Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Reductio ad absurdum

Nehad Selaiha hails the Arabic premiere of Jean Genet's Le Balcon at Al-Hanager

Jean Genet's Le Balcon ( The Balcony ) is a deeply ambiguous play where nothing is ever certain. Ignoring traditional plot and psychology, and replacing them with theatrical impersonations, illusionary transformations, ritualised dances, parades and other ceremonial events, it portrays a world obsessed with lurid fantasies of sex and power, presented in a series of vivid masquerades and fabricated images which, while mirroring each other with slight variations, eventually supplant reality and are passionately guarded, embalmed and enshrined by their perpetrators and victims (hopefully) for all eternity. In such a world, logic and commonsense have no place and identity becomes a shifting and illusive charade -- a matter of putting on the right costumes at the right time for the part one is playing and remembering one's lines and cues. Shakespeare understood well the power of "borrowed robes," of images and theatrical illusion; he knew how easily the mask could consume the face and that without costumes "unaccommodated man is no more but...a poor, bare forked animal." Nevertheless, and however much he quibbled and equivocated about the definitions of appearance and reality, role and identity, madness and sanity, Shakespeare never completely sacrificed narrative, action and motive, and however profoundly he questioned the prevalent constructions of reality, identity and morality dominant in his age, his plays manage to retain a grain of faith in something sane and solid somewhere, some rational core or essence, call it what you may, and never quite completely blur the dividing lines between fact and fiction or come across completely bereft of hope or grace.

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Genet takes Shakespeare's images of the world as a stage, of reality as theatrical fabrication, of humans as poor players and of life as a tale told by an idiot further along a wildly deviant, more drastically subversive postmodernist path. In the typical tradition of Absurd drama, and even more poignantly than Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, or Pinter, he transforms verbal metaphors into grotesque theatrical representations. While Shakespeare was satisfied to verbally compare Denmark to a prison "in which there are many wards, confines and dungeons," Genet could not but translate his concept of society as a brothel and of the world as a house of illusions into a concrete stage image. The setting is at once decadently mundane, grotesquely exotic and tantalisingly vague: a versatile, inventive and highly disciplined and professional brothel which specializes in the secret, perfect staging of its patrons' scenarios of their erotic fantasies, providing real, life-like costumes, décor, props, make-up and cast. The fantasies centre on sex, power and death, which seem to interlock in a bizarre circle of alternate self-abnegation and glorification involving scenes of sadomasochism, moral castigation and self-castration. In these scenes, reality, as it exists (or seems to exist) outside, in the form of a popular, violent revolution against an oppressive monarchical regime, with its traditional, supportive security, military, judicial and religious institutions, is first pushed to the outer margins of consciousness then appropriated by the house of illusions. All along, however, and since the beginning, one side of it, the side of authority, has been present in Mme. Irma's bordello as a distorted reflection.

The first scene features a fake bishop in love with his sumptuous robes and gaudy reflection in Mme. Irma's gilt-edged mirrors and anxious that the sins confessed by the assisting prostitute who plays penitent sinner should be at once real, but not quite real! Another client plays judge and revels in the whipping of the prostitute who plays thief while sexually coveting the muscular body of her torturer and nearly swooning in an orgiastic fit with every lash of his whip. In another room, or studio, an ordinary man impersonates a general roaming a battlefield strewn with bodies on the back of a prostitute impersonating his valiant, faithful, loving, and quite eloquent filly. All three seem completely haunted by the idea of death as the only way to conserve the idealised self-image they obsessively pursue. Ironically, when the rebels seems about to win and dispel the shadows infesting the brothel which boasts the name of "The Grand Balcony", the shadows are ruthlessly dragged out into the light of day by an emissary from the royal palace to act as the real symbols of the defeated system, with Mme. Irma at the head of the procession as a substitute for the dead Queen in a last bid for power. In public, and fittingly bedecked, the brothel people manage to win over the 'people' and restore the old regime, or so we are told.

When Richard Schechner took on the play in a 1979 New York production, he chose, not without some justification perhaps, to deny the reality of the popular bloody revolution raging outside Mme. Irma's grand bordello; though the violent insurgency constantly impinges on the weird 'solemn ceremonies' meticulously conducted in The Balcony, lures away one of its prostitutes to enshrine her as a national symbol and morale booster (one is reminded of Marilyn Monroe visiting the American troops in Vietnam and having her skirts lifted up by their sighs and whistles) and finally spills into the brothel, disemboweling it, as it were, and dragging its proprietress, staff and patrons outside and onto the streets, Schechner's production presented it as yet another fantasy created for the erotic pleasure of Madame Irma's clients. Such a policy, however, is ultimately reductive; by subsuming the bloody rebellion under the illusionary sway of the Grand Balcony from the start, as yet another manufactured illusion to enhance the others, you rob the play of its significance as a political and existential satire which, in the words of Stepan Simek, "reveals the underlying perversity of political power with its use of symbols and rituals for achieving political goals." In the confrontation of the two worlds, Simek goes on to say, it "soon becomes apparent that in the brothel and in the political struggle outside, the symbols and rituals of power assume even more importance than power itself." Indeed, that the play assumes such a confrontation between the pageants of power staged inside the brothel as private fantasies and outside it, in society, as public ones is stressed by the make-believe "bishop" when he says: "So long as we were in a room in a brothel, we belonged to our fantasies, but once having exposed them, we're now tied up with human beings, tied to you and forced to go on with this adventure according to the laws of visibility."

Both Irma's brothel and society depend for survival on what Genet calls, in his "warning" to directors of The Balcony, "the glorification of image and reflection"; paradoxically and quite ironically, however, at the core of such glorification is a powerful, insidious death wish. The next paragraph in Genet's "warning" says: "Some of our poets give themselves over to a very curious operation: they sing the praises of 'the people,' of 'freedom' and of 'rebellion,' etc., which, by being celebrated, become then as if hurled and nailed into an abstract sky -- hanging in distorted constellations, discomfited and deflated -- dehumanised, and they become untouchable." This view is clearly echoed in the play by the Chief of Police who, when told by Irma near the end of Scene Five that the plumber who seduced Chantal away from the brothel to join the revolution belonged "to the Andromeda network," jubilantly exclaims (in Bernard Frechtman's translation): "Andromeda? Splendid. The rebellion's riding high. It's moving out of this world. If it gives its sectors the names of constellations, it'll evaporate in no time and be metamorphosized [sic.] into song." As a true existentialist, Genet distrusted abstractions, particularly idealised ones, and equated them with immobility and death. And yet, ironically, it is only in death, as a reflection, a name, an image, an abstraction, that identity and an idealised image of the self can be attained and finally fixed. When Carmen, Irma's assistant who specialises in the roles of saintly virgins, tells the Chief of Police, who is anxious to barter his life for a hero's memorial and a conqueror's tomb, that she thinks he wants to merge "his life with one long funeral," he promptly retorts: "Is life anything else?"

This rings a bell -- indeed, several, and all jangled out of tune. One remembers the passionate outpourings of all freedom fighters down history, with all the 'Chantals' they used in posters, statues and engravings to fire the imagination of the populace -- rebels who once in power take on the masks and outward symbols of the dignitaries they supplanted and end up staging the same carnival. Wasn't it something like this that drove Joseph Conrad, in his French epigraph to Nostromo, if my memory hasn't failed me, to declare that he could only champion 'lost causes'? One also remembers the late Syrian dramatist, Saadallah Wannus who argued in The King is the King that virtually anyone could become king if equipped with the outward shows and accoutrements of the title, but that once a king such a person dies as an individual.

Though it has been around for half a century and has lost its potential to shock and outrage in the West, staging The Balcony in the Arab/Islamic world still remains a daunting challenge, particularly now, given the rising wave of ideological repression and bigoted religious fervour. Calendars are deceptive, and though we all purportedly live in 2006, time zones in geographical locations are not the same. When The Balcony first appeared, it was deemed too scandalous for Paris audiences and had to be staged at a private club in London. Hoda Wasfi, the artistic director of Al-Hanager and head of the French Literature Department at Ain Shams University, is quite aware of the difference in time zones and must have realised what a grave risk she was taking in allowing Mohamed Abul-Su'ood to stage a play that half a century ago was impossible to play in Paris. Nevertheless, she has dared do what most male theatre managers in the Arab world would have quailed to even think about. Such risks and her fervent, boundless and unconditional support of the young artists who work with her are what make her so special and so outstanding. As for Abul-Su'ood, though thin to the point of disappearance (when you hug him it is as if you're hugging the air), he seems to belong to the tribe of those old, reckless folk bards who went round the world driven by one obsessive vision after another and carrying, as the popular Egyptian proverb says, their lives and souls on the palms of their hand.

It took months of technical and artistic preparations to put together the current production of The Balcony at Al-Hanager and interminable argumentation over the meaning, significance, length and 'ethics' of the play. Though most of the actors failed to understand what the play was all about, and though the costume designer, Sarah Enany, had a hellish time convincing some of the actresses that girls in a brothel, ministering to the weird, erotic fantasies of its patrons, could not possibly be dressed according to the traditional laws of 'chastity' in the East and, as she tells me, spent nerve-racking hours bargaining over an inch up and down in a dress, what finally saved the day was the metaphor of society, indeed of the whole world, as a big brothel. When actress Asmaa Mustafa objected to the flimsy shift the designer assigned her, though she was assured she would wear it on top of a full skin-coloured leotard, the old tailor executing the designs, a thorough professional who had served in this capacity at many prestigious theatres, told her, quite simply and disarmingly, that it was not 'her' but the 'character' wearing the costume. But he wouldn't have done this hadn't the designer first told him, when the argument between her and the actress had reached a violent pitch and he had begun to wonder what was up, that the play simply said that society was but one big brothel. "You haven't gone far wrong, my daughter. To be sure, the whole world is a brothel," he said, and set about executing what some could regard as outrageously revealing costumes.

But costuming prostitutes was not the only challenge. One of the outstanding virtues of Abul-Su'ood's version of The Balcony is that while it firmly situates the play in the here and now, using video projections of the invasion of Iraq and a pro-Palestinian rally in Italy, taped by the director while there, to represent the violent conflict outside the brothel between the rebels and the establishment, it manages, almost miraculously and with great sophistication and moral courage, to avoid taking sides and resists the attraction of performing the play, in Genet's cautionary words "as if it were a satire of this or that." The relevance Abul-Su'ood achieves with his video tapes and posters of Madonna and Che Guevara which frame the stage is not a facile appeal to nationalistic feelings or ingrained political prejudices; it is a shockingly daring invitation to rethink our most cherished convictions in the light of Genet's sceptical musings over hallowed images and idealised abstractions.

Though flawed in some respects and often teetering on the edge of farce at many points, and despite the necessary cuttings which reduced the running time of the text from close on four hours to two, Al-Hanager's Le Balcon carried the signature of a great (some would say 'mad') director. Fortunately, visionaries never lack supporters, and in the case of Abul-Su'ood he had plenty: Noha El-Amrousi as Irma, Caroline Khalil as Carmen, Hala Imam as both the general's horse and the photographer, Iman Sayed as both Georgette and the bishop's woman, Asmaa Mustafa as the pretend thief in the judge's theatrical hallucinations, Inas Nur as Chantal, together with Amgad Abed as the royal palace emissary, Mohamed Farouk as a rebel, the old man in Scene 4 and the slave at the end, Ahmed Hussein as the executioner and Osama Abdallah as Roger, and last, but not least, the wonderful trio of Bishop, Judge and General, performed by Mohamed Shuman, Ashraf Farouk and Mohsen Mansour. Of all the male members of the cast, however, Mohamed Abdel-Azim stands out; as the Chief of the Police who longs to have someone impersonate him in the brothel and dreams of a hero's memorial in the shape of an enormous phallus to secure his eternal memory, he was absolutely delightful, at once grim and hugely comical. Though varied in age and experience, Abul-Su'ood's cast managed the enormous challenges he thrust upon them and danced beautifully to the rhythms of his vision and the musical score and sound effects of Hisham Gabr.

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