Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 December 2007
Issue No. 874
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Farce from behind

The American University in Cairo, a roaring parody of a farce and, once again, Nehad Selaiha

There is nothing like a ripping farce for pointing up the intrinsic absurdity that underlies our lives. For farce is all about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having to put on a mask, or several in succession, and to improvise a new script, new words to fit the unexpected situation and make it seem normal and rational. In it, chance becomes the rule of the day, objects acquire a life and will of their own and human wit and resilience are put to the severest test and strained to breaking point. As characters struggle to extricate themselves from the avalanche of unforeseen events that overtakes them, they increasingly become like puppets, controlled by unseen forces, and time and place, rather than serve their usual contextual function, jump to the foreground, assume a power of their own and become active dramatic forces. This is what brings farce as a genre, though long despised and generally used as a derogative label, closest to tragedy. In both, humans are the playthings of invisible powers except that in farce, as in our modern world, the gods have shrunk to wanton boys and we to helpless flies. And while the ultimate aim of tragedy is the reconciliation of gods and humans through fear and pity, through pain and suffering, and the acceptance and embracing of that suffering, what farce, a more cynical and worldly wise genre, achieves in the hands of its great masters is a Sisyphean kind of stoical resignation through cathartic laughter.

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Though farce has been around for so long, longer perhaps than tragedy, it was only relatively recently that its philosophical dimension as a metaphor for life has been fully perceived and brought to the fore. Barring Shakespeare and a few other masters who realised that the inherent absurdities of the genre were also its sources of strength, popularity and durability -- masters who include such gifted makers of silent movies as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, it was left to the writers of the Absurd and their successors to exploit its full potential as an embodiment of the arbitrariness of life and the senselessness of human action and speech. Michael Frayn is one such master of farce, but his ingenious, 1982 Noises Off, which opened last Thursday, for the first time in Egypt, at the AUC Falaki Mainstage, is more than just a farce; it is also a theatrical parody of one, and as such has a compounded effect and double the amount of laughter. The idea for it came to Frayn in 1970 while he stood in the wings watching a performance of Chinamen, a farce he had written for Lynn Redgrave. "It was funnier from behind than in front," he thought, and he decided, as he says, that one day he must "write a farce from behind."

He did it 12 years later. Drawing on the ancient but evergreen metaphor of the whole world as a stage and the equally old device of a play within a play, Frayn came up with a complex design in which a parody of a farce is placed in a meta-theatrical frame consisting of the whole process of staging and performing it, which, in itself, constitutes another farce. The result was a double farce: one taking place on stage and featuring many doors and endless plates of sardines; the other, moving backstage to disclose the jealousies, feuds, vanities and sexual shenanigans of the inept cast and crew involved in the production. Viewed separately, in succession, or in alternate scenes, the two would form a pattern in which the backstage farce would appear as the main, or frame play which encloses the other, encouraging the audience to draw parallels and make cross- references. But this is exactly what Frayn does not do. Rather, he knocks the two plays together, setting them side by side and making them run simultaneously so that the real action grows out of their continuous, arbitrary intersection and collision and manifests itself in their mutual disintegration and final collapse.

While the first act of Noises Off shows us the actors of a third rate touring company going through the final rehearsal of a traditional bedroom farce called Nothing On (by an imaginary Mr. Robin Housemonger), with a disgruntled director sitting in the dark auditorium, barking orders at every one and feeling as frustrated as he thinks God must have felt while creating the world, the second act takes place backstage, during an actual matinee performance of that same play, but in a different town and a different theatre, a month later. Here, the whole set is turned through 180 degrees to face an imaginary audience while we, the real one, overhear what is said on stage and get to see bits of the action we have already seen in act one (though this time played back-to-front) through a full- length window at the back of the set and, at the same time, are treated to another, half-spoken, half-mimed backstage farce. As the two farces keep colliding, triggering volley of laughter every time, cues are missed, props are misplaced, and lines are jumbled and the whole thing falls into a such a hopeless chaos that not even the director, in his symbolic role as God, can disentangle or sort out. In the third act, which takes us yet to another city and a month forward in time, the set reverts to its former position as in act one; but by this time the backstage farce has completely wrecked the company and the wreckage spills onto the stage. The bottle of whisky which had changed so many hands and caused such a rumpus in Act 2 now sits smugly on the stairs in the set, in full view of the audience, and the prim and tidy housekeeper looks disheveled, limps painfully, takes swigs from the bottle and spills oily sardines all over the place. As the other characters walk in, the rest of the act turns into the nearest thing to a hilarious, illustrated catalogue of theatrical disasters. Apart from the dividends in laughter, this crafty, ingenious amalgamation had the effect of visibly sinking the dividing lines between theatre and reality, identifying the latter as no more than a senseless, stupid farce in which nothing is predictable, actions require no motives, material objects are more important than people and survival is all in the timing.

Needless to say, such an intricate text calls for expert actors and, even then, would put them under tremendous mental and physical strain; it requires unwavering concentration, split-second timing, playing two parts at once, slipping out of one and into the other almost in the same breath, memorizing three versions of the dialogue of one play as well as the script of another involving words and mime, not to mention the mad rushing about and hurtling up and down stairs, having to handle so many different props, or, in the case of one actor, having to hop around or jump up steps with one's pants down at one's ankles, or, in the case of another, with the strings of one's shoes tied together. To entrust such a text to a group of amateurs, however gifted and disciplined, takes a lot of courage, faith and patience and an infinite stamina for hard work. But then director Leila Saad, a relatively new comer to the Department of Performing and Visual Arts at the AUC (where she graduated in the 1960s), seems to have these qualities in abundance. The fact that earlier this year she attempted a full version of the famous American musical Guys and Dolls with an all amateur cast who gave a creditable and quite lively performance is proof of that. Though musicals and farces are usually dismissed by the ignorant as 'light' (read 'worthless') entertainment rather than 'serious' theatre, they are in fact the most demanding, the most exacting of theatrical genres and more difficult to stage, perhaps, than the profoundest tragedy. That Saad followed her musical with a farce reveals a healthy disregard for such silly divisions that pay no attention or lightly rate the amount of hard work and human labour that goes into the making of theatre. I would also venture that her penchant for popular theatre is rooted in an egalitarian cast of mind which was evident even at the beginning of her career in Egypt back in the late 1960s. Born to a rich family and taught at the AUC, Leila made the stage her vocation, married a rebellious Marxist playwright, Nagui George, and together they set about bringing theatre to the deprived masses by staging plays in downtown cafes. Though the experiment was short-lived, and Leila left for the States immediately afterwards, spending 35 years there, teaching, acting and directing at prestigious institutions, it constituted a true 'theatre of resistance' and forms part of the history of the avant-garde in Egypt.

It is a privilege to work with such a person and, given her sunny temperament and sense of humour, it must be also a pleasure. I don't doubt that the rehearsals for this show were hard work and that Saad, where necessary, could be a strict disciplinarian. Nevertheless, judging by the spirit of the performance and the visible, infectious delight the actors seemed to take in everything they said or did, I guess that the rehearsals were also fun and certainly not as frustrating or nerve- racking to Leila as they were to the director in Noises Off. With a simple, plain and functional set, easy to move around and providing the right number of doors (by Curt Enderle), and an equally simple lighting plan, consisting mostly of strong for the onstage scenes, medium for the backstage ones, and out for end- markings, with a few spots for the stage- manager and assistant-director when they speak to the audience directly or through a microphone, the success or failure of the play wholly depended on the actors' performances. It was up to them whether it sinks or floats; and it did float, even though Saad made their task more difficult by asking them to put on artificial accents or parody ham actors when performing Nothing On, and to perform their other characters in the larger play as clearly defined types with dominant features and salient characteristics. What a challenge!

Fortunately, Saad is an excellent acting coach with long experience and she made sure that the expert Ramsi Lehner was always at hand to help her hand-picked, multinational cast with the mime parts and choreograph the stage combat. But even so, one would not have expected an amateurs cast to do so well in such a difficult play. Indeed, but for a few slips here and there, most of the actors, particularly the ones with double parts -- Samia Assad as Dotty/ Clakett, Kate Jopson as Brook/Vicky, Louisa Balch as Belinda/Flavia, Nate Freeman as Fredrick/Philip, Alexander Hadshi as Gary/Roger -- could easily pass for professionals. Mark Visona as Lloyd, the director, Basma Matta as Poppy, his assistant, and Frank Cheng as Tim, his stage-manager had an easier job, having to perform only one character throughout, and while the first two gave satisfactory performances, Cheng, as the sincere, harassed and befuddled stage- manager went a step further and managed to sneak his vividly portrayed Tim into the hearts of the audience. His Tim, together with Jopson's myopic bimbo, Asaad's cockney housekeeper and Freeman's fainting Philip were my personal favourites.

Saad made a few alterations in the text, changing the setting to the United States instead of provincial England, moving Tim's address to the audience at the opening of Act 3 to the beginning of Act 2 and performing the two as one unit with no interval, which meant turning the set back to its original position for Act 3 in full view of the audience. This provided some humorous touches as the lights kept coming on and off erratically at Tim's mention of technical hitches, at one time surprising an embarrassed stage hand tinkering away at the set. Saad also added two silent understudies (Sarah Abdel Rahman and Yuseph Bashat) for Mrs. Clakett and the burglar. Such changes are minor and do not affect the play, and I would have even welcomed casting a female as the drunken Selsdon who plays the burglar were it not for the fact that Maria Costanza has such a weak, breathless voice that made her hardly audible. All the same, Noises Off was an exciting experience which left one seeing double and often felt like a dizzying ride on a roller coaster that sent you screaming with delight at every curve.

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