improvising plays,” he said.
In the 1970s, Aden’s theatre scene enjoyed another growth spurt as more acting groups formed in various districts. For the next twenty years, they took part in competitions for top listings in festivals sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.
But all that changed in 1994, when civil war broke out just four years after the reunification of North and South Yemen. Aden suffered a devastating blow when the National Theatre, one of the most prominent cultural institutions in the Arabian Peninsula, was looted and destroyed. In 1997, Yemeni authorities closed the National Theatre building.
An Improvised Comeback
War once again forced actors to take an unwanted break in 2015, but resilience has reclaimed centre stage. The Khaleej Aden Troupe, which had formed a decade earlier, has resumed performances, this time at the Hurricane Cinema. The venue’s run-down appearance posed obstacles, so the group has set about restoring the place. The troupe’s most recent offering is Family.com, a drama about a conservative father who shuns the Internet as a dangerous influence on his children. When he moves their computer to the living room to exert more control over their online activity, they react with defiance.
Past productions by the Khaleej Aden Troupe include Red Card, an exploration of social issues such as child labour, and Sewage, a critical look at the corruption that both preceded and followed the Arab Spring.
Yet for all the positive public reaction, conditions for staging theatrical works have not improved, said Mohammed Ali al-Yafei, director of Aden’s Theatre Directorate, which falls under Aden’s Culture Office in the Ministry of Local Authority. “There is only a small theatre in Aden that lacks the basic components, such as lighting and sound,” he added. “The obliteration of theatre and Aden’s cultural identity is severe and systematic”, explains actor Ahmad al-Yafei, 35. But even without financial support, the actors are determined to carry on. “We are working to keep the theatres running so we can restore their glory and reclaim the beautiful nights of performing that made Aden shine a long time ago,” he said.