Questioning Theatre: Lina Saneh on Her and Rabih Mroué’s Play 33rpm and a Few Seconds

Iante Gaia Roach  06.20.2013

The Lebanese premiere of Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh’s play 33rpm and a Few Seconds and that of Rabih Mroué’s play Riding on a Cloud were arguably the most cutting-edge among the many artistic and cultural events which hit Beirut this May, during the
triennial forum for cultural practices Home Works 6, organized by the arts organization Ashkal Alwan.

The couple’s groundbreaking theatrical works tend to premiere and tour internationally more than in Lebanon, and these two plays are no exception: 33rpm, for instance – commissioned by the prestigious Festival d’Avignon 2012 and produced by a number of preeminent theatre festivals and institutions – premiered at the Kunsten Festival Des Arts in Brussels in May 2012.

The one-hour long ‘performance’ recounts the suicide of 28-year old Lebanese political activist Dia Yamout – a fictional name which could reveal either Sunni Muslim or Christian origins. It deals with the media battle that ensues among his friends, political supporters, family, girlfriend, and the political powers that tried to politicize Yamout’s death. They do either by presenting him as a Lebanese Bouazizi – the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest the unjust treatment and harassment inflicted upon him by state officials, an act widely considered as the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and thus the Arab Spring – whose act of resistance would inevitably spark the Arab Spring-style revolution which Lebanon has yet to live; or by slandering him as a
devil-worshipper (due to his penchant for hard rock) or psychologically instable individual, if not both.

The play, which is based on a true story that caused uproar in Lebanon, grips and fascinates. The main change from reality is the portrayal of Yamout as a disillusioned, politically engaged ex-theatre artist who abandoned theatre in order to dedicate himself entirely to political activism; the real ‘Yamout’ was not an artist at all. The scene consisted of a cluttered table with books, notes, an open laptop, and a mobile phone. A big screen sits behind the table, magnifying Yamout’s constantly updating Facebook page. This briefly displays the incoming e-mails and the text-messages incessantly sent to him by a London-based Palestinian activist, as well as English subtitles for the long voicemail messages left on his mobile phone by an ex-lover. A TV screen and a record player lie on the floor, completing the stage apparatus, which alone tells the story. It is through an astutely crafted alternation of electronic messages – ranging from Facebook forum discussions (which include links to news reportages about Yamout’s suicide) to e-mails, text and voice mail messages, that we reconstitute the dynamics of the suicide and the ongoing debate. Television broadcasts provide occasional punctuation, along with a couple of power cuts, executed so smoothly as to leave the audience momentarily in doubt as to whether they are intentional. There are no actors on stage, reflecting the screen-dominated age we
live in, where personal contact and communication are increasingly mediated by technological devices.

Despite her very full schedule, Saneh, with her curly red hair, sparkling eyes, and energetic yet graceful stride, answers my questions with utmost detail and concentration, revealing layer after layer of complexity and profundity in her approach to the subject matter and in her and Mroué’s artistic mission, though dismissing routine questions regarding the creative process. “Does it really matter? I cannot tell you how, and besides it would be banal” says the actress, playwright and director, who has been working closely with her husband Rabih Mroué for over twenty years.

Saneh talks about the different reception her and Mroué’s work receives at home and abroad: “Even though many details are tied to Lebanon, the general subjects of our work touch and concern everyone – in this case, the internet, Facebook, social media. Moreover, the way that you approach a subject can connect you to audiences and people all over the world… our work always contains an aesthetical proposition, inseparable from its subject and angle. Our non-Lebanese audience, though interested in the subject, is equally engaged in the manner in which it is presented and its aesthetical dimension. The Lebanese audience instead tends to be more interested in the socio-political details which concern them so closely, often neglecting the aesthetical proposition. However, 33rpm was received differently, as people loved the format of the play, and focused on it almost to the exclusion of its subject matter, for the first time.”

For some, the absence of live performance raises the question of whether a play such as 33rpm may be defined as theatre. Saneh, whose work has often included the use of multimedia, explains how she finds questions of genre definition (such as ‘is this theatre [or x, y,z] or is this not theatre [or x, y, z]?’) completely invalid after many decades of multidisciplinary artistic practices and experiments. She cites Duchamp’s 1917 work Fountain as arguably the most dazzling example. “Art now questions its mediums, pushing them to their limits. It suffices for an artist to decide that a certain thing will constitute an artwork and place it in an artistic context as a work of art. By doing so, he defines what he is putting in question. All our work is about questioning theatre. However, every new work of ours questions the theatrical medium in a different way, pushing it to new limits, knocking over the audience and ourselves.”

The actress explains the novelty of 33rpm and how its new subject matter was disturbing for its Lebanese audience. “This play tackles a very recent and original political discourse, different from our own ingrained traditional, middle class, lefty, secular discourses, forcing us to rethink the socio-political heritage that we keep on carrying with us. It tries to understand what has changed in the world and how to find a way out of the current crisis. I am talking about a discourse that we are all responsible for on a daily basis, not that of the main powers. In the sense that we are all responsible for the civil war and for the current problems, because we keep perpetuating the same old trends of political thought and action, without confronting and attacking the real issues.”

She continues: “What is so interesting about this young activist is that his life encapsulates the first kind of new, different resistance that has emerged since the civil war. It is different from the main authorities and from the traditional opposition and the sects. It is composed of groups of activists who do not subscribe to a set ideology, party or religious sect, and have set up the civil society and NGO movement, focusing on very specific and important issues, trying to achieve immediate results, with the same persons participating in different campaigns. It is a new form of political, social and civic action; it is extremely independent, and still very fragile, both because it is attacked by everyone, and because it maintains (unconsciously) certain interior contradictions inherited from the previous discourses. I believe that, in order to succeed, it must rethink every single concept and definition, which is no easy task. These activists cannot attribute the responsibility for their successes or failures to the establishment, since they are acting on their own, and here lies the optimism of 33rpm: our actions are only our own, between ourselves. And this instigates great fear in all powers.”

Saneh and Mroué’s work always deals with Lebanon’s recent history, by choosing events which clearly crystallize problems, in two ways: “Either well-known problems which are revealing of something which we wish to forget, or strange, one-off events which also crystallize important issues, but dot not remain in our history – because one of the wars waged by the powers against those who want to change things consists of removing them from history.” This is what happened to the real protagonist of 33rpm: his history was cancelled “to exorcise the potential of a small, personal gesture, perceived by the authorities as capable of sparking off a revolution. They were afraid of an individual acting outside his sectarian community, and of his ideas that were not reactionary, nor sectarian, or provincial. And that such a small gesture could cause such giant fear is extraordinary.”

Saneh explains two more reasons for the choice of the subject, which reveals how the social media have altered communications between people, and our relationship to death. “There have always been cases of political suicides in Lebanon, but until a few years ago such an event would have been completely ignored by politicians and mainstream media. However, Facebook can give persons and individual acts a new, much increased resonance, which is not controlled by the establishment, unlike the traditional media.”

As regards death, Saneh compares the change brought by contemporary means of communication to the way the invention of photography and audio recording devices, in their time, created lasting traces of the deceased. “The way that people keep connecting to the mobile phones, e-mail addresses and Facebook accounts or pages of dead people is no different than a visit to someone’s tomb, it is a form of addressing the dead. However, there is a difference between leaving a murmur in the air, and leaving a written, immediate yet perpetual trace – immediate because nowadays we tend to write before we think, and also because it arrives immediately.” So we have to think about the new relationship between immediacy and eternity.”

It is riveting to realize that a one-hour long play can raise so many fundamental questions for Lebanon and the contemporary world, covering political activism, acts of resistance, political control and fear, the changes brought by every new mean of communication… in Saneh’s words, “all means of contemporary communication, ranging from television to twitter and direct speech reflect different communication choices and take place in a different idiom. By understanding the different languages and potentiality of each, we can start thinking about how to make a public, political space of it, if it is indeed possible.”

An edited version of this article was published online on NOW Lebanon on May 23rd, 2013.

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