It seems an odd idea, to stage The Ballad of Reading Gaol in Lebanon. But this Jan. 12 performance at the Grand Theatre in Beirut was not the first one in this city. Nor will it be the last.
The Grand Theatre is, of course, the still-unrestored shell recently remembered as the former center of Lebanon’s cultural life. The ballad was written by another long-dead cultural icon, Oscar Wilde, a few years before his death in 1900. Wilde, Victorian Britain’s most flamboyant poet and critic, wrote this (4,000-word-long) poem after two years imprisonment for homosexual activity.
The critical response to the poem over the last century has not been unanimously positive. But, given its subject matter and the circumstances of its inspiration, it eventually became at least for the Anglo-Saxon university students who still had a chance to read it as significant a political document as it is a literary one.
The performance witnessed in the derelict beauty of the Grand Theatre was not a straight reading. Wilde was neither read nor sung exactly, but mouthed by vocalist Habiba al-Shaykh in a sort of free jazz improvisation. Her emotive shaking, sitting, and kneeling were accompanied by a pair of conga-sized drums, qanun, oud, periodic percussive meepings, and (in the second set) the jazz drumming of Steve Philips.
Dimly silhouetted by the light of a dozen or so candles and a single kaleidoscopic flood lamp, the performance was reminiscent of a Beat poetry “happening.” The Beats, yet another historical icon, were a phenomenon of the late 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately though Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs would have been at home that night there appeared to be no mind-altering substances in the vicinity.
Shaykh is both the voice and the mind behind this performance or, as she would put it, this “incarnation” of the Wilde poem. She chooses the word deliberately. The first incarnation took the form of a happening at the Goethe Institute in 1998, which saw the text interpreted by three actors accompanied by a jazz ensemble. The third performance which will see the text handed back to an ensemble of actors and musicians is scheduled for April.
“Some people think that once you’ve finished work on a project you should move on to something else,” she said. “I’m comfortable with developing an idea gradually.”
Shaykh explained that she discovered Wilde’s poem at the same time that she began her voice training when she was 22 years old.
“When you read the words of Oscar Wilde,” she said, “you begin to feel that there is such a thing as genius.
“In contemporary society our subjective being becomes objectified and politicized. The words of Wilde allow us to liberate ourselves from whatever it is that is colonizing us.”
In The Ballad she sees the prison as a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with authority. “It’s like capital punishment,” she said. “There are countries where the authorities tell you that they’re killing people on your behalf, even though the last thing you may want is for the state to kill anybody.
“This performance creates a space where you can say ‘don’t kill anybody on my behalf.’
“It’s like Wilde says in the poem: ‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves/By each let this be heard’.”
The Beats particularly Burroughs and Brion Gysin, who Shaykh says first erected the bridge between the West and the Middle East are “half the centrality” of her work. The other half is the theatrical experimentation of the late Jerzy Grotowski, which she describes as harkening back to something more primal in the relationship between speech and movement.
Though the various “incarnations” of Wilde’s poem are Shaykh’s inspiration, she is collaborating with Armenian, Belgian and Lebanese composers to score the piece the music developed for the show at the Grand Theatre will also be used in the April performance.
There is a great deal in The Ballad of Reading Gaol that Beirut audiences have not seen, at least in recent years. Still, the “second incarnation” of the piece needed a bit more time in the incubator.
Poetry does not necessarily do well when it is sung, even under the best of conditions. One example of this can be found in Benjamin Britten’s oratorio The War Requiem, which takes its libretti from the World War I poems of Wilfred Owen.
Owen’s words are often swallowed by vocalists’ interpretations or orchestral accompaniment. The compensation is that they contribute to some greater whole. The question is whether the same can be said of Shaykh’s late-beat interpretation of Wilde’s text.
Clearly Shaykh sees the poet’s words to be just as important as her vocal improvisations and the musical accompaniment. And the semi-improvised score is interesting enough for those interested in the form.
Yet the performance did more to crowd the text than to foreground it, something that might have been offset if copies of the text had been provided.
For its part, the audience which started hemorrhaging 15 minutes after the performance began seemed to be left wondering what the purpose of the exercise could be. Stay tuned for the third incarnation.