Les Grooms in Bahrein

2 and 3 may 2007


It was our good friend Olivier Huynh-Van, director of the Alliance Française, who asked us to come and play on this little island in the Persian Gulf. We have been in contact about this trip for several years without ever being able to finalise arrangements.

The reason for our invitation is 'French Week', where numerous events related to France take place in this small kingdom: there are concerts, classes in French cuisine, lectures and debates, films...

This is the first time we've been to the Gulf and we all feel pretty excited.

There are two performances planned: « The Tragic Flute » at the Intercontinental Hotel (for the festival opening), and « La Baronnade », in three different shopping centres.

We're staying in a sumptuous 5-star hotel which is unbelievably luxurious. Meals are enormous; there's a swimming pool and a fitness centre; the beds are king size; etc etc. It's extremely pleasant even if I feel a bit guilty knowing that it's neither ecologically sound nor morally defendable. There are people dying of hunger only a few kilometres away in Iraq while the planet itself is dying, partly as a result of all this air conditioning.

The hotel is run by a Frenchman who comes to the lobby to welcome us as soon as we arrive. He's sponsoring the festival and our stay is free as part of the deal. We are touched by the warmth of his welcome.

Outside, the heat is suffocating. It must be 40°C, and every time we venture outside it's a huge physical effort. It's necessary to walk as slowly as possible so as not to end up soaked in sweat after 5 minutes. On the other hand, there really isn't much to see in the town centre, which is dominated by a succession of vast American-style shopping centres.

Bahrain is a small island joined to Saudi Arabia by a huge bridge. One of its main functions is to serve as a large brothel for the Saudi Arabians, who come here to drink alcohol and consort with prostitutes. Every weekend, hordes of men dressed in white (like in Tintin) invade the island's luxury hotels.

Our host goes out of his way to look after us, with numerous trips around the island. We go walking in the desert, where there are thousands of ugly intertwined pipelines (there's no oil in Bahrain so they have turned to oil-refining instead); we go to the the seaside where the locals bathe fully dressed; we go to the old parts of the city where we see sumptuous Arab houses transformed into museums. It's so unbearably hot that no-one ventures out except for this bunch of crazy French people!!

The island even has its own Formula 1 racing track...


2 may : "La flûte en chantier" at the Intercontinental Hotel

Despite our best efforts to play "La Baronnade" instead of "The Tragic Flute", the director of the Alliance doesn't want to know and insists that we perform the latter. I personally don't think it will work since we're programmed to play in the hotel's function rooms during the cocktail party which will open "French Week". The very select guests are here by invitation only. We feel far away from our usual environment of 'open-to-all' street theatre.

We ask to be able to perform before the opening of the buffet (which is absolutely enormous) but permission is refused. The guests obviously need to eat and drink before being subjected to classical music.

"The Flute" will therefore be played in the hotel to an exclusive audience of VIP's and Arab sheiks in full traditional dress. It's clearly out of the question that such an audience should be asked to sit on the ground, as is usual for this show.

We decide to make the best of it since this is clearly virgin territory for street theatre as we know it....

The beginning of the show goes well. The guests are interested and are more or less able to follow the show from the comfort of their seats. It's a bit like Versailles; when the most important sheik (from the royal family) is appreciative, then everyone follows suit.

But things start to go wrong when we try to organise the part of the show where the audience follows us to a different space. It's a total failure...nobody wants to move, and we find ourselves in the hotel foyer with the director of the Alliance as our only audience for this second part. What an embarrassment!

In view of the catastrophic situation we decide to change our plans and to go back into the room, where the guests are now eating, for the third part of the show. The background noise is deafening even though there are less people than at the beginning. People are eating, laughing, walking around and chatting while paying no attention at all to our performance.

We manage to hold the attention of 20 or so spectators who follow the show right to the end. But overall we have the feeling of it all having been a waste of travel all this way for that performance !

Certain members of the company express the view that we should never have agreed to come and perform in these conditions, and say that we only accepted because we were tempted by the trip itself. We'd had the same kind of problems already in Lebanon in 2005 at the Al Bustan hotel.

We come to the conclusion that « The Tragic Flute » is a show made for the street and certainly not for the luxury hotel circuit.


3 may : "La baronnade" in three shopping centres

In the Gulf, shopping malls are the places where the most 'street life goes on, and that's why our latest performances have been scheduled here. We hope that we can maybe redeem ourselves after last night's catastrophic events. Up till now we've come across very few women, but they're very much in evidence in the shopping centres. And we also notice that there are many shops selling chadors, ranging in style from the very strict to more fashionable and even sexy...

Apparently this is the part of the world where the most women's underwear is bought. Even though the women are veiled, the way they look at you with burning eyes can be very suggestive....

The shows go well. We manage to get very close to the veiled women, and Laurent even succeeds in whispering a poem right into the ear of a woman dressed all in black.

The better things go, the more we began to feel at ease. The last show is pretty wild and the security guards have to intervene to push back the crowd.

Despite all the problems with the « Flute », we have good memories of Bahrain ; we really appreciated the efforts of the Alliance's director to make us feel at home, as well as the warmth of our hosts and their respect for our work.

And our final show in the shopping centre was a truly memorable experience.

We have the same kind of tour planned for Kuwait in March 2008 : once again the Frenchies will take the unsuspecting locals by storm...


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