Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2008
Issue No. 893
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

The motto is: I will survive

Nehad Selaiha joins in a celebration of happiness at Rawabet

Nora Amin's Huna Al-Sa'aada (Happiness Here), the fifth production in Al-Hanager's independent theatre season at Rawabet, was a real surprise. It was so unlike anything she had ever done before, whether as writer, performer or director, that were it not for her actual physical presence on stage, anyone familiar with her previous work would have thought the whole thing was a hoax. Ever since she started her own troupe, over 8 years ago, and even before that, when, for nearly ten years, she assisted other troupes as actress -- performing with Khalid El-Sawy's Al-Haraka (the Movement), Effat Yehia's Al-Qafila (the Caravan) and Mohamed Abul Su'ood's Al-Shazya (Shrapnel), and taking on such taxing parts as Pope Joan in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, Bodice in Edward Bond's Lear, Abigail in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, The Virgin Mary in Mohamed Abul Su'ood's Deir Gabal El-Teir (The Monastery on Birds Mountain), and Phaedra, in his Sayedat Al-Asrar (The Lady of Secrets) -- her work had always displayed a marked predilection for the psychologically complex, ideologically iconoclastic and existentially probing.

Click to view caption
Happiness Here, written and directed by Nora Amin

Before Happiness, whatever the work presented by La Musica -- whether it was an intimately personal, semi-autobiographical, original composition, like Al-Dafeerah (The Braid, 2000), or Risalah Ila Abi (A Message to My Father, 2001); a production of a favourite text, like Marguerite Duras's La Musica 2eme in 2002, or her L'amante anglaise which followed in 2003; a theatrical threnody for the victims of the Beni Sweif fire, like Hayat Lil Dhikra (A Life for Memory) in 2006, or an artistic protest coached in a stage metaphor, like the more recent Qitt Yuhtadar (A Cat Dying -- reviewed on this page on 24th January this year) -- whatever the work, you vividly sensed a subversive urge, a tough, compulsive determination to dislodge established attitudes, disrupt the dominant ideology, to question everything and take nothing for granted; and underlying everything was a certain existential restlessness, a shadowy awareness of the ultimate loneliness of the individual, an anguished perception of the transience of love and its finiteness. At moments, you even felt as if you were involuntarily dragged into the murky depths of a tortured psyche and forced to gaze upon its lurid, often cruel projections.

There was nothing of this in Happiness, or, perhaps, only a faint trace in the grimly funny monologue in which we see Nora crushed by a babbling crowd and shouted under while she screams out that to be alone is the ultimate happiness. Composed of 7 intermeshed and cleverly orchestrated monologues, plus one choral recitation, in all of which the meaning of happiness is debated and alternately identified as love, friendship, professional success, solitude, giving birth, selflessly tending a family, being a stage performer, or simply dancing, this boisterous, zingy piece comes across as a dazzling, rousing variety show which brings together different kinds of music, dance and comic routines, mixes them in a dizzying medley and treats the audience as guests at a party, often inviting them to the dance floor and treating them at one point to lavish helpings of the popular sweet we call Basbousa. The ideal of 'active audience participation', so much bandied about and vehemently advocated since the 1960s ( and rarely achieved, one might add), was here realized with amazing ease, as if quite spontaneously.

The secret lay in the very idea of the show and its design. Nora conceived of Happiness as a party: for once, she decided to be happy. in spite of every thing; even if she did not feel happy, she was going to stick out her tongue at life and all its aches and pains and sing a hymn to happiness. And she wanted everyone to join her, the performers, the musicians, the audience -- indeed, the whole world. To help her with the party, Nora invited popular singer Fayrouz Karawia who, though big with child (which gave credence to her monologue about giving birth as the ultimate happiness), especially wrote and put to music some songs for the occasion. The rest of the music was contributed by Sami Saad who selected a variety of popular western and oriental tunes and arranged them into an intriguing score, part of which he played live on his synthesizer, and the rest as recorded sound track.

Hani Hassan, a gifted dancer, brought to the party some excellent solo numbers, while Nefertari Gamal, Nivene El-Toni, Mohamed Habib and Mustafa Huzayyin provided monologues, hilarious sketches and group dances freely improvised or strictly choreographed. And, naturally, Gamila Salih, Nora's teenage daughter by the late poet/actor/director Salih Saad (one of the Beni Sweif fire victims), was there to assist with her mother's party, treating us to a live performance of a delightful 1950s popular song celebrating happiness. Even Nora's mother, Mona Abu Senna, a respectable professor of drama and English literature at Ain Shams University, was persuaded to help out on the last two nights when the person assigned the monologue of the aged, selfless mother failed to show up.

The whole place, and not just the stage, was gaily decorated with tinsel, streamers and balloons, and, towards the end, as the music rose to a din, Nora showered the actors and audience with clouds of confetti while a few squibs popped off noisily in the wings and strobe lights bounced off a disco ball. This rumbustious end contrasts sharply with the hushed opening scene in which all the performers sit upstage, each in a chair, facing the audience and whispering, in barely audible voices, their individual monologues, all together. Gradually, the voices rise in unison until they reach a loud pitch and we begin to distinguish key words and sentences which later become recurrent motifs. The actors withdraw in full light (no blackouts in this show or affective light changes), then, in the second sequence, start to come in again, singly, and one by one they enact their monologue, using mime and movement and, occasionally, helped by a silent partner.

In the third sequence, the monologues begin to intersect and collide, and bits of them float around, changing hands as the actors fight for the attention of the audience. Finally, the actors come together, recite a collective monologue in praise of theatre, ranking it as the major source of happiness in their lives as performers, join in several group dances, western and oriental, to some of which the audience are invited, then ape a crowd of cheering football fans. A lull follows this crazy bout, during which one of the actors, wearing an apron and a chef's hat, goes round with a basbousa tray, handing round fat slices on tissue paper, while, in the wings, Nora, speaking into a mike, reflects loudly and humorously on the relation between basbousa and happiness, compares basbousa to writing as a source of happiness, asking the audience which they would vote for, and concluding, in view of the audience's predictable retorts, that basbousa wins after all.

No one, even the old and most sedate and sober, could resist this party spirit or the waves of joy and energy that flowed from the stage. The centre of this energy, its source and fountain, was Nora; at times she spoke softly, enticingly, and moved sensuously, like a dangerous, seductive mermaid; at others, she danced frenziedly, ecstatically, like someone possessed, as if she were dancing for her life, as if it were her last dance. And her body energy spread around, infecting her fellow performers with a similar frenzy and sharpening their comic skills.

Yes, Happiness seemed unlike anything Nora had done before; and yet, one feels a definite link, as if Happiness were the other side of the same coin, the hitherto hidden side of the same moon. Though sunny, optimistic and sensuous, conveying a voracious appetite for life and an infectious zeal to survive, it has the same urgency, the same spirit of desperate defiance and personal involvement that characterize her other work. Only Nora Amin could have come up with such a show and it irrefutably bore her signature: fearlessness, reckless abandon and passion.

Happiness Here, by La Musica Troupe, written and directed by Nora Amin, Rawabet, 22-28 March, 2008.

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