Battersea Arts Centre
Many of us on this emotionally pruned island only hug our mums at Christmas. In my household, a little shoulder squish is about as demonstrative as we get, and we’re a pretty liberal bunch. Professional Dancer Mohamed Toukabri stages a celebration of touch and connection with his mother Mimouna (Latifa) Khamessi that puts us all to shame.
Part of the Shubbak Festival this relationship, contextualized within the international barriers clamped down by governments crafts a delicate message. One bound by filigree strings of affection and mutual respect.
At points the piece soars. An initial walk around the theatre by mother and son, translating the various parts, backstage, lights, cheap seats from English, then French and Tunisian Arabic (their native language) is equal parts sweet and lightly amusing. Another section where Latifa, an enigmatic stage presence herself explains her time working in Italy, coming home and meeting Mohamed’s father, her history. She is intense without being affected showing the value in non-professional performers given space on the stage.
The dance is strongest in the contact improvisational sections, where the bare-chested Mohamed inverts the classic adult-mother-son poses. Regressing into babylike curls, and hunches in his mother’s arms, they roll and clamp onto each other. Freud would have a field day, and the British audience shuffles like so many uncomfortable leaves at this tactile exhibition of love, but it’s a memorable image. Considering the implied eroticism of dance, and that corporal reality this section of unending touch is defiant in the questions it asks of us the viewers.
Yet the fizzing animation of Mohamed’s mind causes a quick fire of ideas that don’t always knit together. This explosion sometimes overwhelms the softer moments. Many shows within one. During Lafitia’s monologue, she is sat on a chair centre stage, there is a spot and English translations projected onto the backwall. A nice 5-10 minutes of calm. Yet Mohamed is leaping around in the background in what is rather uninspiring choreography. A blend of genres, including breakdance and modern ballet that distracts from the unembellished tale of survival and compromise.
Equally, an end section involves him using his mother almost as a doll or accessory. To be adorned with crown, EU flag, crosses, Union Jack, statue of liberty torch, and sunglasses. Although amusing it rather conjures up a floating question mark over the end of the evening. Although an earlier moment of surreal reversal where Mohamed comes on stage pregnant (presumably with himself) and his mother pulls a tree out of his swollen belly is a surprising hit. No accounting for taste clearly.
The political anger of the show, the difficulty of getting a visa for travel between Tunisia and Italy in the 80s, and the cancellation of Latifa’s travel documents twice to perform the show in Belgian is another angle. Like each of the compartments, it could have been an effective show if it was given space and time. The building indignation of both mother and son, flowing black and grey locks respectively coming undone in the crescendo of movement hit a cord with the audience. Highlighting the importance of the Shubbak festival within the UK theatre scene for celebrating the Arab diaspora and culture. To send your child away for the sake of their career and only then see them every 10 years or so is a heart-breaking reality, one that runs throughout the evening like a song of familial longing.
Despite the fractured nature of the show, both individuals have a clear voice, and the range of mediums they use to convey it is bound to produce conversation afterward. How do we show respect to our parents? What is the nature of citizenship? Who deserves a place at the grand old table of Western arts? Latifa dreamed of becoming a dancer, and the fact that half a world away that is coming true with her beloved son at her side brings a certain watering of the eye to even this icicle of a critic. Touch your mother, create an experimental dance piece with her, and show her the respect she deserves, maybe start with a phone call first though?
This show is now finished but click here to check out what other mind-bending shows are going on…