By Aaron Greenwood
The largest theatrical production ever staged in the Middle East, Zenobia marked a major milestone for Dubai’s burgeoning events production industry.
With a 130-strong onstage cast, camels, horses, an extensive pyrotechnics display and one of the largest lighting arrays ever utilised in a local production,
marked a significant milestone in Dubai's emergence as a centre for major events production in the Middle East.
Written by Arab theatre icon Mansour Rahbani, the musical production chronicles the life of the Palymra ‘warrior queen' Zenobia, who ‘conquered' large swathes of Roman-controlled Arab lands in the third century AD.
The first production of its kind to be staged in the desert area earmarked as the Dubai Studio City precinct,
also represented a major achievement for event organisers Done Events and co-producers Rahbani Productions and the Dubai government.
A specially-designed venue covering 70,000 square metres and boasting a seating capacity of 3,000 was constructed to stage the production. The mammoth task was undertaken by a crew of around 300, with an initial two-week construction schedule extended to three as a result of a myriad of unforeseen challenges that included sandstorms, rain and subsequent equipment failures.
According to Marwan Rahbani,
director, managing director of Rahbani Productions (and Mansour Rahbani's son), the sheer scale of the production and the challenges presented by the location itself dwarfed anything he had previously been involved in.
"The decision to stage
at Studio City was taken in a bid to promote both the event and the location as a venue in its own right," he says.
"We inaugurated Dubai Media City in 2001 with the production of
, which was the largest production ever staged in the Middle East to that point and was also produced in conjunction with the Dubai government.
"That experience reminded us that regardless of how you plan your show - particularly in an open-air environment - there will always be issues that arise that you simply can't control. This was reiterated ten-fold during pre-production for
Indeed, Rahbani says a "freak sandstorm" hit the
set during the construction phase, destroying a large number of props and causing severe damage to the assembled stage lights and audio equipment. It even landed two stage construction workers in hospital, one of whom by Rahbani's own admission was still there at the time of press.
"When the sandstorm hit it was as if someone switched hundreds of wind machines on at once," Rahbani explains. "The weather changed in an instant and it was incredibly intense, but it only lasted for around 10 minutes.
"When the weather cleared, we found that two of the major stage arches had fallen down injuring two of our set workers. We also lost a great deal of equipment, including a number of spotlights and sections of the PA system. Luckily, we had factored in failure rates in the planning stages, so we had replacement equipment on standby."
The desert location also created other unforeseen challenges for the
production team, which was led by Abdo El Husseini.
El Husseini is well-versed in the challenges of staging major events. As performing arts international coordinator at the Doha Asian Games, El Husseini played a key role in producing that event's opening and closing ceremonies, which were among the largest in Asian Games history.
El Husseini says the intensely humid conditions of the desert location wreaked havoc with pre-production and rehearsal schedules for the show.
"We were rehearsing at night and the humidity was intense," he explains. "There was literally water dripping off the equipment, which meant we had to cover everything in protective plastic. We also had to implement extensive measures to ensure the safety of the cast and crew.
"The rigours of rehearsal in this environment also impacted our cast. We had a number of instances of actors collapsing due to the heat."
Despite the cavalcade of challenges, Rahbani is suitably upbeat about the scale of the production team's achievement against the odds.
"We should be in the
Guinness Book of Records
," he declares, with little irony. "Setting up a musical production of this scale in the West would take four or five years, taking into account the writing, composing, and pre-recording of the score. It took us six months from conception to production and given the quality of the set and the props themselves it's a huge achievement.
"The best thing you can have at your disposal in preparing a show like
is a crew you can rely on. The vast majority of the
team had previously worked on my productions, so we knew what to expect from one another."
Rahbani and El Husseini, who are both Lebanese, contracted acclaimed sound designer and compatriot Fida Zalloum to develop the audio aspects of the production.
Zalloum's rental company also supplied the audio equipment, which ranged from front of stage Mackie PA arrays to a Yamaha O2R digital mixing console.
Rahbani was full of praise for Zalloum's work on
, describing the audio aspects of the production as "studio-like in quality".
"Fida Zalloum is one of the most famous sound designers in the Arab world and the most successful to come from Lebanon," he claims. "When we staged the Pavarotti concert a couple of years ago in Qatar, among all the sound designers, Pavarotti specifically requested Fida's involvement. He has worked with us on most of our shows.
] marked the first time we had staged a major theatrical production and the technical aspects were perfect, particularly the sound," he continues.
"Fida conducted an in-depth acoustics study, which took into account the environmental challenges of the Studio City site, including wind gusts, which affected a number of performances during the week-long run.
"We also recorded each show straight from the mixing desk and the sound was consistently of studio quality, which is remarkable given the location and the nature of the production.
"We had 130 cast members performing multiple costume changes and mic replacements, and we didn't experience a single dropout."
Dubai-based lighting design and equipment rental company RST was contracted to supply the visual and lighting effects that featured extensively throughout the production.
The company supplied the entire lighting installation, which included Coemar moving heads and around 60 spots positioned to the left and right of stage, in addition to five flame projectors positioned at the front of stage and smoke machines towards the rear.
Despite receiving popular acclaim in Dubai and attracting capacity audiences on most nights, requests for encore performances were denied by Rahbani and his team, who had already begun eyeing other locations in the Middle East capable of staging
With a thriving theatre community and given his own personal ties to the city, Rahbani indicates that Beirut is emerging as the next likely candidate to host the production, probably some time in the summer months.
"It will mainly depend on the political situation in Lebanon, but if things remain calm we expect to stage a production in Beirut in the near future," he says.
"The sheer scale of the production means that we will look to work with the government or a third-party to stage the show, as we did in Dubai. We are also very keen to take the production to neighbouring countries, including Syria, Egypt and Jordan."
At the time of press, 100 tonnes of background sets and associated equipment were being shipped to Beirut from Dubai in preparation for a production run in the city.
Rahbani stresses that pre-production demands such as site evaluation and set-up and tear-down schedules would make it impossible to actually take Zenobia on tour anywhere in the world.
"The main issue we face taking a production like this on tour is sheer logistics. We have 130 cast members and another 125 working backstage - there's essentially another play going on backstage, and let me tell you, it's more interesting," he says wryly.
"Ultimately, we're looking at 300 to 400 personnel involved in the production who all require flights and hotel accommodation.
"It's a very expensive exercise, and that's not to mention the cost of transporting massive amounts of equipment from venue to venue.
"The size of the production also means that we cannot actually go on tour, because you need a month to build the stage and install the equipment. It's not a case of turning up at a venue and turning around a production within a week and then moving on to the next venue. It's a case of staging the production in one country and then having a significant break before considering another run."
Regardless of where the production is destined to be staged, Rahbani says he expects to employ the same crew and technical team as that which worked with him in Dubai.
"The only thing that will change will be where we source the camels and horses, because in Dubai we worked with the local police force," he says. "And we obviously can't take them to the next location."
Despite conceding that the Dubai Studio City location presented his team with monumental challenges, Rahbani remains confident that the one-off Zenobia venue will host other major productions in the future as the precinct becomes more established.
"Once buildings go up in the precinct, it should minimise the environmental impact on open-air productions staged there," he says.
"But as it is, Studio City is just a name. The site is mostly open desert.
"We brought in a lot of our own infrastructure in addition to the set itself, including palm trees, to try and counteract the potential impact of the environment. If you go and stage a concert by the sea, then you deal with humidity. In the desert, sand is the obvious issue."
Rahbani was also full of praise for the Dubai government's commitment to fostering the local arts industry and to promoting Arab culture.
"This is the second production we have staged in conjunction with the Dubai government, and without its help I can safely say that the vision for
would never have been realised, and it would have been a similar scenario with
," he says.
"It's a great thing that a government is committed to fostering local ideas and promoting Arab culture, because at the end of the day, this is our society, our heritage and our civilisation.
"I hope that other governments in the region will take a similar approach and realise there is a huge difference between developing and performing local productions and simply staging licensed shows brought in from overseas."