BEIRUT: The Masrah al-Madina stage was set for intimacy early Wednesday evening. Erected downstage, a small platform draped with festive lighting was about big enough to accommodate its five performers.
Ziad al-Ahmadieh and Khaled Abbdalla (ouds), Abed Kobeissy (bouzouq) and Ali Hout (daf) drifted on stage like a clutch of friends meeting in a cafe after work.
After a few minutes of cosmetic tuning, the evening’s star, Dame Nidal Ashkar, emerged from the audience to join them onstage. The occasion was “Not Long Ago,” the penultimate performance of a two-week (mostly) performance series staged to mark the 20th-anniversary of Ashkar’s Masrah al-Madina.
Lebanon has a distinguished theater history, particularly during the years before and during the country’s 1975-90 Civil War. The postwar period has been less kind to performance than the visual arts, however, and the Madina is among a small handful of Beirut theater institutions to survive.
Ashkar’s 20th-anniversary program drew upon the work of a cross section of the country’s performing arts community – including contemporary dance and music as well as Jad Abi Khalil’s “All That’s Left to Us,” a documentary film examining the continuing legacy of Palestinian fiction writer Ghassan Kanafani in Beirut’s arts scene.
Including work by such veterans as dramatist Roger Assaf and choreographer Nada Kano, world-class performers like Rabih Mroue and Rima Khcheich as well as younger artists – Zoukak Theater Company, Pierre Geagea, Collectif Kahraba, Metro al-Madina’s Hisham Jaber – the program amounted to a precis of the state of the performing arts in Beirut today.
For this final evening, Ashkar’s program set its gaze back to yesteryear. The closing performance was a concert of tunes by much loved Lebanese composer Zaki Nassif, as performed by the American University of Beirut’s Zaki Nassif Concert Band – a string ensemble and chorus of younger performers.
By comparison, “Not Long Ago” was a more casual affair, a relaxed crowd-pleaser of a show that saw Ashkar recount a series of tales from around Lebanon. Often set in one village or another, the stories of weddings and imprisonment – some amusing, others less so – not infrequently have a semifictional quality, as the audience is told a character’s name and then informed that this isn’t really his name at all.
At first the players provide musical interludes between Ashkar’s anecdotes, but soon the stories begin to serve as staging grounds for much loved tunes from the Lebanese songbook, composed not so long ago, with Ashkar belting out songs and fragments of tunes by Assi-era Fairouz, Widad and the like.
A showman in his element, Abbdalla soon begins to share the storytelling and vocalizing chores. Naturally the audience begins clapping and singing along almost immediately. They don’t stop until the final strains of music and spoken word – “They were sweet, the old days.” – which provoke a standing ovation, as you might expect.