22 April 2007

Zenobia: the musical and Conquest's Law

The all-star, all-singing, all-dancing Zenobia: the musical, written by Lebanese composer and poet Mansour Rahbani, which I talked about last week, is now playing to an enthusiastic reception at Dubai Studio City.

Kinan Jarjous of Dubai was there:

Drums, trumpets, lights, fog [fog? in the desert?], and 3 hours passed away without anyone noticing. We were all mesmerized by the play. Perfect execution, well-written script... my god, the script... the most powerful words were spoken on that stage that night. You could not know if it was a tragedy play, or a comedy, or a musical, or a dance... it was all yet not one exclusively. I have never attending anything like it.

It sounds spectacular. And Carole Samaha, I've been told, delivers a passionate performance as the brave Palmyran Queen who fought off the Roman legions, and Ghassan Saliba was heart-rending as her Leader of Knights. Veteran stage actor Antoine Kerbaje drew thunderous applause when he appeared onstage as the imposing Roman Emperor Orleanos [Aurelian]....

Wait a minute. They cheered the bad guy - who conquered Zenobia, obliterated Palmyra (leaving the city as little more than cold ashes), and plumbed depths of cruelty even beyond the exceptional cruelty of the age! Never mind, I don't intend to talk about Aurelian. Instead, I am wondering how far you can go in simplifying or altering history for the stage. After all, a musical is designed to reach many who never read ancient history, so any adulteration will be taken as the real thing. Zenobia: the musical is being pitched precisely as based on fact.

This, according to the play's director, Marwan Rahbani (Mansour's son) is the background to Zenobia's story [from an interview by Kate McAuley for Dubai TimeOut; my thanks to MargĂ´t Hover for sending this to me]:
It’s around 260AD and the Roman Empire, led by fearsome emperor Orleanos [Aurelian}, is advancing ever eastward. The rich and sparkling city-state of Palymra (located in modern day Syria) has been under Roman influence for over a hundred years. But the Palymrans, including their newly crowned queen Zenobia, have had enough. ‘She’s the first lady who said no to Rome,’ says Marwan Rahbani. ‘She was the first Arab voice in history to say no against a superpower.’ The feisty young lady did a lot more than just say no to the bullying empire – she actually sent her armies into battle and temporarily took control of large parts of Egypt right the way through to Armenia in Asia. All of which was not bad for a women who ascended to the throne at the ripe old age of 25.

Well, not exactly. Far from advancing ever eastward, the Empire was almost on the ropes. Emperor followed emperor in rapid succession, and it was all they could do to secure the nearer provinces: Gaul and Spain were lost to an usurper; northern Italy had been invaded by German tribes and Rome itself was briefly threatened; Goths breached the Danube frontier and attacked the Balkans and Greece. And, of course, there wasn't just one superpower: the Romans were reeling from their recent encounters with the new Sassanian Persian empire on both sides of the Euphrates (I'll be writing about the beginning of these wars in Julia Mamaea's next post, 'Mamaea's Travels').

This is the dynamic that gave Zenobia her chance (she was well over 25, by the way, when she came to the throne [closer to 40! but old ladies, I guess, can't dance]) - and she took it. Only after her armies had conquered Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia, Aurelian, finally beating off the Goths, came east to reclaim these lands for Rome. Not that I approve of him (I don't!) but we should at least get the order of battle right.

The Empress has no (Palmyran) clothes

It makes my blood boil. Not the lack of historical accuracy in the play (I'm used to that) but Carole's costume in the photo at the top of this post. What is Zenobia doing prancing about in a short red dress and long black boots? This is an opportunity badly missed. Palmyran clothing is gorgeous and unlike anything worn by Greeks or Romans.

Palmyran Style

This is Odenathus, the great warrior king of Palmyra and Zenobia's husband. The mosaic, which comes from a house immediately north-west of the Great Colonnade, and found in 2003, shows us for the first time Palmyran clothes in all their many colours. The scene was surely created to celebrate his victories over the Persians (262-266/7 AD).

Like the Parthians to the East, the men wore trousers. Over a linen tunic, they draped woolen garments in vivid colours - reds and blues, browns and purples and gold - often in floral or geometric patterns, and in the elaborate and distinctive brocades of Palmyran costume. Countless tomb reliefs display every detail of Palmyran dress and the wealth of their jewellery. But it is the tiny surviving fragments of silken garments that are the most evocative of all - shimmering and ornate, with woven bands of flowers and beasts - demonstrating the Palmyrans’ love of the soft, and the gorgeous, and the intricate. Here are two views of women's attire, once painted (as were the textiles) with colours imitating the entire rainbow, and embellished with gold and silver highlights; but this is all now lost:

I'm not such a crusty old traditionalist that I insist on authentic costume. But to dress Zenobia as if for a night out at a Beirut disco is tiresomely banal. Imagine what a top couturier could have done (absolutely! I'd have chosen the inimitable Mary McFadden) - stunning stuffs in a fusion of Palmyran style and modern chic.

Jarjous falls asleep in Dubai with Zenobia's last words ringing in his ears:
I am the first cry of freedom,
the first cry from an Arabian land.
I am to give my blood for freedom.
In the Middle East, I don't think it mere pedantry to criticize a play for rewriting history: Zenobia lived hundreds of years before the Arab conquest of Syria so it's worse than nonsense to make her cry from 'an Arabian land'.

Let me put it this way. It gives me a bad case of Conquest's Law (which has nothing to do with the Arab conquest, or Aurelian's conquest of Palmyra, but, rather, Robert Conquest's immortal dictum): Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive