The hissing sound of voices whispering indecipherable phrases, the ringing of an old-fashioned telephone that goes unanswered, mysterious screeches as a silhouetted figure drags a lifeless body across a red-lit stage.
“There’s a time after curfew,” a dispassionate voice intones, “when nothing moves except the rats.” Sound like the opening of a horror film? In a sense “Hotel Methuselah” is just that. At the same time it is a far more complex thing – a blend of live performance, black-and-white film sequences – a clear homage to film noir and the French New Wave that spun off from it in the 1950s – and color sequences which place it firmly in a modern context.
Imitating the Dog, the British company behind the production, were invited to give a one-off performance of the play at the Tayyouneh’s Dawar al-SHAMS Wednesday, as part of the Samir Kassir Spring Festival.
The production’s innovative stage design immediately sets it apart. A flat screen at the front of the stage obscures all but a small area of the stage, which is visible through a narrow aperture running its length.
Film clips are projected onto this forward screen, and against the rear of the stage, creating two separate film screens with the live action sandwiched between, visible only through this narrow chink.
The set design affords a view of the actors’ torsos, but their heads and feet are cropped. The image of their faces – including close-up shots of faces, eyes and mouths – has been filmed and is projected upon the screens behind them. The stage actors must time their movements perfectly to synch with the pre-recorded film and dialogue.
“A lot of viewers see our work as destructive,” says Simon Wainwright, who plays Harry, the protagonist, “because it’s turning theater into film.”
In fact, he explains, the aim is to fuse the strengths of both media. “The thing film can do really well is close-ups – emotion,” he says. “The thing that theater does really well is body language.”
The performance plays with the opportunities afforded by the mix of live action and film. Some particularly effective scenes arose from the deployment of an unseen running machine. It allows the camera to follow Harry as he appears to walk forward, while remaining in place, creating the impression of a long walk through the hotel.
The narrative is surreal and elaborate, like stepping inside someone else’s nightmare. A night porter in a once-grand hotel, now fallen into seedy disrepair in an unspecified warzone, Harry performs the same ritual each night, signing-in guests and taking their suitcases to their rooms.
As bombs fall outside, Harry interacts with a series of peculiar guests who demand information, alcohol and sex in increasingly bizarre and aggressive terms.
It soon becomes clear that something strange is going on.
Harry, who cannot remember anything before his current shift, begins to play out a bizarre, repetitive sequence of encounters with guests who may or may not be the same people, all of whom seem to know something about Harry that he himself does not. They repeatedly mention a wife, whose existence he doesn’t remember.
The play operates on several levels, working both as a ghost story and as an exploration of the psychological impact of war. It’s left unclear whether something supernatural is up in the hotel, or whether hapless Harry is simply suffering a bit of post-traumatic stress.
“Hotel Methuselah” was extremely well-received by the audience, several of whom asked for copies of the script.
Audience member Ola Sleiman told the actors that, having lived through the Lebanese Civil War, she identified with Harry. “I feel that I don’t have a past,” she said, “and I don’t have a future as a Lebanese.”
“Doing this piece here ... because of your history,” Wainwright replied, “it feels like it has a lot more weight and a lot more relevance.”