"Who's afraid of acting?" by Rabei Marwa, pornography has reached Lebanese stage | Youssef Bazzi
"Who's afraid of acting?" by Rabei Marwa, pornography has reached Lebanese stage Print
Youssef Bazzi   
"Who's afraid of acting?" by Rabei Marwa, pornography has reached Lebanese stage | Youssef Bazzi
Lina Sani in "Who's afraid of acting?"
We have no hesitation in saying that with their show “Who’s afraid of acting?” Rabei Marwa and Lina Sani are responsible for an historic moment in Lebanese theatre: pornography (as a subject and language, not the act itself) has reached the stage...

Since his 1997 statement in which he announced his departure from the Al-Hakawati (Roger Assaf) and Al-Haduthi theatre troupes Rabei Marwa's work has become anti-theatre, or perhaps anti-theatrical. A series of deadly blows directed at the stage itself, these works are exercises in self-obfuscation, aiming for an uncategorizability that goes beyond the bounds of even experimental theatre, which in the last ten years has become mere commonplace imitation.

After a series of cultural and theoretical experiments that embraced forays into video, computer and photography as well as television work, Rabei Marwa now channels all his efforts into theatre. However, this a theatre we might want to call "the impossibility of theatre", "post-mortem theatre" or simply "post-theatre" (we should point out that these are fairly unattractive titles, and Marwa himself would most likely reject them). His works are a meeting point for different techniques, forms of expression and artistic experimentation: a hypothetical common ground not just of widely different artistic forms but of all manner of techniques as well. He does not seek to purify but to blur, for every conceivable technique, form or expression has now become vulnerable to subversion.

But Marwa's most important contribution is not this stylistic potpourri but his removal of the dramatic underpinnings of theatre. The stage is transformed into a workshop where limits and preconceptions are tested, and even offended. It is a pitiless examination of the theatre's capacity for the possible. At times, the show takes on the trappings of a lecture--as in his last work "The search for a lost employee"--or the audience and the show meld together into a single artistic event, or the production is left incomplete, more suited to being filmed or written down as a script than to be viewed on stage.
We are witnessing the liberation of drama from "embodiment", a process that inspires the title of his latest work, "Who's afraid of acting?", part of the Interior Activies 3 Festival at Beirut's City Theatre. The play's title raises the question of the ambiguous meaning of the word tamthil, which means acting in Arabic. The word's meaning encompasses both the sense of an actor playing a role, a politician representing a group and finally a criminal mutilating a body. The play's own difficulty revolves around this sinister linguistic confusion, focussing all its attention on these ambiguities from the first to last sentence.

A table, chair and book sit on stage. Rabei Marwa and his partner Lina Sani enter the stage and pull down a white screen which defines the edge of the theatrical space. The table, chair and book appear to be outside this hypothetical space, a resting place for the actors or a room from which the director can observe the "on-stage" action. With a total absence of any overt "acting" Rabei sits down in the chair facing the table and Lina stands next to him clutching the book. Behind the screen is a camera that records what the "actress" Lina Sani is doing and what takes place behind her. It then transmits these images to a second camera behind the audience which in turn transmits the now inverted images on the white screen facing the audience. There is a time delay of one second between the two cameras, so we can truthfully say that we are not watching "theatre-acting" but rather "filmed-acting": in other words "a theatre video" (if that makes any sense).
"Who's afraid of acting?" by Rabei Marwa, pornography has reached Lebanese stage | Youssef Bazzi
Rabei Marwa in "Who's afraid of acting?"
A second ambiguity follows on from this: Lina appears to be facing the audience when her talking image appears on the screen, but in actual fact she has her back turned to us. From this simple deception we deduce the absence of the dramatic principle of "direct acting". By watching the projectors mounted facing each other at either end of the front of the stage we notice that they cast a shadow over Lina's body, which stands center-stage behind the white screen. In this position the audience sees Lina's image in the center and her actual shadows cast out towards the edges of the stage. This effect is the product of "performance" and "acting", yet the minute she appears from behind the screen the effect is destroyed, the image vanishes and the shadows are broken. The performance's sole dramatic conceit is that the table, chair and book are somehow "outside" the production.
What of the nature of the performance; its essence? It is a shock, or more accurately, a disturbing transgression of political, moral and aesthetic boundaries. The performance consists of Lina holding the book, closing her eyes then opening them and the book at a random page that contains a page number and an artist's name. According to the page number, Rabei Marwa then tells Lina how many seconds she has to talk about the work of the artist in question.
Lina continues in this vein, talking about a series of artistic works that are by turns masochistic, bloody, sexual, suicidal and so on. Completely obscene, true: pornographic, outrageous and totally immoral. Throughout the recitation the date when each work was produced is read out, always coinciding with some political or military event from the Middle East's many wars. Thus artistic pornography (using the term in its broadest sense) runs parallel to the pornography of war and politics. The recitation culminates with a single violent and annihilating act.

Lina eventually chooses a page with a picture rather than text. She brings it up to the camera so we can see it. Rabei stands up, comes to the front of the screen and tells the story of Hassan Mamoun (perhaps referencing the government employee who killed his work colleagues three years ago in Beirut). It is a tale of mass murder in which sectarian, financial and psychological motives (all of them ultimately facile) are blended together, but at the same time it is a memory of the pornography, political outrages and masochistic horrors of war.
If the artworks Lina describes are vile acts taking an implicit stance of moral and political despair, and if the story of Hassan Mamoun related by Rabei is a political act created by a pornographic artistic imagination, then Lina's performance behind the screen and Rabei's in front of the screen create two intersecting lines that help delineate the ambiguous entanglement of politics, ethics and art. In addition, there is an ambiguity of form: is the performance obscene, or is obscenity its subject? It is this ambiguity that saves the production from turning into a political or moral message.

In view of the it's blatantly obscene and violent language, seeped in blood, sex and filth, the Beiruti audience's wholehearted and enthusiastic acceptance of the work is astonishing. The public is prepared to root out the aesthetic beauty that concealed by the degraded language. We have no hesitation in saying that Rabei Marwa and Lina Sani are responsible for an historic moment in Lebanese theatre: pornography (as a subject and language, not the act itself) has reached the stage... Youssef Bazzi