When you first hear the title of Zad El Bacha’s solo performance, it would not be unreasonable to expect a sombre or morbid affair. Recalling the stories told by her mother about growing up during the Lebanese Civil War, death appears to be forever present, lurking around every corner. Yet, On Death Etc. is more a story of familial relationships and survival. In conversation with her audience, El Bacha injects humour into a narrative that traces the events that shaped her mother’s childhood, processing how they influenced her own upbringing.
Wide-eyed and surrounded by suspended car bumpers, there is a certain whimsical nature to El Bacha’s performance as you first enter the theatre. With that same deer-in-headlights expression, she opens with the remark, “When I was a child, I was afraid that my mother would kill me.” Stuck in an imaginary traffic jam on the way to see her mother, El Bacha’s mother becomes the main topic of discussion, as her daughter offers us small glimpses into her background. El Bacha does not rush to make the presence of the civil war known; small comments about no one knowing her mother’s birth date lead to unanticipated tales of arson and religious persecution. These small fragments – stories about the wardrobe, the windows, and the sea – give structure to what feels like a drawn-out and rather tedious hour, which is not dissimilar to the traffic jam El Bacha finds herself sitting in.
Understandably, it can be a momentous task keeping an audience’s attention when performing solo. What is unusual about On Death Etc. is the way you find yourself wanting to hear the mother’s stories about the conflict, all the while urging El Bacha to get on with it – to just tell us what happened. The conversational tone of the performance, with El Bacha coming into the audience on occasion, often leads to unnecessary digressions or repetition. Her scatter-brained persona means that any tension is quickly diffused, which doesn’t seem to be intentional given the use of live music to set the tone of these moments of recollection.
El Bacha is also very quick to lose character when imagining herself as her mother during the war, often tailing off sentences or beginning to laugh. Whether it is nerves or a reluctance to fully assume the roles of her relatives, it doesn’t do her the stories justice. While laughter comes to play an important role in On Death Etc., at times it feels that El Bacha is not fully committing to her responsibility as a storyteller to captivate her audience.
That said, El Bacha possesses a quirky – and sometimes very blunt – sense of humour, and often has her audience laughing with her. Her comedic talent is matched by her ability to move the audience with brief moments of poignancy. The way she laughs off death and the traumatic events of her mother’s childhood mirrors how her parents suppressed their own suffering, finding a way to ease facing the reality of how many loved ones they lost over the years. It is also in the final story that El Bacha finds beauty in mortality, ending the performance on a high note.
Though it may be an uneven performance, there is a lot to take away from On Death Etc. While El Bacha may take her time in sharing her family’s stories, they are certainly worth waiting around for.