Despite ample evidence to the contrary, society attaches worth to sanity. When the lines between madness and nonconformity are blurred, the politics of mental health – enforcing “normalcy,” diagnosing and treating aberrant behavior – becomes a powerful metaphor for social control.
This is the stuff of “Majnoun Yehki” (Crazy Man Speaks), the new work by Lebanese playwright and director Lina Khoury, which commenced a six-week run at Masrah al-Madina last week. The play is an entertaining and thoughtful spectacle, its serious themes massaged by a blend of music and comedy and leavened by fine performances.
The play centers on the character of Nahida Noun (Nada Abou Farhat, who’s cropped her locks for the occasion), a political activist arrested for writing an article criticizing the state’s treatment of its dissidents, whom it routinely declares insane.
As punishment, Nahida has herself been arrested and diagnosed mad. She is not a woman at all, her doctor informs her, but a man. Rather than acknowledging her insanity, Nahida’s answer to torture is to begin a hunger strike.
“Majnoun Yehki” doesn’t begin with Nahida, however, but with her cellmate (Gabriel Yammine), whose surname may also be “Noun.” In any case, he is an authentic lunatic, imagining that he is at the head of an orchestra, a delusion that fills his head with music, though the flaws in his musicians’ work drive him to fits of mad screaming.
As the lights arise upon the play, the ensemble performs while, barely visible in the semidarkness, Yammine’s character conducts feverishly.
He stands atop the second of three cylindrical platforms that have been arrayed downstage, denoting the play’s three settings – the psychiatrist’s office (downstage right); Nahida’s cell; and the classroom (downstage left), where a uniformed teacher (Andre Nacouzi) alternates music lessons for Nahida’s daughter (Aline Salloum) with political indoctrination sessions. All three cylinders are reinforced from above by a circular array of chains that hang from the rafters.
The rest of Masrah al-Madina’s stage is devoted to the ensemble of Arabic  and Western instruments – assorted string players, a pianist and a soprano – whose members not only perform the score but interact, usually comically, with Yammine’s delusional character.
The playwright told The Daily Star that the musicians aren’t a professional ensemble. Rather, they were collected by Oussama al-Khatib, who composed the play’s score.
Only Yammine’s character can hear his orchestra’s music. When Nahida’s coughing interrupts their “rehearsal” early on, he interrogates his bewildered cellmate about what instrument she plays.
Rounding out the principal cast is the asylum doctor (Ziad Rahbani), who sees his role as being to prescribe pills and to try and convince Nahida and Noun to conform to the social norms preferred by the state. A musician himself, the doctor is a bit player in an orchestra – he totes a melodica (a keyboard-operated wind instrument) everywhere he goes. He seems a more competent musician than psychiatrist, in fact.
When some of the production details of “Majnoun Yehki” seeped out, the local media picked up on it with more alacrity than a Lebanese theater play usually provokes.
No doubt this was partly because some recalled that in 2006 Khoury was responsible for “Hekeh Niswan” (Women’s Talk). Her adaptation of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” became a theatrical phenomenon – relocating to a second venue after finishing its extended run at Masrah al-Madina, even surviving the hospitalization of one of its cast members.
The main reason for the press enthusiasm about “Majnoun Yehki,” however, is that the play marks Rahbani’s return to the theatre stage after a yearslong absence.
The multitalented performer is well cast here. His comic timing and relaxed, soft-spoken irony is a great asset to Khoury’s play, yet one of the reasons Rahbani’s role is so enjoyable is that he isn’t the onstage Master of Ceremonies but shares the limelight with two other players and, in his case, a large musical ensemble.
That said, Khoury makes fine use of her actor’s talents and his cultural resonance. She has given him ample room to ad lib from the script and, on the opening night at least, this provoked ripples of knowing applause from the audience.
The exchanges between Rahbani and Yammine – as when the doctor tries to convince the patient that he has no orchestra, and the other professes to be happy to divest himself of that burden – provide some of the most comic moments in the play.
While the doctor tells the apparently compliant Yammine that he has no orchestra, the ensemble begins to play the opening bars of the “Ataba” – a classic of verbal wordplay from Rahbani’s album “Bema Inno.”
The movement of the play among its three stages requires a great deal of onstage darkness. It is to Khoury’s credit that these blackouts are not oppressive and that the onstage action not seem unduly mechanical, as there is frequent fluidity of movement between different stages.
Khoury says her play was inspired by a foreign-language piece that may have been written by U.K. playwright Tom Stoppard. Her adaptation does a good job of localizing the updating this unknown source text, exchanging the Soviet-era torture techniques cited in the original for practices more common in this part of the world.
Where the unknown source text was a largely patriarchal affair, Khoury has inverted the genders of the protagonist and her offspring, allowing the play to speak to issues of gender in a way the original work cannot.
Bilingual audience members will also appreciate Khoury’s rendering of a key treatment sequence involving the doctor and Nahida. At one point the doctor tells her, “your opinions are your symptoms” and, later, that “your dissent is your disease.” In Arabic, one onlooker suggested, these phrases have as much or more poetic resonance as they do in English.
“Majnoun Yehki” continues at Masrah al-Madina each Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 p.m. until Nov. 17.
By Jim Quilty