BEIRUT: There have been some changes in Metro al-Madina’s subterranean demesne since The Daily Star last visited. A plastic container – strategically placed on the corner of Hisham Jaber’s desk to catch a persistent ceiling leak – is conspicuously absent.Jaber points to a wee stalactite oozing from his office ceiling, perhaps half a meter from the desk, and chuckles. “It moved.”
The co-founder and creative engine behind Hamra’s thriving cabaret space – now coursing to its sixth anniversary – confides that he’s considering relocating his office. He nods to the backstage-cum-administrative/storage area on the other side of the office door. “It’s beginning to feel a little crowded.”
About a year ago Jaber and his team were preparing to stage “Opera Hishik Bishik,” which reimagined Metro’s long-running cabaret of the same name – Jaber’s homage to Egypt’s profane music culture of the early 20th century – and recast it for orchestra and the wide stage of the Byblos festival.
In 2015 the Metro team alighted at the Beiteddine Festival to launch “Bar Farouk,” their homage to Beirut pop music of the earlier 20th century. This year Jaber and his collaborators are returning to the Chouf with “Al-Cirque al-Siyassi” (The Political Circus).
In a way “The Political Circus” harkens back to the Metro’s early cabarets. Unlike the long-running shows that reinterpret historic pop music, this new production is, well, new. “This is a completely original show,” Jaber explains. “We did all the songs. We wrote everything. It’s new from A to Z.”
In its creative ambitions, “Circus” is a departure – a bigger show with a wider range of performers that draws its inspiration from the carnivalesque changes to (in some cases continuities in) the way contemporary politics is done.
“Because we’re doing something under the theme of ‘politics,’ you know, we need to have an orchestra,” he laughs. “Because when you’re making propaganda, you need big composition with lots of violins playing behind you.”
The show is at once musical theater, circus performance and fairy tale. The 24-strong onstage cast includes actors, musicians and six international circus performers.
Many cast members will be familiar to audiences from their contribution to the Metro’s ongoing and past repertoire – including Jaber himself, who narrates the story.
“You know, I don’t have a lot to do these days,” he smiles, “so I thought I’d play the narrator.”
Aside from directing the show, Jaber wrote the story and song lyrics and composed some of the tunes. Ziad Ahmadiyya did the balance of the composition and ensemble arrangements. Individual tunes have been composed by Metro contributors Al-Rahel Al-Kabir and Nidal Abi Samra.
Jaber says the improvisations of individual performers also contributed to the composition process.
The story is set in a fictional land called Khirbat al-Ahlam (“Derelict Dreams”). “In this country, the regular people are really depressed,” Jaber explains. “All their children have left the country and they have no motivation to do anything.
“So the government comes up with the brilliant idea. To liven up the people they decide to have an election! They bring in an event planner (Yasmina Fayed) to organize an election festival for Abu Fas al-Nisnas (Naim al-Asmar) – the only candidate.
“The planner brings in entertainment acts to get everyone excited for the candidate’s speech, which is a big part of the show. During the election festival, we show how people live in that country and the way the politics and the propaganda work.”
The characters, Jaber says, fall into several distinct classes. The event planner and Nisnas are wealthy (class A). Below them are the assistants and waitresses, class B aspiring to be class A.
“Below them are the C-class people, the darawish,” he says, “the jobless and the homeless. In real life they’re the wood of the election. During the election campaign they live like class-A citizens. After that, they’re f--ked over. The C-class people are the circus performers.”
Khirbat al-Ahlam’s D-class citizens, the poorest of the poor, are the play’s clowns, whose number includes Al-Rahel Al-Kabir vocalist Sandy Shamoun.
Since they’re so desperately poor, they’re paid to be the candidate’s most enthusiastic supporters.
“It’s not about making fun of the politicians only,” Jaber says. “It’s not about the zuaama being the bad guys ... We are all in the same hole – the politicians and the people. ... It’s a game between the people and the politicians.”
Jaber says he first came up with the idea for “Political Circus” two years ago – partly inspired, perhaps, by the highly performative facets of this country’s political culture.
It took him some time to figure out how to transform mundane political practice into musical entertainment. Then Beiteddine’s Nora Jumblatt, whose prowess as an event organizer is not restricted to Beiteddine, rang to ask if he had anything new.
“It’s been a fun experience,” Jaber says. “I told her from the first, ‘If we want to do this show we must have the green light for everything.’ She agreed. It’s good for me as an artist, being able to talk about what’s going on in the country.
“But it’s not only in this country. It’s a virus. Now there is no longer any politics, only showbiz. ... First we had Obama, now we have this this new one, the stand-up comedian. ... It’s not funny anymore, yaani. It’s getting boring.
“It’s one week till the show opens and I feel happy,” he smiles. “The writing and the composition has been really nice. We’re having fun. After 5-1/2 years, we have this original show and I think we know what we want to say to people.”
Still “The Political Circus,” he insists, is fiction. “It’s a fictional country,” he laughs. “Any connection between these characters and actual politicians – ”
Jaber’s office is plunged into darkness. The journalist laughs, but he keeps talking. “ – It’s magic!”
‘The Political Circus’ is being staged at the Beiteddine Art Festival Aug. 2-4 at 8:30 p.m.