Back with a bang: After a quiet summer, Beirut unleashes homegrown tragicomedy
After a quiet summer on the theater front, a fresh spate of live performances are under way in Beirut this autumn – the perfect way to soak up some culture, stay warm and avoid the rain. Alongside a couple of shows that have been adapted into Arabic from American scripts, there is one performance currently on show that is Lebanese through and through.
“El Orbaa Bi Noss El Joumaa” (“The Wednesday in the Middle of the Week”), written and directed by comedian Betty Taoutel, is based in Beirut, and takes the inspiration for its storyline, characters and dialogue from one of the most important events in Lebanese society: the wedding.
“I was inspired by people around me who might exist,” Taoutel explains. “All the characters revolve around the concept of marriage.”
Taoutel explores the darker realities surrounding the “dream” wedding and the “perfect” marriage. Of the nine characters in the play three are financially dependent on the wedding business. Jessy Khalil plays a wedding planner engaged to a rich businessman in Qatar, while Wadih Aftimos plays an endearingly camp hairdresser, and Abdo Chahine provides a comic juxtaposition in the form of his macho, dabke-dancing sidekick.
The other six characters are preoccupied with the realities of married life – Andree Naccouzi and Hisham Khaddaj play a young couple who long to get married but can’t afford it, while Josette Aftimos and Jacques Emile Mokhbat enact a show-stealing comic elderly couple, married for decades, who are still rehashing the same tired arguments the younger couple are having for the first time.
Taoutel herself plays a lonely housewife and mother of four, seeking someone to talk to, while Walid Abou Hamad gives a commendable first-time performance as a divorced doctor with a grown-up son.
Through these characters Taoutel explores some of the problems facing people in Lebanon – the dancer and hairdresser, for example, are forced to work two jobs to make ends meet, posting up advertisements in the winter when the summer wedding season is over.
“They have worries,” she says. “All the problems which take place in Lebanon: strikes, lateness – for example with regard to buses – closed roads. In addition the building the old people live [in] is on the brink of falling down. This is a story which happened in real life last year – there was an old building which collapsed in Ashrafieh – which gave me the idea that the old couple abandon the building ... to stay in the street.
“The young couple who want to marry ... can’t have a civil marriage because civil marriage doesn’t exist in Lebanon,” she continues. “So in raising these problems I address all the problems of Lebanese society.”
The play grew organically during rehearsals, Taoutel explains, meaning it was written not only for a Lebanese audience, but for a Lebanese cast. “I wrote my play in stages, so the actors participate in the evolution of the writing,” she says. “I write scenes, I write ideas ... I have a script, but it’s not fixed [or] finished. At the beginning I wrote 20 or 30 minutes of the play, and we began to work on it ... I could see the evolution of the actors and I kept writing, so I wrote for the actors.”
The staging revolves around a series of enormous moveable billboards, plastered with advertisements relating to the action onstage. Whether advertising luxury, ludicrously expensive apartments in new high-rise flats, or all-inclusive civil weddings in Cyprus, these billboards form the grim backdrop to the characters’ daily lives and needs, promising what is forever in sight but out of reach.
“I was in the street and I saw an advert for civil marriage in Cyprus,” Taoutel explains. “That was the first thing that pushed me to write ... because civil marriage is not permitted and when there was war here the Lebanese people used to go to Cyprus. So I saw that Cyprus was always like the solution to our problems.
“Everything you see in advertising is very nice and very beautiful and very easy,” she continues. “The big luxurious buildings always advertise ‘Prices starting from only ...’ – but it’s a lot of money for a young couple. We are seeing these big buildings growing up here in Lebanon and young people traveling, leaving the country. So it was also the main second idea ... we are all leaving the country.”
Though the subject matter is serious, the approach is resolutely comic. Full of slapstick, imaged journeys and musical-style asides it is in many ways a typical farce, though its serious subject matter means that there is an element of darkness under the light-hearted surface.
“The events are tragic in reality,” she admits, “very tough and very hard. It’s not my first play ... and I love comedy. I find that through the comedy one can transmit messages in a subtler way. The audience will laugh at their condition and that will encourage them to reflect.”
“El Orbaa Bi Noss El Joumaa” is playing Thursdays through Sundays at the Monnot Theater until Dec. 2. For more information please call 01-202-422.