x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Lebanese director Rahbani's modern Arabic interpretation of Don Quixote

With his new adaptation of Don Quixote to hit the stage, Rahbani shares his vision.

Dubai based Lebanese playwright Marwan Rahbani.Marwan Rahbani, and, below, the director with the actor Antoine Kerbaj at a 2007 staging of Zenobia in Dubai.i
Dubai based Lebanese playwright Marwan Rahbani.Marwan Rahbani, and, below, the director with the actor Antoine Kerbaj at a 2007 staging of Zenobia in Dubai.i

The Lebanese director Marwan Rahbani would feel he had failed as a dramatist if someone left the theatre after watching one of his productions having had a "nice time".

"I want, great, superb, shocking, or zero," he says. "I am black and white. I don't like grey. I don't want people to go away empty. I want to inject them with ideas and start a conversation."

Guaranteed to get a reaction is his modern Arabic interpretation of Miguel de Cervantes's literary masterpiece Don Quixote, which has been given top billing at the Byblos International Festival in Lebanon this month. Record numbers are expected at the annual event, which boasts this year an international lineup of acts including Moby, Jamie Cullum and the Scorpions.

Despite his current commutes between filming commitments in Dubai and rehearsals in Beirut, the energetic 53-year-old jumps up to greet me in his expansive book-lined Al Quoz office, exhibiting no symptoms of travel fatigue.

"I don't sleep a lot and I'm extremely demanding of my creative and technical teams. But I love what I do and you will never find a Rahbani who is not in the arts. There are no doctors, lawyers or engineers in this family!" he grins.

In Rahbani's theatre adaptation of Cervantes's classic novel, the protagonist hails from Lebanon, not La Mancha, and is a wealthy landlord named Don "Assaad" Quixote from the Middle Ages, who has been transported to a "modern city" in 2011.

Rahbani dismisses the caricature of Quixote as a man who embarked upon foolishly impractical pursuits of ideals and lofty romantic notions.

"He's a simple philosopher trying to spread a new spirit and encourage the people he meets to live a better life - against corruption and injustice," Rahbani says. "For example, he's against all the numerous political divisions in Lebanon. He's fighting the fragmentation - they are his windmills, full of colours, like the colours of the many political parties.

"His wish is for Lebanon to unite. But, people say he's crazy and they eventually kill him. Because there's a system that must continue. Outsiders and insiders kill him in the end."

The Rahbani family name has been well known for decades, since the 1960s and 1970s when Marwan's father Mansour and uncle Assi shot to fame as one of the most successful musical and dramatist teams in the Arab world.

Today, the legacy lives on with Marwan and his brothers working together - as they often do - on Don Quixote: Marwan as creative director, Oussama as producer and composer and Ghadi as scriptwriter.

Being raised in a house full of music where "stars from Europe and Egypt would frequently visit", it's hardly surprising that creative seeds took root with the siblings, who have an impressive back catalogue of plays, musicals and television shows spanning three decades.

Rahbani says his family's legacy has meant his generation has never been gagged or stifled creatively - adding that all three brothers always tackle sensitive topics with care. He's keenly aware that Don Assaad will come to the attention of Lebanese politicians and says that he hopes their reaction will be "strong".

"Our previous pieces have predicted all the wars in Lebanon and the unrest you see now in the Arab world. It's right there in our plays. The family felt there was something wrong and that dictatorships could not continue. People are like water - they can't be contained."

Given his avid interest in social issues and politics, does Rahbani ever feel that art is rather a blunt tool and a poor catalyst for change in his homeland?

"If we wanted to be in politics that's where we'd be. We're not interested. At the end of the day, plays and musicals are not our political manifesto," he says. "We don't give solutions - that's not our role. Our plays are there to give people hope. People want to change - just look at Cairo, Tunisia and Libya."

For all the talk of hope, what optimism does the "spectacular death" of Don Assaad give to an audience? Rahbani ponders, lights a thin cigar and lets the smoke curl around his fingers.

"Don Asaad leaves followers behind, who carry on his work," he says. "So often with great heroes, you don't know their real value and true being until they die. Are there any modern-day Don Quixotes? Not as far as I know - if we had him, we lost him."

Undeterred, Rahbani is convinced his production of Don Quixote will provoke dialogue in his Lebanese audience. Characteristically, he's also spared no expense in the set design, costumes and technical effects. In 2007, his Dubai production of Zenobia made headlines due to its 130-strong cast, camels, horses and extensive pyrotechnics display.

"No live animals this time, sadly, but the sets and screen projections are truly amazing, representing the dream and reality periods of the book. We also have an amazing concept for the windmills, but I can't tell you yet."

The production will be staged for six nights in an open-air theatre in the historical setting of Byblos, which ruled out live musicians, says Rahbani.

"Humidity with a live orchestra is very challenging: the strings would be in chaos and the singers can also lose their voices," he says. "Not to mention the wind on the microphones, which makes a terrible noise. That said, open-air is open-air and every style of production has its charm," he smiles.

Rahbani's phone rings - it's his son Mansour from the movie set and it's time to get back to work.

"Any profits my brothers and I might make from our work, let me tell you, it goes straight back to du and Etisalat," he laughs. "Truly, we are very close and speak a minimum of seven times a day."

What about artistic differences, I ask. Working so closely together on projects, do tempers ever flare?

Rahbani swings around in his high-back leather chair, raising his eyes to the ceiling: "Ha! Let me tell you, you wouldn't want to assist in a fight. When we fight, we fight big time. I swear, yesterday evening you could hear my voice in Abu Dhabi," he says. "We love each other very much but are all very stubborn. You have to be very good at convincing because it's like talking with four walls.

"But it's not about being right - I'm not ashamed to say: 'I was wrong,'" he smiles. "And whatever happens, at the end of the day, I'm the director and I'll still take all the credit!"

 

Byblos Festival runs from June 28 to July 22. For more information visit www.byblosfestival.org.