28 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1999
Issue No. 453
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Beneath the Monica bandwagon
By Nehad Selaiha
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Profile Study Special Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Cheated, tricked, swindled, bamboozled and a dozen other such synonyms will not suffice to adequately describe the kind of feeling which will sneak up, viciously nag and then completely overwhelm you as you watch Me, My Wife and Monica at Qasr El-Nil Theatre, and which will continue to haunt and nettle you for days afterwards, souring your temper. The title, which explicitly points in the direction of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, tantalisingly promising, at worst, a vulgar rehash of the affair (if such a thing is at all possible considering the coarseness which marked its reporting in the media), and at best, an ironical perspective on it, is nothing but a blatant conman's trick. We are told that even among criminals and gangsters there is a code of honour; and in the Egyptian commercial theatre, even at the bottom rungs, such a code had always existed, even if it didn't boil down to anything more than the dictum: Don't deceive the audience. It implicitly meant that it didn't matter how many artistic atrocities were committed on stage or how much you violated the critics' sensibilities so long as the audience knew beforehand what they were letting themselves in, and paying, for. But in Me, My Wife and Monica, with the hapless Monica trailing behind in the title as an afterthought, this simple code was flagrantly ignored, making this miserable show a prime example of theatrical roguery, of taking money under false pretences.
Those who went looking for the Lewinsky story, or even the faintest representation or wildest distortion of it, paying exorbitant prices for the good seats (LE200, 150, and 100), did not find even a fleeting shadow of it. The Monica of the title is indeed an afterthought and a forgery. For two hours we were treated to a string of verbal exchanges at a vet's clinic consisting of scabrous jokes about the physical attributes of women and scurrilous references to the biological functions of both humans and animals, particularly dogs. More tedious than shocking, this avalanche of fetid humour did not seem to be leading anywhere or building up to anything.
To hoodwink the audience, and persuade them to stick to their seats and swallow such horrendous drivel (which many refused to do, leaving halfway through the performance) author Ahmed El-Ebiari sporadically dangled the name Monica as a carrot in the form of telephone calls from some American female with whom the vet once had an affair after meeting her in DisneyLand! It eventually transpires, after three hours, in the latter half of the second part (and by that time no one really cares), that the mysterious Monica is an American agent after the vet's reported discovery of a formula to make dogs sniff out nuclear waste. To add insult to injury, a female dwarf is introduced as her nymphomaniac mother who becomes infatuated with an abnormally over-developed, feeble-minded boy of nine from Upper Egypt (acted by a gigantic man in a galabiya) which occasions another spate of nauseating jokes about the sex-life of freaks.
The array of puerile imbecilities also includes Monica's assistant whose impaired speech triggers half an hour of mucky punning; the vet's insipid bride who insists on sleeping with her dog ( a bitch) in her arms, making the consummation of the marriage impossible; her addle-brained, senile father -- a retired soccer referee who bribes the vet to produce for him 11 grandchildren to form his private football team; a slow-witted burglar who has to be constantly spanked to remember what he has to do, and therefore always walks with his buttocks sticking out; the vet's inveterately bigamous and foul-mouthed attendant and his new young wife who serves as the convenient butt of his smutty humour, not to mention the delirious musical patchwork of American and Egyptian pop songs, with 'Strangers in the night' and 'Old Macdonald had a farm' squeezed in.
Such inanities are not uncommon in the Egyptian commercial theatre, particularly when the scripts are concocted by unconscionable ham-writers of Ahmed El-Ebiari's ilk. One would not have minded them -- indeed, one would not have so much as gone near the theatre, let alone into it, had they only been honest and left Ms Lewinsky's name out of it.
"There is a kind of deadly comedy that reduces everything it touches to dust and ashes, leaving the audience with nothing but the taste of death," Youssef El-'Ani, the Iraqi playwright, actor and director once told me. Me, My Wife and Monica, even with Samir Ghanem in the lead, with ravishing Nermine El-Fiqi assisting, is one such comedy.
Having been taken for a ride, and a very nasty and expensive one, by El-Ebiari and his gang, I was reluctant to venture upon Sayed Radi's Kimo and the Blue Dress. But I am glad I did: by comparison it seems a gem. The central moral issues of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair -- adultery and lying under oath to save one's reputation and public image, especially when one's whole future, career and family-life are at stake -- are squarely addressed and boldly examined with as much seriousness as comedy would allow. To bring the issues nearer home, playwright Faysal Nada projected them in the context of Egyptian society today through a story very similar to a case recently reported in the papers in which a lecturer in the Deptartment of Psychology at Cairo University was accused by a female student of attempting to rape her and was arrested and is still in custody.
In the play, the Egyptian Clinton (Yehya El-Fakharani) is also a member of academia and teaches psychology. But, unlike the hapless lecturer, he is a full professor, a distinguished public figure, and has a thriving private practice which, ironically, brings about his downfall.
Attracted by his skill, charming bedside manner, charismatic personality, and many TV appearances, women flock to his clinic, and many -- rich, leisured and beautiful -- flirt with him (which at 50 he finds reassuring and secretly enjoys) or try to seduce him, sometimes quite aggressively. And though happily married, and in love with his wife (Sawsan Badr), a famous TV broadcaster, he is passing through a mid-life crisis and beginning to fret and slightly chafe at the conjugal bit after 20 years. As a last fling, in a moment of weakness, he allows himself to be seduced by his rapacious, voluptuous assistant Monica (Nahla Salama) who is half-American on her mother's side.
At this stage, and just as the doctor's ordeal is about to begin, the play, still superimposing its two source stories on each other, begins to slip. The Egyptian Monica accuses her employer of rape when he refuses to marry her and gets him arrested and put on trial, causing a public scandal. Why? The usual melodramatic answer: she comes from a bad family; her father is a drunken dud and her mother a crook serving a sentence in the States. She is also after publicity and the money it will bring. Several female patients, suffering from various complexes, gang up against the doctor, egged on by Monica's rabid female lawyer (a travesty of the militant feminist) and give false evidence, all accusing him of rape. Suddenly, rape -- a very thorny and painful issue -- becomes the focus, rather than the doctor's plight and the very credible reasons that led to it.
I felt positively disturbed, almost threatened, as I listened to rape charges being lightly joked about and cynically dismissed as a weapon that women wield against men when it suits their purposes, with the implicit and dangerous message that rape victims are not victims at all but, in fact, seducers. This may be true of the plaintiffs in the play, but frequently the text tends to use the specific dramatic situation in hand as a springboard for forceful, sweeping generalisations about women's manipulation of sex as power and men's weakness, even helplessness before it.
This tendency to glibly trot out the trite clichés of the old-fashioned sex-war, though it still works in commercial comedies and amuses many, has marred Kimo in many places and curtailed its potential as a serious, daring comedy. But despite the strong streak of male-chauvinism that runs through it and underpins the characterisation, particularly the female types, and not-withstanding the brief but startling intrusion of politics in the form of slides (of Bill and Hilary Clinton, Lewinsky, Yasser Arafat and Princess Diana, among other celebrities) accompanied by a song condemning the moral hypocrisy of the US Senate and its double standards in foreign policy (a view reiterated by most Egyptians during the Clinton impeachment), Kimo and the Blue Dress is good entertainment and is occasionally actually refreshing. It is well-made, crisp, fast-paced, audacious, relevant, and extremely funny. And if it drags a bit in two scenes, has a little too many stereotypes, and is not above offending feminists, one tends to soon forget it, thanks to the actors who sweep us along. Sawsan Badr and Nahla Salama gave delightful performances, openly adopting a broad burlesque style, and many in the supporting cast brought zest and freshness to the old stock-characters they were landed with. But it is Yehya El-Fakharani who gives Kimo weight and coherence and manages to prevent the serious issues it initially raises from becoming completely submerged in laughter. He was scintillating, magnificently diversified, richly subtle and thoroughly credible and sympathetic as Bill Clinton.