‘Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’’ Review: A Bittersweet Premiere

What happens when the roots you long for keep eluding you? This question has long been central to the work of the playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad, and never more so than in a new production of his 1991 work “Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’.”

Currently the director of Théâtre National de la Colline, a high-profile Parisian playhouse, Mouawad was born in Lebanon. In 1978, he fled the country’s civil war with his family, at the age of 10. As a writer, he has returned to his Lebanese heritage over and over — and this year, he went back to the country to stage his first production with local actors, an Arabic-language adaptation of “Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’.”

But in April, just weeks before the premiere, Le Monnot playhouse in Beirut was forced to cancel all performances of the play over Mouawad’s perceived ties to Israel, which Lebanon considers an enemy state. Several Lebanese lobbying groups had called for the show to be stopped, with one, the Commission of Detainees Affairs, filing a legal complaint with the country’s military courts and demanding Mouawad’s arrest.

According to a report in the French newspaper Le Monde, Mouawad was accused of allowing the Israeli Embassy in France to pay for three plane tickets in 2017 to bring two Israeli actors and a translator to the country for his production “All Birds.” In another perceived transgression, last season Mouawad programmed a work by the Israeli artist Amos Gitai at the Théâtre National de la Colline.

Mouawad quickly left Lebanon. In a public statement, the Beirut venue blamed “unacceptable pressure and serious threats made against Le Monnot as well as some artists and technicians.”

It was an astonishing turn of events for a playwright who has always asserted his Lebanese identity, regardless of his childhood exile, and dissected it onstage. In the end, in lieu of Beirut, “Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’” premiered over the weekend at the Printemps des Comédiens, a theater festival in Montpellier, France, ahead of an international tour (whose dates remain to be confirmed) with the cast that was scheduled to perform in Lebanon.

The cancellation feels like a missed opportunity because Lebanon is practically a central character in the play, which shows a young Mouawad grappling with his childhood wartime experiences through the story of a fictional family. As bombs fall on Beirut, they prepare for an unlikely wedding, unsure whether anyone will show up — including the groom.

The mother, a vividly overwrought character as played by Aida Sabra, obsessively prepares food, even though ingredients are scarce. The bride, Nelly (Layal Ghossain), suffers from narcolepsy and keeps falling asleep. One of her brothers, Neel (Aly Harkous, excellent as a trapped teenager), breaks down in fits of anger and panic; the other, Walter, is supposedly on his way back from the hairdresser, yet never appears.

Mouawad has said that he was influenced by Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett when he wrote “Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’” at the age of 23, and it shows in the absurdity of the proceedings. The war raging all around the characters — a topical image today, given current events in the Middle East — forces them into incongruous situations, including crawling to the kitchen to avoid alerting shooters stationed near the house and slaughtering a lamb on their own doorstep for the wedding feast, because the butcher had to flee. (The back-and-forth between the parents about the blood stains it might leave on the carpet is among the production’s high comedic points.)

While, these days, Mouawad typically directs the plays he writes, he had never previously staged “Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’,” and here he does it with love. Despite some slapstick moments, the actors are given space to express their anguish through small, thoughtful glances and gestures. The set designer, Emmanuel Clolus, crafted a family apartment that is completely askew with tilted wooden walls, a basic but effective representation of the characters’ unstable reality.

At times, the 23-year-old Mouawad’s inexperience as a writer still shows, even though the play has reportedly been tweaked over the years. For instance, Mouawad inserts himself into the story as a character, played by Jean Destrem. He appears at regular intervals behind a window in the back, hard at work on his first play, calling up relatives in Lebanon.

Yet this narrator of sorts comes across as fairly shallow. Youthful tics show in some transitions, as when the character announces he doesn’t know how to end his play, before Mouawad contrives an encounter between him and the others.

Still, it is fascinating to hear Mouawad’s writing voice in Arabic — a language he only started using onstage in 2021, with “Mother,” which explores his mother’s experience of exile. He states in the playbill that the experience incited his desire to work in his native language in Lebanon.

In “Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’,” which was translated into Arabic by Odette Makhlouf and subtitled in Montpellier, the young playwright that serves as Mouawad’s stand-in marvels: “It’s as if I was writing in Arabic, yet it comes out in French.” As the six-strong cast trades quips in Arabic, it feels as if Mouawad is showing us a new facet of himself, over 30 years into his career.

Few would have understood it better, surely, than Lebanese audiences. Yet for Mouawad, there is still no going home.

Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’

Printemps des Comédiens, then on tour and at the Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris in 2025; colline.fr

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