Crying in the wilderness
Nehad Selaiha watches as Nora Amin continues to explore the world of Marguerite Duras
On 31 October last year I reviewed Nora Amin's production La Musica 2eme, which she performed during the first Jadayel festival. Based on a similarly titled play by Marguerite Duras about the rocky and turbulent relationship of a divorced couple, the production, which took three years to prepare, was the fruit of a long and intensely personal dialogue between Amin and the original text. In the process she wove into the script a lot of her own intimate thoughts and feelings, changing the structure, language and order of scenes. "The Durassien text", in her words, became "a 'pretext' to show my own interpretation of the crisis and fantasy of that desperate couple."
"Is it possible that she committed the murder in a kind of blackout and found herself afterwards facing the body? Or, perhaps, she never committed it at all, just thought she had in one of her insane spells? These and other explanations are suggested but none is preferred over the others"
Amin's deep personal involvement with Duras's text, I wrote then, accounted for the strength of the production -- its emotional intensity and highly charged atmosphere -- as well as its irritating vagueness and dramatic diffuseness. What Amin, who played the woman, needed, I noted, was the eye of a director to make sure that what she strove to communicate was bodied forth in a concrete and more precise theatrical language. This is not to say that she always needs a director whenever she acts in her own productions. Two years before La Musica 2eme she wrote and directed The Box of Our Lives and took on the part of the mother with great success. The idea of someone else directing never crossed anybody's mind then. In The Box, however, Amin didn't have the shadow of Duras to grapple with. The complex relationship of mother and daughter, drawn from life rather than books, was clearly focused, sharply outlined and carefully detailed; its impact, therefore, was nearly devastating.
In her latest production, seen last week at the small theatre of the AUC Falaki Centre, Nora takes up another play by Duras. Les viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise (1960) is about an elderly couple involved in the gruesome murder of a deaf-mute relative. In a later version, published in 1968, it was retitled, for some inscrutable reason, L'amante anglaise -- inscrutable because the only English thing in the play is a cherished plant of English mint. Nora used the later version, translated it herself into Egyptian Arabic, making no alterations, and wisely decided this time to give her undivided attention to directing. The play, however, was consciously interpreted and treated as a sequel to La Musica 2eme.
In a note in the play's programme, Amin writes: "To continue the story of that man and that woman from La Musica 2eme, who buried together the corpse of their love story, Claire and Pierre Lannes appear here to announce the mutual murder each of them committed, to tear all the ties of common life between them. The metaphoric corpse becomes here the actual corpse of Marie- Therese, the cousin of the wife." To further elucidate her directorial conception and enlighten the audience, or, rather, channel their reception and interpretation of the performance in the direction she wants, she adds: "If the young couple of La Musica 2eme had continued living together and suffering together, they would have been right in front of us now ... interrogating themselves about the horrors they did and the mutual suicide they committed." Amin's note ends, in a somewhat poetic vein, with a description of how she understands Duras's text and, implicitly, of how we should read the performance. "It is a fantasy of passion and insanity," she cautions, "of the elimination and identification with the other, of closing oneself, of opening up the imagination towards the desert of sufferance and violence, where the wind comes and carries away everything, leaving the memory naked and the heart split in two."
Fortunately I make a virtue of never reading what directors write about their work before watching it first. They are free to express their views and theories of course; but, we, the audience, are also entitled to receive and interpret the show according to our own lights, without any interference, persuasion or preconditioning. The performance I saw began with Amin reading in a voice-over, in the dark, Duras's note on the play which explains how it was inspired by a real event. A woman murdered her husband, hacked the corpse and disposed of the pieces by dropping them from a bridge into passing trains. The poor victim's body was not only scattered all over the place (like that of Osiris in the ancient Egyptian myth) but its bits ended up travelling up and down the country as well. When the recital ended, loud, eerie music and sound effects (by Nader Sami) filled the hall, and colour slides featuring dismembered limbs, a naked, mutilated female body covered in blood, rail tracks running parallel and meeting in the distance, huge gory stains and swirling pools were projected, over and over, in quick succession, on a screen above our heads.
When the lights came on we discovered that the stage was a T-shaped catwalk, with seats in three blocks, two on either side of the vertical board, facing the third across the horizontal one. From my place, behind the T-top, the vertical line of the catwalk, which stretched before me to the end of the hall and -- save for the occasional sauntering of the police inspector -- remained empty and unused the whole time, suggested at once and persistently a point where opposites can meet, but never do, and a dividing line, an insurmountable barrier. The fact that it ended with a blank wall made it into an actual and metaphoric dead end, triggering feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and desolation and voicing a silent, ironical comment on the detective's efforts to reach the truth every time he stepped on it. How it looked to the people on the other side and how they felt about it I shall never know. But everyone could see that while the inspector moved freely on all sides and among the audience the couple -- Claire and Pierre Lannes -- sat throughout the performance on either side of the T-top, facing each other, without once leaving their places, establishing contact or seeming to notice each other.
In this visual setup Amin was echoing the structure of the play which is divided into two separate scenes, lasting an hour each, with one focusing on the husband and the other on the wife. In terms of language, tone, emotional texture, mood and logic, they stand in sharp contrast. The interrogation which seems at the beginning to occupy itself with the details and motives of the murder and ascertaining the identity of the culprit, gradually turns into an investigation of the characters of both husband and wife and their relationship from two diametrically opposed points of view. Every question reveals a facet, a painful lack, a ruptured tie, a hidden anxiety or stirs a memory, casts a shadow or provokes an emotion. As the revelations accumulate, drawing the couple further and further apart and widening the gulf between them, they effect a gradual, subtle change in the interrogator.
The detached observer, keen on objective facts and plausible motives, gets caught up in the unfolding, psychological narrative and, before he knows it, becomes personally and emotionally involved and consciously takes sides. In the first scene one senses, in the slightly sharp and aggressive tone of his questions, his suspicion and growing dislike of the husband, while in the scene with the wife he shows sympathy and seems drawn to her world with a mixture of fascination and horror. Its ardent sexuality, religious fervour, weird hallucinations, grotesque images, profound tenderness and inconsolable sorrow intrigue and disturb him; he struggles to make sense of it as if his own personal fate depended on it but finally retreats in fear despite Claire's entreaties to go on being her friend and talking to her. The audience try to make sense of it too and come up with several explanations, but never a single definite one.
Claire could have killed Marie-Therese out of jealousy, because of her affair with Alfonso, whom she wanted for herself, or because she thought she had taken her place in her husband's bed as well as his kitchen. Or maybe she identified with her sensual cousin and was vicariously committing suicide by shedding blood which is also her own. Or, perhaps (since she goes to communion every day, gives the severed head a Christian burial and regrets that her passion for her beloved, married officer, had drawn her away from the Lord) her deep religious sense made her feel that both she and her cousin were sinful and deserved to be punished. Or is it possible that she committed the murder in a kind of blackout and found herself afterwards faced with the body? Or, perhaps, never committed it at all and thought she did in one of her insane spells? These and other explanations are suggested but none is preferred over the others and the audience are kept suspended between possibilities.
The atmospheric music, sensitive deployment of light and shadow and careful manipulation of the lighting in terms of intensity, shape, direction and colour, as well as the original composition of the stage and set provided the actors with a fitting frame which bolstered their performances. Of the three Kamal Soliman was the only professional and his experience was an asset. He played the husband with impressive economy and skill. Though the audience were told clearly at the outset that in the real murder story Duras used the wife confessed to the crime and spent a term in prison, Soliman managed to capture and frame the elusive hints Duras plants in the dialogue to raise suspicion about the husband's guilt. The audience responded as in a murder thriller, with attentive silence charged with suspense, hanging on his every word and frantically trying to decode what he says or find a clue to what he leaves unsaid. By the end of the scene both he and the audience realise he is guilty -- but of a crime not punishable under the law.
Maysa Zaki, a brilliant theatre critic who appeared on the stage once before in Effat Yehia's Desertscape (in which Amin also played) and occasionally appears in the graduation film projects of Cinema Institute students, was a lucky choice and a wonderful surprise. Though much younger than Claire she brought to the part warmth, tenderness and a wistful charm without sacrificing the character's innate vitality, psychic energy, capriciousness and terrible capacity for love and pain. She handled the tonal shifts and changes of mood with ease and confidence, always with an undercurrent of poignant pathos, and her sensitive, unmade up face reflected every fleeting shade and nuance of feeling. In a second it could change from cloudy to sunny, grow pensive or light up with joy, become childlike and helpless or embittered and wrinkled with age. The only thing missing in her performance was an intimation of murderous violence. One could never imagine this charming, lovable, infinitely sympathetic and pathetic creature as a homicidal maniac. Her talk of cutting up the corpse and the difficulty she had disposing of the head and similar gory details had a strange ring and sounded like the delusions of a wracked mind. But, perhaps, Nora Amin meant us to take it this way to consolidate the metaphoric status of the murder. I would have preferred the occasional glint of madness.
The English Lover had only a four-day run, hardly enough time for a performance to set and assume a final shape. It is supposed to play in Alexandria next month, and until then, I hope Amin invests the time in honing Ahmed El-Salakawi's performance as the police inspector. He is a fine-looking young man, with a good voice, supple physique and strong, attractive stage-presence. His acting, however, was often brash in tone and lacked conviction. He needs to learn the skill of projecting energy towards his fellow actors as well as the audience, whether silent or talking, and to modulate his voice and movement to suit the emotional timbre of the moment. He was at his best in the scene in which he stood behind Claire's chair and silently hugged her head between his hands. But that was largely the work of the director and the lighting. Hopefully too, Nora will remember to lower the level of the catwalk to give future audiences a better view of the actors and save them the trouble of craning their necks for two hours and ending up with a painful cramp.
The time given to the slide projection also needs to be severely cut, particularly in the long blackout between the two scenes. Initially they are supposed to trick the audience into believing they are about to watch a replay of a murder story full of suspenseful horror and gory details. But what good are they halfway through except to serve as reminders of the starting point -- the quest for motives -- and prepare for Claire's appearance? And surely this does not require ten tedious minutes of flashing and reflashing those rather childish slides. If Nora addresses these weaknesses and controls more carefully the rhythms of speech and silence in the play she can guarantee her Alexandria audiences a tighter and better tuned performance than the one we saw in Cairo. She will also do well not to try to raise the ghost of La Musica 2eme and try to foist it on the audience, making those who didn't see it feel they would have understood The English Lover better (or discovered the identity of the mysterious character to which the title refers) had they done so. I watched the former and I can assure you that it never even crossed my mind while I watched the latter.