Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog – theatre

Restoring resilience on the Beirut stage

Ben Harrison

September 18, 2007 12:20 PM

Next Wednesday I'm flying back to Beirut, my fourth trip there but my first since last year's war. After attending a conference in Alexandria of international theatre makers from the Arab region, the Balkans and Europe in 2003, I have been more and more involved in developing theatre projects in the Middle East, principally in Lebanon but I amalso Jordan. At the meeting a whole new world of culture, both political and theatrical, opened up. From stories of Palestinian theatre groups performing cultural interventions at Israeli checkpoints, to the daring and witty theatre work of Lebanese artists like Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroue, I saw a possibility to create bridges between East and West at a time when the world was being asked to accept a binary model – for us or against us.

I couldn't have made Roam, which was a show about global politics and air travel set in Edinburgh airport that my company Grid Iron did with the National Theatre of Scotland, without the participation of the Lebanese actor and writer Saseen Kawzally. He knew all there was to know about the politics of the checkpoint and the civil war. Saseen was a translator on our 2005 Beirut project where we re-made our 2003 show Those Eyes, That Mouth and made a new piece in Arabic, The Story of the Death of Najib Brax. We then invited him to Edinburgh in 2006 to perform in Roam. After the show he returned to Lebanon, which three months later suffered the devastating aerial bombardment of the Israeli Defence Force. The next time I saw him was on BBC World, travelling with a BBC unit attached to a Red Cross convoy, comforting the elderly woman sitting next to him, under fire from the air. Two months later he was at my front door in Edinburgh.

This was the first time that war and my personal relationships had entwined so intimately. It felt so real, so personal, seeing him on the television, and I became more politically involved. But although marching, lobbying and letter writing are important, perhaps the most vital contribution one can make is within your field of expertise. Saseen witnessed a truly shocking event when he was working in South Lebanon last year and this story is forming the basis for his play, which the National Theatre of Scotland is developing. The great flexibility of NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone's "Theatre Without Walls" project means that rather than having to bring the Lebanese actors to a workshop building in Scotland, I can go to Beirut and run the first stage of the development in the context from which the piece emerges. The NTS Workshop can re-make itself, in effect, anywhere in the world.

Things are tense in Lebanon at the moment, as the presidential election looms. I always feel a bit nervous boarding a plane to Beirut, because of the reputation attached to the name of that city. When I was growing up there were two cities synonymous with bombs, Beirut and Belfast. It is part of the tragedy of places that have been war zones that they are permanently associated with conflict. But Beirut is a vibrant, energetic, young city, buzzing with possibility. It's a place where East and West truly meet. Or at least it was before last year. The thing I'm most anxious about is not the security situation but seeing how what happened last year has altered the spirit of my friends and colleagues there. However, the key characteristic of every Lebanese I've ever met can be summed up in one word – resilience.