A battered Cupid
Nehad Selaiha enjoys a wistful romantic comedy at the Youth theatre
Is romance still possible in today's world? Asks Walad wi Bint wi Hagaat (A Boy, a Girl, and Other Things), a recent production of Al-Shabab (Youth) theatre written by Rasha Abdel-Mon'im and directed by Hani Afifi. The moment you set foot inside Youssef Idris Hall (at Al-Salaam theatre where the play is currently on), you feel a strong premonition the answer will be a big "NO". Omar Ghayat's set -- a narrow, nondescript, claustrophobic space, bounded by rugged, charred walls, suggesting the aftermath of a terrible fire, and topped by an artificial black sky dotted with lampshades instead of stars -- was quite bleak and gave no inkling of hope. While the front part of it seemed drearily and pathetically empty, with only one wooden bench and a square bloc which serves as a seat, the back area looked like a neglected attic crammed full of old, forgotten objects, including an antique gramophone with a horn.
This spatial division neatly parallels the structure of the piece which hinges on juxtaposing love in the past and the present. After a brief, comic prelude which caricatures today's reality in a few lightening scenes, revealing its fragmentariness, absurd contradictions, impossible economic hardships, institutional corruption, indifference to human life and basic insecurity, a kindly-looking, bespectacled middle-aged man (Bayoumi Fouad) rises from the audience to interrupt the satirical display with loud objections. He reprimands the two young actors (Mona Hala and 'Imad Ismael) for their pessimistic view of reality and the negative images they project, and urges them to dwell on nobler passions and brighter themes like love. At once, the lights black out and the hall fills with an old, enchanting love song by Om Kulthoum, whipping up waves of nostalgia for "the good old days".
When the lights come up again, the play proper begins. It consists of two intersecting love stories, one thoroughly romantic and platonic, belonging to the past and narrated by the middle-aged gentleman, who now takes his place at the back, near the attic and the gramophone, and frequently reads out from his old diary and love letters; the other, down-to- earth and physical, enacted downstage by the two performers we saw at the beginning, now representing the boy and girl of the title who first meet on the net, then in fast-food restaurants and discothèques, and later in a private place where they make love, loll around, bicker and watch television.
The juxtaposition of the two stories creates a series of hilarious contrasts which extend from the feelings of the lovers, to their behaviour and the language they use. Indeed, it is in the language that the differences between the worlds of the two stories and the sensibilities of the generations they present are most pronounced. The robust, brash, often mocking love jargon of today's youth which Rasha Abdel-Mon'im faithfully reproduces in the dialogue of the two young lovers contrasts sharply, and I might add deliciously, with the lyrical, highly poetic style of the old diary and love letters for which she drew on some short stories by the Italian poet and writer Dino Buzzati, as she mentions in the play's programme. In both cases, however, there is a subtle touch of caricature, a measured degree of exaggeration that renders both funny, without discrediting their authenticity, and adds a wistful ironic perspective on the whole subject of love.
Having squeezed every ounce of comedy out of the contrast between the two stories, the play does not end up proposing that love in the past, as defined by the old romantic movies and novels, is finer or more real than what goes for love in the present. Indeed, though loud and crude in the main, the story of the young couple has moments of profound pathos, like the scene in which they sit close together, watching the devastation of Lebanon on television, and feeling terribly vulnerable and insecure. Can love exist in such a violent world, they wonder; can they feel really happy in the face of so much horror and pain? To reassure themselves they hold hands; but as the harrowing scenes continue to flash on the screen, the hands grow limp and fall apart. On the other hand, the tender gentleness of the old romance is occasionally deliberately brought to the verge of the fulsomely sentimental or ludicrously hyperbolic, making us doubt if it can survive in the real world.
Rather than value one story over the other, the play achieves a synthesis which argues, on the one hand, for the sad transience and unreliability of love in whatever form, and, on the other, that, in essence, romance is an expression of mysterious spiritual longings that can never be fulfilled in the material world. Though palpably different in linguistic texture and course of events, both stories end in failure and the lovers' separation. The only difference is that while the older lover, the representative of the 1960s' romantic generation, has a past to cherish, however illusory, and could warm himself with old memories in the cold years that follow the defeat of his dreams, the younger generation have nothing -- neither a past to remember, nor a future to hope for -- only a stream of moments which once gone leave no trace behind.
It is a painfully perceptive diagnosis of the predicament of many young people in Egypt today who feel suspended in mid air, with no bearings in reality. While the 1960s' generation, to which the old romancer in the play belongs, had the luxury to dream and cherish an illusion of having the power to make their dreams come true, the present generations, represented by the two young lovers, seem to have been born into a virtual void, after everything has collapsed and the past has been eroded. In their battle for survival, their only props are a vast indifference to the world around and a cynical recognition of their impotence and marginality. At one point in the play, the young woman declares that she lives perpetually in the present, with no thought for tomorrow or yesterday; at another, her young lover confesses that he once tried to keep a diary, but it only revealed to him the emptiness and futility of his life.
With no sense of time, of a past one can relate to, a present one feels at home in, and a future one can look forward to, one's life is reduced to a whirl of scattered, isolated moments, with no beginning, middle, or meaningful end. This explains why the old lover, despite his defeat, could construct his life into a coherent, meaningful narrative which gives him some solace and a sense of identity -- of continuity in time and belonging in the world -- while the young lovers cannot. One can read a deep political meaning in all of this, in the sad fate of the lovers past and present and the severed links between their two worlds. Underlying the play is a disconsolate vision of modern Egyptian history as a series of false starts and abrupt ends, of seductions and betrayals, leading to impotence and alienation.
That such profound perceptions and pensive reflections could come from a relatively young, relatively new female dramatist is deeply gratifying. I have known Rasha Abdel-Mon'im for years and have always admired the way she has taken her life into her own hands, renouncing the veil when she felt it no longer expressed her identity, turning to theatre after a 4-year BA course in Arabic literature and Islamic studies at the highly conservative Dar Al-'Ulum college, attempting a play for children and winning a prestigious prize, getting a diploma in theatre studies from Cairo university, trying herself out as a critic in the monthly Theatre Magazine, then finding her real home and vocation as dramaturge, playwright, occasional actress and event-organiser in the independent and fringe theatre movements. After two experiments as dramaturge with director Abbas Ahmed and composer Mohamed Izzat and his Banadriyya company, fitting together poems to give a semblance of dramatic form to what were basically poetry and music evenings, she worked with the independent theatre Atelier group, using the improvisations of the actors on a focal idea provided by director Mohamed Abdel-Khaliq to create the final script for the group's Halit Tawari' (State of Emergency); collaborated with Abeer Ali's Al-Misaharati group over their ebullient and perennially popular Hakawi Al-Haramlek (Tales of the Harem); concocted out of various literary sources the script for Tareq Al-Dweri's Al-Mawqif Al-Thalith (The Third Position), which represented the National theatre in the 2006 Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre; then produced the current Walad wi Bint at the suggestion of Hani Afifi.
It was through the fringe theatre movement that Rasha met Hani Afifi, also a graduate from Dar Al-'Ulum who often fell foul of the authorities there over his theatrical activities. Before venturing into the state theatre with Walad wi Bint, he had worked exclusively with amateurs and independent groups, forming his own, Al-Sa'ah (Clock or Hour) with some friends in 2002, and winning an impressive host of prizes, both governmental and otherwise, in the following four years. The group's most impressive productions were Brecht's The Exception and the Rule and a collectively composed, highly original and stunningly powerful play called Ana Delwaqt Mayet (Now that I am Dead). Though he did not train academically in theatre, Afifi gained a lot of experience working in the university theatre, with the Atelier group, and attending a series of intensive workshops in actor training, story-telling, lighting and directing at the American University, the Town House, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Cervantes Spanish Institute.
For his professional debut in the state-theatre, Afifi roped in two old comrades from the Independent Theatre Movement, the handsome and impressively versatile 'Imad Ismael, and the solidly talented and experienced Bayoumi Foad. (Ironically, none of the three friends is a member of the Theatre- Professionals Union and they were issued temporary licenses to mount this show.) Though Mona Hala, the third member of the cast is a video actress with little previous experience in theatre, she was delightfully vivacious and thoroughly convincing. She blended well with Ismael and Fouad, forming a finely tuned, intelligently orchestrated trio who zestfully exploited the rhythms and language of the writing to produce the maximum comic effects, but without impairing the writer's intention, or in any way deflecting the general drift of the drama. Theirs were scintillating, sweet-sour performances that will long linger in one's memory.