SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Look for a missing actor

New direction: Rabih Mroue

New direction: Rabih Mroue  



GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

`Theatre is a space where people can meet and discuss abstract ideas,' says Lebanese actor-director Rabih Mroue.

WHO would have thought that innocuous sounding "Looking for a Missing Employee" would hide intriguing drama - innovative, introspective, droll, even foxy? Its director/actor Rabih Mroue, Lebanon, began theatre in 1990, winning international recognition with "Face A/Face B", "Three Posters" and "The Lift". With his `small histories' he probed into Arab identity in socio-economic contexts. These Arabic plays were performed with subtitles across Europe. But for Delhi, Mroue used English redolent with Arab and French accents. Staged at the National School of Drama's annual Bharatrang Mahotsav (January 2-14), "Missing Employee" proved that technology and minimalism could find new directions together. The audience was live. But the live performer was centre staged in midshot as a screen image. His hands flipped through newspaper cuttings, and made notes on two other screens flanking his face. Mroue played a collector of clippings on missing persons, who traces the disappearance of a government employee. The assembled reports from newspapers and TV channels overlap, repeat, miss and contradict each other day after day. The barrage of information reveals little. The critique hits harder for the artlessness, and is sharper for Mroue's own career in television.Accused of embezzling government funds, the missing man turns up as a decomposed corpse. The wife asserts her ignorance. The scandal has the Finance Minister issuing denials, as the Prime Minister declares war on corruption. The mullah explains that Islam does not permit final rites for the murdered man as his torso is missing. Rabih Mroue's 105-minute patter makes you laugh, shake your head, shrug your shoulders, bite your lip, edge forward and sink back as the story leads into murky details. The play ends. The hall bursts into standing ovations, hollering for the actor/director. But where is he? Missing. Was he there at all? Was the image his only reality? The next day finds Rabih Mroue in the NSD campus ready to answer questions. "Looking for a Missing Employee" centre stages a screen image, not a live actor. Is this theatre at all? It took a long time for people in Lebanon to accept that what I was doing was theatre. I do what I do because I ask myself what is theatre? What's representation? Can I arrive at a minimal form to question form itself? Can I do a play without actors? How did you arrive at this form?I carried the idea with me until I found a way to tell the story. For years I've lived with videotapes and images, cutting, pasting, shooting, directing animation and docu-films for a television company. `Twas natural that all this should go into my theatre. I thought about how the image manipulates our lives, what image we'd like to project in different situations. For we have not one but many images. You could have shot it as a film. Why project live action backstage? People stay only because they know it's a live "telecast". Otherwise it will be nonsense. You don't see me waist downwards - I want you to ask, what's he doing with his legs? What's outside the screen? I give a clue when I tell you to look into my eyes. But neither you nor I can make eye contact. What do we see in live footage on TV? Are we watching the war in Iraq or is it another war altogether? Take this question to another level - does history consist of only fact, or fiction as well? In your play you say twice, "Never trust a photocopy"!I'm saying don't trust me. I'm pretending to be neutral. But I'm manipulating the archives, showing you only what I want. The media manipulates, but it also gets manipulated in turn. We are bombarded by images and information. Every bit of news deletes the previous bit. We can't remember what we read or saw last week. But when I show you within two hours, all the accumulated news about a single event, say, a civil war, you'll say oh God, did it really happen, I lived through it but didn't notice the extent of the damage. It's good in a way. If we're conscious of every mishap in the world we will die of grief, no? But I think it's important to be conscious about WHAT I'm receiving, not whether it's true or false. The murdered man can't be accorded final rites because his torso is missing. Is there a culture specific significance here? In Beirut when I refer to the Finance Minister in the play they laugh because they know the man, and the scenario. The mullah is different. In the beginning I say I'm astonished that people can be missing in a small country where everybody knows everybody. So, it IS possible to slip away! In our society people of different sects and creeds live next to each other. They don't see themselves as citizens but as part of this or that group. If one such person can disappear, then I too can skip out, find my individuality. Think about it, I can't be secular when I die! If I'm a Christian they'll pray in church, if I'm a Muslim I can't be cremated... But here the dead man has escaped religious branding. Another way to disappear, no? Is it a complicated idea? The theme in "Missing Employee" is charged with emotion. But you kept it free of sentimentality.Aristotle said that human beings are distinguished from animals because we can talk about abstractions like justice and injustice, whereas animals know only pain and joy. I hate melodrama. I want to share ideas, not pain. If I tell you about my problems during the civil war in Lebanon you'll cry. You'll stop thinking. Sharing feelings is for cafes and pubs - you laugh and cry over coffee or beer. Take a walk in Delhi and you feel the violence. We all have our problems. I'd like to tell you about my experience, for you to think about your problems, through my ideas about my problems. I believe that theatre is a space where people can meet and discuss abstract ideas... (Smiling) I show emotions in my acting. People laugh. But it's all about not letting the emotions control us, hanh?





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