Zoukak Theatre Company invites you to a ‘feast of death’

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A scene from “He Who Saw Everything.” Al-Akhbar

By: Roy Dib

Published Thursday, January 8, 2015

At Beirut’s Monnot Theatre, Zoukak Theatre Company presents “Death Comes Through the Eyes” and “He Who Saw Everything” as the outcome of its search for the meaning of death and immortality. While the first production tackles the topic as it is presented in the media, the second takes us on a journey, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh to the bloodshed taking place in our contemporary cities, from Baghdad, through Damascus, all the way to Lebanon’s cedar forest.

Zoukak is welcoming 2015 with performances about death. The group is currently showing two plays, “Death Comes Through the Eyes” and “He Who Saw Everything,” at Monnot’s big and small theaters. The performances are the fruit of long research and work conducted by the group on the topics of death and immortality. Commissioned and produced by the German Schwindelfrei Theatre Festival, Zoukak performed “Death Comes Through the Eyes” for the first time in Mannheim, Germany in 2014, and will showcase it in January 8, 2014 in Beirut.

The short play (20 minutes) is performed by Maya Zbib and Chrystèle Khodr at Monnot’s small theater, and is directed by Maya Zbib and Omar Abi Azar. It tackles our role and responsibility in facing the manifestations of death that surround us today through the media. In the play, the two actresses wear two invisible masks: the mask of happiness over Maya’s ever-smiling face, even in the most dramatic scenes, while Chrystèle wears the mask of sadness.

Playing the happy clown and the sad clown, the two actresses tell us about death – historical, dramatic, and “great” deaths. In full consciousness, they decide to search for the most dramatic moment of death and reenact it before us on stage. At the dining table decorated with flowers, candles, a large fruit basket, and a glass of red wine, Maya Zbib calmly gorges a roasted chicken, and asks us to watch Chrystèle Khodr act out her own death. She plays some classical funeral music to add dramatic effect to the scene. Chrystèle lies down on stage and acts out her death in a highly dramatic manner.

The play features a reenactment of the iconic photograph captured by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter in 1993 showing a Sudanese child trying to reach a food center in Sudan as a vulture awaits her death to devour her. The photograph became a powerful embodiment of the problematic relationship between the media and death.

When showing scenes of death, media outlets tend to hide the faces of victims, blur body parts of the dead, or cut out a decapitation scene right before the knife reaches the neck of a victim. They justify the desire to share such images by claiming respect for the audience’s feelings, as if they do not know that people’s imaginations are stronger than their vision.

Such cheap means are not employed in “Death Comes Through the Eyes.” To the contrary, we are encouraged to fully indulge in our morbid desires, and celebrate crime and death as Paolo Pasolini did in the movie Salò. Perhaps, then, we would become aware of our horrific acts, and pause a little to ponder what is going on around us and act differently.

In the big theater, we watched a second show titled “He Who Saw Everything,” directed by Omar Abi Azar and Maya Zbib, and played by Lamya Abi Azar, Hashem Adnan, Chrystèle Khodr, Junaid Sarieddeen, and Maya Zbib. The play also tackles death in contemporary societies based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. The group also drew inspiration from the works of Antonin Artaud, Howard Parker, Mahmood Darwish, Marguerite Duras, Christa Wolf, and Firas al-Sawwah.

The show reenacts Gilgamesh’s journey in search for immortality. Zoukak takes us on a journey through the contemporary cities of Baghdad, Damascus, all the way to Lebanon’s cedar forest. These cities are today immersed in blood and dominated by death.

In “He Who Saw,” Zoukak adopts the same style as in its previous productions. It employs a technique inspired by the Greek chorus, which is based on direct interaction with the audience and communication of the script through unison chant. Thus, repetition is a dominant element in the play, in terms of the narration, dramatic action, and form, occasionally leaving room for scenes between two actors.

The group first adopted this theatrical framework and technique in its play “Hamlet Machine,” which was further developed in “Lucena: Obedience Training.” This framework appeared full-fledged in “Heavens,” employing elements from the Greek chorus with popular folklore, storytelling, and dramatic monologues in a successful blend that managed to resonate with a wide audience and capture their attention during scenes that alternate between joy and misery.

All these theatrical components – the chorus, repetition, and singing (whether folklore or chants of lamentation) – are consistent with a play tackling the theme of death. However, in “He Who Saw Everything,” these components were not sufficient to fill the void and bring life to the large stage, and the play was caught up in a repetition of narratives that gradually drifted away from their intended meaning, and thus lacked theatrical coherence.

The show opens with the statement, “My friend died yesterday… but I did not feel a thing,” an intense feeling communicated by the actors at the beginning of the play. But instead of delving into this feeling of nothingness – with all its atrocity, its painful impact, and silent hysteria – the actors take us to an empty stage with only a giant fabric banner placed toward the back of the stage (scenography by Nataly Harb, painting by Joseph Ka’i). The actors alternately act out a contemporary Gilgamesh journey through chorus scenes or scenes by two people. The journey was caught up in narration and singing, drawing lines between Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon of the past and present, without building a contemporary dramatic work along these lines. It is a journey that linked death in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the death that surrounds us today, without delving into details that reflect our present and affect contemporary individuals, or tackling televised death (or on social media) and how it affects us.

What is interesting about Zoukak’s work is the group’s choice of controversial topics and experimentation with its own theatrical techniques.

“He Who Saw Everything” is being staged on January 8, 2014 at 8:30, at Monnot Theatre, Beirut. For more information, contact 01-218 078

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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