By Stephanie Burridge
(800 words, four-minute read)
Metaphors abound in this complex work about living, loving and surviving. The broad canvas is a country at war. Jogging falls short of running full out, and this black clad woman has survived through thirty years of war in her city Beirut. Her storytelling is multi-layered and cleverly scripted, revealing a series of characters that she probes to delve into the humanity behind the bleak portraits – irony and dark humour pervade the show, constantly shifting the mood. Recounted in Arabic with translations projected above the artist, the decision to speak in her own language reinforces notions of identity and a sense of place for the artist no matter where she performs this work. Incorporating intense stylisation, the monologue unfolds without sentimentality. It hits hard at the underpinning beliefs that traverse time and place. It is also a universal feminist treatise – a plea for equality where women and children are not sacrificed by dominant male patriarchy and adherence to hardline views that enslave women and disempower them.
The show opens with Hanane lying on the floor between two parallel lines of props – a water bottle, tissues, a coat, a stool. She is exercising – stretching and strengthening then later jogging to keep fit and stave off osteoporosis and depression. She requests an audience member to read some text. This is the first of several engaging episodes of audience participation creating empathy across the footlights, drawing us to her story, her personality and her emotion. The calisthenics continue in a seemingly innocuous way with side issues relating to family stories and her own health struggles. Erotic, sexual references give worldly sensuality and symbolic feminist strength in the larger context of the violation and subjugation of women. An anecdote of bird shit falling from the heavens as she jogs becomes a symbol for a larger picture of corruption and a parable for a heavenly beauty above a sordid, earthly reality.
She is obsessed by Medea, the central female character in the archaic Greek drama by Euripides. Desperate to be chosen to perform this role, Hanane recounts the plot of a jealous wife who kills her husband’s lover and her children for revenge. Mothers killing their children is a leitmotif. Yvonne, another woman, poisons her three children with beautiful fruit salad and whipped cream – Hanane macabrely presents samples of this treat that are greeted enthusiastically by the audience. In an aside, she comments that Singaporeans were very eager to try this compared with other audiences she has performed to, suggesting that the desire for food surpassed its intrinsic black symbolism. An image of this story is evoked brilliantly through an age old children’s game where some folded paper is cut into the shape of a doll then opened to reveal several identical ones, like a family – the paper is then burnt to ashes in a simply rendered, but powerful evocation. Her last story describes a young suicide bomber, told from a mother’s horror of this call to martyrdom. Running in circles relentlessly below a spotlight, she questions the power and purpose of God.
Pathos, wit and a worldly wisdom underpin each story. The artist colours the performance with hilarious, self-depreciating gestures from flailing arms to quirky hand-signals. She adds costume pieces to denote the different characters – a wig, a trench coat and scarves that shroud her head and face. The content is overwhelming in its sadness and comment on the state of the world; yet it is also mundane as women go about their daily lives amid the sound and fury.
The performance is superbly paced with its own rhythm and dynamics. Hanane Hajj Ali gives a textured delivery embodying her characters as any actor who dreams of playing the ultimate role of Medea must. Yet it is the lived experience of the artist that authenticates the performance along with her courage that enables her to reveal the underbelly. She is a consummate actor; yet as the narrative unfolds it loses some of its earlier visual interest wherein the text is embodied, incorporating a corporeal layer of vitality and energy. As this diminishes the subtexts move from myth and past histories into a more wary, submissive body living very much in the present time as the impact of fundamental ideologies surface as a primal narrative. Paralleling lives lived across the globe, through Jogging: Theatre in Progress, we are witness to refugees fleeing, peoples darting for safety as the bombs explode and rubble cascades around them.
Historically, juxtaposing ugly truths within the ritual of the theatrical arena is common. Eurpides and Shakespeare are cited in this production. Hanane Hajj Ali has made a startling, innovative work that not only challenges and provokes reflection on current times of disruption and displacement, but is the witness, author and provocateur confronting us to reflect, think, feel and act.
JOGGING: Theatre In Progress by Hanane Hajj Ali was performed at the Esplanade Theatre Studio on 16 & 17 January as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019.
Guest Contributor Stephanie Burridge (PhD) writes about dance and education in the Asia Pacific region. She is the Co-chair of the World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific Research and Documentation network. She was Artistic Director of Canberra Dance Theatre (1978-2001) and is Series Editor for Routledge Celebrating Dance in Asia and the Pacific.
This review was revised on 23 January 2019.