Greek myth made tragedy in Beirut

The wonderfully expressive face of actor Dana Mikhael animates the ritualistic process of "EPIPHANY: ‘Persephone’ in Beirut".(The Daily Star/ Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Though she was the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and the harvest-goddess Demeter, Kore’s life was that of an innocent young woman. Then Hades carried her off by to become the dread queen of the Underworld, where she was transformed into the goddess Persephone. Demeter was so distraught at her daughter’s abduction that the plants and trees began to die – so her mourning was the origin of winter. Alarmed at her decline, Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to the underworld to retrieve Persephone. Far from pining for home, he found her exultant in her role as Hades’ fearful wife. The goddess’ girlish side lingered, however, and she missed the company of her mother.

From that point forth, Persephone began spending six months in the underworld, ruling at her husband’s side, before returning to earth for six months, bringing springtime fertility with her. The goddess of burial and new growth, she represents the dual forces of death and rebirth.

One of the most ancient of the Greek myths, Persephone’s story served as inspiration for Waraq Collective’s Hussein Nakhal and actress Dana Mikhael when they sat down to discuss a contemporary performance touching on life and death in Beirut.

“Originally, the Greeks believed that Persephone sent the maiden [the virgin] in her to the underworld,” Nakhal explains. “We imagined that ... in the underworld she met all the people who’ve died in this city. Especially with the latest incidents, we feel like death is all around, and this is really an exploration of death and graves and happiness and joy and how you become hysterical living between these two states.”

Nakhal and Mikhael’s performance piece “EPIPHANY: ‘Persephone’ in Beirut” is an emotionally charged exploration of horror, suffering and redemption, enacted with unrelenting intensity by the unspeaking Mikhael.

This mostly silent hour-long performance has minimal accompaniment. Inspired by the chorus in Greek tragedy, a male voice provides a poetic context to the production via several short voice-over passages. Otherwise, the only sounds are shards of dissonant music and the rasp of the performer’s breathing.

Dressed in black from head to toe, her hair in a neat braid, Mikhael begins by donning a tall paper mask – a visage reminiscent of Hindu statuary that covers the upper half of her face and elongates her head impossibly.

Transformed, she begins to enact a series of violent rituals, the dramatic lighting and ominous music serving to create a chilling atmosphere straight out of a Gothic novel – or the credits of the TV show “American Horror Story.”

In one particularly creepy scene, she sits before a table littered with indiscernible objects and dons a pair of latex gloves. Sitting with her back to the audience, Mikhael blocks the action, but it’s evident from the distinctive snap of rubber on skin. Moving slowly, like crawling insects following a trajectory whose logic is unknowable, two gloved hands appear above her head.

As if moving of their own volition, one seizes hold of a handful of Mikhael’s hair and pulls her head back, forcing her face to look up. The other begins a macabre dance, reaching invisibly to the unseen table only to emerge with a variety of gruesome implements. A hammer waves wildly inches from her scalp. A pair of pliers grips her tongue and twists it. A hypodermic needle viciously stabs at the side of her neck.

Throughout the first half of the show, Mikhael enacts a claustrophobic exploration of the stage area, contorting her body into unnatural poses, pacing the borders of a rough rectangle – a common theme in performances exploring confinement – and finally pausing in one corner to pantomime a long, anguished, but silent scream.

The actor’s wonderfully expressive face switches emotions with psychotic speed. She depicts anger, pain, sorrow, fear and a sick, blank enjoyment without speaking a word – save her repetitive recital of the beginning of the Greek alphabet in varying tones of panic, demonic menace and robotic resignation.

Periodically, Mikhael removes the mask. Breaking character, she assesses her audience, then sheathes herself again in madness.

The moment of epiphany falls at the midpoint of the performance. Mikhael ceases her violent contortions – intended to convey the stories of those killed by violence in Beirut – and takes on the calmer persona of Kore, goddess of spring and the harvest.

Arrayed in a robe adorned with gilded flowers, she sits at a table laid out with bowls of herbs and minerals and begins to mix a potion.

“‘Now this day is over. I’m revealing my powers. I’m going to try to help the city, somehow,’” Nakhal says. “She brings the table, and she does what she knows how to do, which is a bit of magic and something that’s more metaphysical.

“It’s not a human solution because she’s not human. She calls the souls of the day. She calls the sun to earth.”

This enigmatic and ritualistic performance lends itself to a multitude of readings. Without directorial elaboration, the ties that bind the Persephone myth to contemporary Beirut are not immediately evident, but perhaps this is no bad thing.

In accordance with the Waraq Collective’s approach, the performance is a group effort. The animated video projections were designed by Ashley Phoebe Choukair and David Habchy, who also worked with Nakhal on the set design. Mikhael, Nakhal says, spent weeks improvising to develop her persona, walking into local shops in character to gauge people’s reactions.

The result is a performance whose origins and message may at first appear opaque, but which packs an undeniable emotional punch. In keeping with the collective ethos, however, the way audiences choose to interpret it is left up to them.

“EPIPHANY: ‘Persephone’ in Beirut” continues at Beit Waraq in Ras al-Nabaa until June 9. For more information, please call 03-763-823.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 28, 2014, on page 16.




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