Renowned British actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave has come to Beirut for a collaborative performance with Mariam Said – best known, perhaps, as widow of scholar and Palestinian advocate Edward Said. Based on the memoir of Wadad Makdisi Cortas, Mariam’s mother, “A World I Loved” became a performance when Mariam Said gave Redgrave a copy of the book. She was very moved by the work and decided to construct a recital out of it.
The show is organized by Ahliah School, where Cortas was principal for four decades, with support from the Theater Initiative at the American University of Beirut.
It features Redgrave, Said, Najla Said (her daughter) and Nadim Sawalha. The show’s score will be performed live by pianist Karim Said, cellist Sary Khalife and violinist Nabih Boulos, as well as a chorus of singers from both Ahliah School and the Lebanese American University.
“A World I Loved” premiered at the U.K.’s Brighton Festival in 2012, where it was played before a full house. A year later it had its American debut at New York City’s Miller Theater. The Beirut performance has been timed to correspond to the launch of Ahliah School’s centennial celebration. Opening in 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration, the narrative explores the changes in Lebanon’s political landscape. Incorporating music, monologue, choral singing and video projection, the work illustrates how the politics in the Arab region altered between World War I and the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.
Najla Said discussed how her family had to leave Palestine and escape to the United States. She grew up believing the things that were said about Arab culture in the media, she said, and how dense it was. To recognize the Arab world, she had to work through layers of non-Arab perceptions of the region.
She went on to discuss her career as a professional actress, stressing how the cultural stereotypes contrasted with her first-hand experience of the Arab world.
Asked what they hope to achieve with this performance, Redgrave stated, “A state of peace, a state of love, a state of being.” At the best of times this is essential to human society, she said, stressing that whether you are a part of it or sitting in the audience, it is a way of understanding something for the first time.
Najla Said added that a performer does not just play a part for the lead role. He or she must empathize with and understand the character. Empathy is an integral part of acting, she continued, because – to convey the message of the character they want the audience to understand – an individual has got to literally put herself in someone else’s shoes and take on her identity.
Redgrave sketched a new film project of hers, for which she is visiting refugees across the globe.
“They are us, and we are them,” she said. “Some people are dead, like governments. They stopped feeling like human beings. There are people that need us, and we can’t help them directly but we can protest to our government.”
“A World I Loved” will be staged at the Issam Fouad Auditorium on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at 8 p.m.
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