Les Grooms in Beirut

26 February 2006


The Al Bustan festival in Beirut had been in regular contact with us since 2000 : an old English friend we knew from Salisbury had been working with them at the time and had tried to get us there. Finally, persistence has paid off and we find ourselves part of the festival in 2006.

It's a festival of classical music with one very special feature: the organiser is a certain Mme Bustani, a strong-willed millionaire, who has directed the festival with an iron grip for some 20 years now. It takes place in the five-star Al Bustan hotel situated in the hills overlooking Beirut. And from our arrival there's no stinting on the luxury: we eat in the restaurant of the hotel and we sleep in its well-appointed rooms.

After Algeria in 2001, here we are in another country which has had its share of problems. We're more than a little apprehensive. Only a few weeks before, Rafik Harriri was assassinated. We thought the festival was sure to be cancelled, but no. The festival has never been cancelled, even in the most intense moments of fighting.

We're happy to be able to present our "Tragic Flute" ("La Flute en Chantier") in the context of a classical music festival, as it's quite a rare occurrence. The performance is scheduled to take place in the hotel itself, and so our bell-boy costumes are absolutely appropriate. Street theatre is completely unknown in Lebanon, and the idea of it is even more incongruous in such a well-heeled festival.

We're looked after with extreme attentiveness and we sleep in magnificent rooms with views over the whole of the city. Only Diego has a problem...gas escapes from the defective air-conditioning in his room!

The delicious Lebanese food is served in enormous quantities. We share our meals with an orchestra from St Petersburg..

Madame Bustani is everywhere: from 8 in the morning till 2 in the morning she goes from room to room making sure everything is done as she wants it. She is helped by four women who obey her every whim. It's best to do everything to avoid to annoying her. However our show is something unusual and there are several problems: for instance, it's out of the question for her that the audience sits on the floor. It would be a scandal in a hotel of such standing. We have endless discussions with her on this subject. She is also against the idea that the finale of the performance should take place in the hotel's beautiful gardens. And even more implacable on the proposition that we light a fire on the ground...

Serge, who came before the performance specifically to ensure that there would be no technical problems, finds himself attacked from all sides, and becomes more and more exasperated.

We finally give way in the face of her objections. The whole of the show will be played inside and Mme Bustani will rent 200 chairs for her guests. And of course, there will be no fire. It will be the first time that we play the show in front of an audience in chairs. Some of the Grooms are angry about all this and question what we are doing in a festival like this. In the end our show is played in very bad technical conditions.

The performance takes place in front of an audience which is 90% Christian. Not a Muslim or veil in sight. All of the prominent people of the town are there as well as lots of families and children. They're surprised by our version of the opera, but by the end of the third part they're relaxing into it a little. To us it feels like a stiff but attentive audience. The second part of the performance, which is usually played high up at a window, takes place in an Italian restaurant within the hotel. Jacques stretches out on the work surface normally used to make pizza to play the sex scene with Maryseult. It's worthy of note that the festival makes no attempt at censure.

We're grateful to the Al Bustan festival for having taken the risk to programme us in such politically uncertain times. Madame Bustani is an incredible woman who doesn't give up easily in the face of adversity. Despite receiving no help from the public purse, she continues to try and single-handedly save her country through culture.

I think of the prospects for the 2007 festival with fondness and no little anxiety...