A descent into rituals of death and renewal

The popular perception of Australia is that place where lots of Lebanese have migrated. Every once in a while the migratory waves reverse and this country hosts a trickle of backpacking youth who speak neither French, Arabic, nor, it seems, English. Sometimes the turning tide brings back Lebanese as well. Recently it has turned up Chapel of Change, a pair of Australians who speak a universal language.

It’s difficult to categorize Chapel of Change and its performance piece “The Descent.” In Australia, the troupe is associated with “new form theater.” For conventional theater-goers, though, the centerpiece of drama is plot ­ the play’s the thing. But the center of “Descent” isn’t plot. In fact during the development of this piece the last thing to emerge was the narrative. This leaves one wondering exactly how to classify the troupe and its work.

The short answer is that you don’t, because Chapel doesn’t want to be categorized. Rainsford, the troupe’s artistic director (my term, not his) eschews the labels on which mainstream theater thrives ­ and any other name except Rainsford.

“We aren’t interested in the commercial market,” he explains. “So we haven’t looked at the European festival circuit. It reduces art to a commercial product. Categorizing a piece can make it a prison for the performer.”

Rainsford is a multi-media artist who has worked in photography, film-making, design, and music as well as theater. He was nominated for the Australian Green Room award for his direction of “The Descent,” and the piece won him Best Male Performer at the Ninth Cairo International Theater Festival. His partner, Mary Salem, has performed dance works from around the world and studied styles as diverse as Japanese butoh and classical Indian forms. She is also Arab by descent. Her mother’s family hails from Alexandria and her father’s is from Amoun, just south of Tripoli.

The multi-disciplinary and multi-ethnic sources of their work make “Descent” uniquely suited to Beirut’s cosmopolitan sensibility. The same can be said about the play’s universal themes. “Descent” tells the story of a fisherwoman trying to come to terms with her husband’s death. This reconciliation takes the form of a metaphorical journey she undertakes with the fisherman’s lingering spirit. During the play’s Middle Eastern premier at the Cairo Festival last year the critics gave a local spin to one of the key elements of the piece: a semi-character called “the dark companion” was seen to represent the hijab. Though it was not in the original conception of the piece, the troupe welcomes the audience making the work their own.

Certain people are more concerned with labels than talent, however. When pressed to provide some kind of classification for “Descent,” so that people will know what they’ll be paying for, Rainsford relented: “‘Descent’ is transformative,” he said. “It’s an expression of the grief Mary and I felt at the loss of loved ones. When developing the piece the grief was unified though our exploration of ritual … One of the themes is reconciliation: reconciling ourselves to death, finding renewal through it, and how death reaffirms the value of life for us.”

It seems appropriate that these themes be explored in Beirut, where grief and the need for reconciliation sometimes defy expression.

“The Descent” is being performed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (November 6-8) at Masrah al-Madina.





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