Hanane Hajj Ali has two coping mechanisms for life: jogging and theatre. The first staves off osteoporosis and depression, but it also brings her into close contact with Beirut, the city that has put the actress, writer and activist through 30 years of war. Pounding the streets every morning, Ali observes the “savage transformation of Beirut” and confronts her complicated relationship with a place that fuels her creativity yet fills her with frustration. Hence her need for theatre.
On stage, Ali channels this into a performance that is part social commentary, part political satire and partly a tragedy about both these things. She begins light, with jokes and devices – a vigorous exercise routine, pigeon poo hitting her in the face – that draw the audience into her perspective on the world. Her humour blackens as the 80-minute show unfolds and she digs deeper into the frayed fabric of Lebanese life.
Jogging, which she first performed in 2016, had its London debut last week as part of Shubbak Festival, a two-week extravaganza of Arab arts and culture in the UK. Seated in the intimate Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, the audience was invited to read from the script and assist on stage in parts of the production, turning Ali’s interior monologue into a dialogue with people of mixed backgrounds and beliefs.
This will be a “rebellious play”, promises Ali, who embodies the full cast of characters throughout. First she is Hanane, a mother immersed in the mundane routines of daily life who contemplates the metaphysical while jogging. At the same time she is an actress who longs to play the ultimate role of Medea, the protagonist in Euripides’s play of the same name. “As an actress, a great actress, I can transcend my frustration through dreams,” she announces in the play.
For Ali, the theatre becomes a place for celebrating artifice and confronting reality, which she does with a mixture of irreverent irony and heart-rending intensity throughout. Literary references are slotted in, from Euripides’s play to Shakespeare’s rotten state of Denmark in Hamlet – which is likened to Lebanon – and Virginia Woolf’s suicide notes.
Her next character is Medea herself, the anti-heroine in Greek mythology who killed her children and poisoned her husband’s new wife. Ali dramatises the emotions of this frightening sequence as Medeaexacts her monstrous retribution on the self-serving Jacob through his beautiful young bride. At one point in her life, Ali experienced an agonising dream that she had killed her own child, which drew her to explore the complex character of Medea in greater depth.
Later, she is Yvonne, a woman living in Mount Lebanon who re-enacted aspects of Euripides’s gruesome tale when she took revenge on her absent husband, killing herself and murdering their three children with a poisoned fruit salad. Flitting between storyteller and protagonist, she describes buying the children new pyjamas in their favourite colours and preparing their final dessert.
This she actually carries out on stage, topping three bowls of fruit with whipped cream and offering it to members of the audience. One girl looks a little nervous when Ali tries to dribble on the “poison”. “This is theatre habibti, and this is honey,” Ali reassures her.
Artifice is exploited to narrow the distance between the audience and the leading ladies of these stories as she slips between the layers of myth and make-belief to draw parallels with modern life.
Her last character is a mother who has lost her three sons to recent wars in the Middle East. The first two have been killed in Southern Lebanon, in one of many battles that have kept the tensions of the Lebanese civil war simmering across the decades. Ali envisages the mother’s torment as she reads a letter from her youngest child who, aged 19, died as a suicide bomber in North Syria. “They will tell you I was martyred, but you will know that I was killed,” the boy writes in a letter that describes the savage brutality of a war he no longer understood.
We see beyond the reported headlines of the crimes and killings to the motivations behind them as Ali examines the desperation of different “Lebanese Medeas” disempowered by their society. Lebanon is a “home for men”, she says. “Women are not treated as citizens but as children.” By the end of the production her jogging has become frenzied, a metaphor for the madness her Medeas feel.
This play has been performed more than 100 times in Lebanon, but always for free to sidestep the censors. Ali risks jail and a fine of more than $10,000 (Dh36,725) but as the play became more successful and reached wider audiences, her confidence increased. She has since performed in Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps and parts of the country normally cut off from the creative bubble of Beirut, from Akkar in the north to Bekka in the south, in pursuit of what she calls “the democratisation of culture”.
For Ali, Jogging is theatre in its original capacity, as a forum for discussion and the dissemination of ideas.In ancient Greece, citizens came here to engage with one another and debate critical issues, she tells The National after her performance. In Lebanon, we have lost this “critical distance,” this ability to step back and draw lessons from the war, she says. “Instead, we are becoming more and more divided.”
Internationally, she has been met with standing ovations and has performed the play in 15 countries, but there have been mixed responses from audiences at home. Ali’s refusal to shy away from tabooshas resulted in some viewers leaving midway through her performance, and on one occasion a man threatened her for confronting the subject of martyrdom in her production. “I’m telling unspoken stories and if I don’t tell them here nobody will,” she says.
Elsewhere, she’s been buoyed by positive responses from young people. One 17-year-old boy sent her a message on social media saying that her work inspired him to “believe again in my country” and have hope in its capacity for change. It’s through culture that you have these encounters and build new relationships, Ali says, especially with a live form of art such as theatre, where “each night is different and each audience is different”, bringing opportunities to challenge stagnant thought and invite fresh ideas.