Youssef Rakha joins in the game
Among the so-called free troupes participating in the Second Festival for Light Comedy at the Hanager Theatre, Bab (Door) is significant in that it came into being specifically for the event. To be performed tonight the troupe's debut, The City, is a contemporary one-act play of 60 minutes' duration, with a cast of three, written by the Greek playwright Lola-Anna Ghinostaki. As Mohamed El-Abd, the troupe's director and a pottery student at the Faculty of Applied Arts, Cairo University, points out, the text was selected to suit not only the participants but the festival's requirements.
"The idea of participating in the festival preceded the idea of producing this play," El-Abd explains. "We have worked together for many years and we always wanted to form a permanent troupe. The festival seemed like a good opportunity to announce the genesis of such a troupe, so we thought we'd come up with something appropriate in time. For a while, prior to this point I had been reading material in preparation for another project that eventually fell through, and this was one of the texts I really liked. Forming a troupe so we could participate in the festival imposed a set of conditions: that it should be simple and practical enough to be produced on virtually no budget within a relatively brief span of time, and that it should have comic potential at least. I don't think the playwright necessarily intended it as comedy, but that is the way I saw it from the start."
The story of a rootless couple moving from one city to another, battling with a kind of cosmic ennui, the play revolves around the game Raymond (Radi Nabayel) and Elisa (Marwa Mahdi) never tire of practising: to pick up a man, a passing acquaintance (in this case the aging and ugly owner of a neighbouring photography studio who specialises in producing portraits of people in which they appear to have died gory deaths, played by Ibrahim Gharib), convince him that Elisa is in love with him and that Raymond has killed himself as a result, then confront him with the fact that it was all a confidence trick, a cruel and perverse game intended to expose the visitor's own vulnerability.
"Regardless of the fact that they're a couple, or that the setup involves male-female relations," El-Abd insists, "it is this idea of two people conspiring to drain a third person of energy so completely, to consume him utterly, for the sake of some perverse amusement, that makes the text so appealing. As soon as I read it I could imagine Radi and Ibrahim in the two roles. Had they been unwilling or unable to do it I would probably have thought of something else, giving up on this text altogether."
Gharib, an interior decorator and veteran of the Faculty of Fine Arts' Atelier of Theatre -- members of Bab emphatically acknowledge their indebtedness to this active and alternative forum -- is probably the most experienced member of the troupe. Describing himself as "an actor since childhood", he has participated in performances by troupes like Al-Shadhia wal-Ightirab and Karima Mansour's Maat. Yet he feels "the mentality of a designer, someone who studied engineering", qualifies him for the additional role of troupe manager -- a task he says he performs well.
"This group of people has worked together many times, they are familiar with each other and they share the same artistic orientation," he explains. "We are all plastic artists. There is a kind of unwritten rule," to which the presence of Mahdi is evidently an exception, "that troupe members should have a background in the plastic arts, which facilitates certain things -- like creative solutions of budget problems. Rather than buying an expensive accessory, for example, we just make it ourselves. Nonetheless," Gharib adds, "as theatre people who have no backing from state or commercial institutions, we have suffered a lot from management problems. Even the largest and most adequately funded troupes in Egypt have management problems. So we want to incorporate a concept of management as well as an artistic concept. Deadlines must be respected, rehearsal venues arranged -- everything has to be properly organised."
Budget considerations notwithstanding it is determination to realise a shared objective that drives the group.
"The work always springs from the personal connections we have with each other," Nabayel, a graphic designer and another veteran of University Theatre, supplies. "We understand each other, we know the extent and tone of each other's creative energy. We have all this energy that we need to express. In the end a text is no more than an opportunity to do so, a framework within which we can operate individually and as a group. So we're not necessarily looking for social or intellectual content. Any text that we like and in which we glimpse an opportunity for doing what we do is fair game."
This view is seconded by all and sundry. Gharib claims that this collective energy would come through "even if we simply picked up a newspaper and went up on stage to read it", while El-Abd constantly points to the affinity between the existing rapport among troupe members and the texts own game-like structure: "The play is a complex game. Conceived of as a comedy it has great scope for people playing with each other, juggling expressions and reactions, going through phases of self and of discovery. And because nothing is ever as it seems the text provides an appropriately high dose of acting potential. Someone like Ibrahim, for example, goes through a million impulses in half an hour."
Mahdi, an academic who specialises in drama and criticism at Helwan University, agrees. As a newcomer with relatively little experience of acting -- she took an actor training course with Mohamed Abdel- Hadi -- what she likes the most, she says, "is the fact that everyone here is going out of his way simply to put on a show that they like; there is no sense of purpose beyond this compulsion to do theatre, the best theatre you can do," which is something she shares.
"The text is new and interesting to me," Mahdi goes on. "It's flexible. There is no one angle for interpreting it and if you tried to take out the ambiguity you couldn't. It is full of associations and connections. And because of the many levels of interaction that go on within it, it's good fun as well. The characters are tricking each other as much as the actors are tricking the audience. Yes, yes," Mahdi insists. "I've always wanted to belong to a troupe of people with whom I shared a common artistic grounding. Radi and Ibrahim are putting up well with my lack of experience, and there is a general sense that this hope is being realised. So we will go on after the festival, I hope."
Of all her remarks, however, Mahdi's reference to "this notion of people without place, without context, without a past, battling to find a home for themselves", has the greatest resonance for Egyptian theatre's younger enthusiasts. For one of the festival's offerings, Bab would seem to be determined enough. And, notwithstanding budgets and opportunities, one should be grateful for the Union of Free Troupes for making such work available, if only for one night.