BEIRUT: Etel Adnan’s short novel “Sitt Marie-Rose” (1977) is a scathing indictment of the senseless brutality and prejudice fueling a war. It was inspired by the life of a woman executed by Christian militiamen during the Lebanese Civil War, which, had the author but known it, had barely begun.
The work is divided into two parts, “Time I: A Million Birds” and “Time II: Marie-Rose.”
“A Million Birds” tells the story of Mounir, a rich Lebanese Christian, and his friends Tony and the bloodthirsty, nihilistic Fouad. Mounir asks a nameless female friend to help him make a film about bringing three Syrians from a small village to Beirut. She eventually tells him they cannot work together, due to his reluctance to engage with any serious or politically charged subject matter.
Set against the escalating violence foreshadowed in the opening chapter, “Marie-Rose” recounts the death of a young Christian woman at the hands of her former friends and neighbors, also named Mounir, Tony and Fouad.
The novel recounts the hours leading up to Marie-Rose’s murder in an experimental, fragmented style, using seven narrative perspectives. An unnamed, omniscient narrator is juxtaposed with a group of deaf-mute children, who speak in a collective voice, the four Christian men who together act as judge, jury and executioner, and Marie-Rose herself.
Staging a nonlinear novel like this in a theater play is no easy task. Now, close to 40 years after its publication, director Bachir Achkar has done a commendable job in accomplishing exactly that.
“Sitt-Marie Rose,” on stage at Hamra’s Babel Theater until May 31, is visually spectacular. Achkar’s staging, Mohamad Khadra’s costuming and Nur Fakhoury’s lighting grip the audience’s attention throughout a production rife with lengthy monologues.
Achkar’s adaptation has its strengths and weaknesses, and will resonate differently with viewers depending on whether or not they’re familiar with Adnan’s original.
Citing the age of the source text, Achkar told The Daily Star that he had chosen to wipe any mention of location, time, sect and nationality from his production, in an effort to update the narrative.
“The story of Marie-Rose is happening right now in Syria and it happens every day in Palestine,” Achkar said. “It happens everywhere in this part of the world. So why not have the story without the dates, without the religions, without the nationalities?
“It’s not because I’m afraid of anything,” he added. “It’s just because I feel it doesn’t anymore fit the era we’re in.”
Given the ongoing tensions in Lebanon – much of which, it is often argued, have their roots in events connected to the Civil War – it’s debatable how alien Adnan’s text is to events today.
For some, Achkar’s approach, which gives the tale a timeless, almost mythical universality, may well be an improvement. Others may feel that retaining the original Civil War context and trusting the audience to make its own connections would provoke deeper reflection on contemporary relationships between Muslim and Christian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian.
The director has wisely narrowed down the cast of characters to a digestible core: Marie-Rose (played by a blonde-locked Joelle Homsi), Mounir (Moe Khadra), a religious man of unclear denomination (Saad Kadiry), who takes the place of Adnan’s orphaned Christian clergyman, the narrator (Faez Rawas), and the five deaf-mute children, who take it in turns to speak in their distinctive collective voice.
Achkar has also done away with the back-story of Marie-Rose’s relationship with a PLO-aligned doctor, the perceived betrayal of her Christian roots that signs her death warrant. Instead, he has emphasized the teenage romance between Marie-Rose and Mounir, who is faced with a doomed moral battle.
“In my adaptation I highlighted the ... nostalgia, the relationship between the two,” explained Achkar. “It’s a beautiful, epic love story. The lover comes to kill his ex-girlfriend on stage. Having this story – not having ‘Romeo and Juliet’ from England, but having it from the Middle East – is a challenge by itself.”
Achkar has also chosen not to stage the first part of the novel. “People get confused with Etel Adnan’s ‘Sitt Marie-Rose,’” he said. “The book has two stories in it, two totally different stories. The first part ... has nothing to do with the real story of Marie-Rose.”
Some might dispute this point, but given the tenuous links between the two sections of the novel, it undoubtedly makes for a more cohesive play.
Opinions may be divided as to the adaptation of the text, but “Sitt Marie-Rose” is visually stunning.
The set design consists of a clever backdrop, a black wall inset with eight niches, like upright coffins, from which actors can disappear and reappear at will. On stage, three rows of 14 thick ropes hang from ceiling to floor, presenting a multitude of visual possibilities.
The timelessness of the adaptation is reinforced by inventive costuming, a black-heavy blend of old and new Gothic. Old-fashioned britches and waistcoats on the men are paired with modern T-shirts, heavy silver rings, flowing scarves and – in the case of the narrator – arms riddled with tattoos. Marie-Rose’s blonde hair is accentuated by her fitted black top and flared, floor-length skirt.
Dramatic lighting allows for some wonderful effects, particularly when it comes to the five deaf-mute characters, who frequently tie the hanging ropes together to create makeshift swings, on which they sway gentle as Marie-Rose and Mounir reminiscence and rage, or swing out to the audience in acrobatic, childlike displays of exuberance.
Achkar has integrated elements of dance into the production, his choreography providing an atmosphere of repressed violence without the need for warlike sound effects. The deaf-mute children are particularly effective, their childlike voices and innocent games creating a chilling contrast with the unfolding tale of unprovoked brutality.
The play’s denouement was dramatic enough to impel multiple opening night audience members to whip out their iPhones to snap a picture or two, or even shoot a few minutes of video.
It is a masterpiece of choreography not to be missed
“Sitt Marie-Rose” continues at Hamra’s Babel Theater until May 31. For more information please visit www.facebook.com/events/626534624100038