Commanding the stage for a solo performer and squeezing the audience until the pips pop out is no mean feat – especially if that performer is a middle aged woman dressed in black, performing a ninety-minute monologue in Arabic and wearing a hijab.
But Hanane Hajj Ali is used to having the odds stacked against her having spent her formative years in war-torn Beirut – and not only spending her time there but actively engaging in the proceedings.
I must confess that when the show started I thought I was in for the long haul. The actor lay on the stage doing warm-up vocal exercises as she did her press-ups and stretching. Far above her head the translation of the text was projected on to a large screen so you couldn’t watch the actor and follow what was being said at the same time. Plus, in the corner, was a man translating the text into Dutch using sign language. It didn’t bode well.
Despite my initial trepidation, I was soon hooked. Jogging is basically about what women do, or have to do, when there is no way out. The play evolves and resolves around Medea, one of the stars of ancient Greek myth and Euripides’s tragedy. It draws parallels with Yvonne, a contemporary Lebanese woman who kills her children and herself, a mother who sacrifices her sons to the wars of the Middle East and, of course, Ms Hajj Ali herself. The story of the tragic Greek heroine is retold at length, and not without humour. It is compared and contrasted with the plight of modern day women in times of war and stress as Ms Hajj Ali seeks to establish “who is Medea today in a torn city like Beirut?”
Hanane, which means “tenderness” in Arabic, was born in a suburb of Beirut to Shia Muslim parents in 1958. Jogging was conceived in 2012 during her solitary early morning workout around the streets of that city “at the moment between the disappearance of darkness and the beginning of light”. It was first performed as a thirty minute piece the following year with the running simulated on a treadmill. It was refined and developed over the next three years with director Éric Deniaud and dramaturge Abdullah Alkafri into the play we saw tonight.
She was sixteen when civil war engulfed Lebanon in 1975. The war would continue for the next fifteen years and it was during this time, while sheltering in underground car parks with her brother that Hanane first discovered an ability and desire to perform as she recited poetry with the war raging in the streets and skies above. As was the case not so long ago in the West, acting for a woman was considered little short of prostitution and she met stiff and violent resistance from her father. She studied biology and acting at the same time and it was the stage that won out.
But Hanane is more than an actress, she is an activist taking to the streets for the October Revolution of 2019 and protesting against the corruption that lead to the explosions in Beirut’s port in August 2020. Performing Jogging in Lebanon could lead to a prison sentence for her but despite that she has taken the play around the world.
It is impossible not to draw parallels between the fifteen year-long conflict in Lebanon and the current war in Ukraine where, as always, it is the women and children who suffer the consequences.
Hanane Hajj Ali’s Jogging, and her tour de force performance, are remarkable achievements. This was a rare and memorable evening which confirms that theatre is a universal language that speaks to us all. Michael Hasted 2nd April 2022
Photo by Marwan Tahtah