Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2008
Issue No. 895
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

The pun is the thing

Nehad Selaiha is amused by a mouse that turns agent provocateur at Rawabet

The seventh and last production in Al-Hanager's season of independent theatre at Rawabet (which ended on 13 April) was yet another example of the rich artistic variety of the theatrical scene on the Egyptian fringe and the wide range of theatrical forms and conventions its artists draw upon. Fi Baytina Fa'r (A Mouse in Our House) invoked old popular traditions, such as farce, vaudeville, melodrama and social, realistic comedy; whipped them together, adding a dash of satire, a pinch of parody, a sprinkling of old (1940s and 50s) comic songs, picked out of the repertoire of popular comedian Ismail Yassin, then cast this curious mix into the stewing pot of meta-theatre.

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Fi Baytina Fa'r by Al-Haraka troupe, part of Al-Hanager's season of independent theatre at Rawabet

The result was a veritable potpourri of popular comic conventions, featuring a squabbling middle class family in dire financial straits, a stream of weird visitors, dressed and made up to look like grotesque caricatures in some fanciful strip cartoon, two hilarious transvestite acts, a lot of mad chasing around and knocking about, some deliciously witty jibes against Brecht's educational epic theatre, some amusing takeoffs burlesquing high-brow classical drama and 'serious' traditional theatre -- not to mention a clownish master of ceremonies-cum- commentator. Ensconced in a booth (downstage left), with a big sign sporting the words "Breaker of Dramatic Illusion" in bold letters, he often broke the flow of the action, officiously barking instructions and objections at the actors, and, on two or three occasions, actually jumped into the mayhem, playing different parts.

Set in the living-room of the flat of an ordinary Egyptian middle-class family, with two doors at the back leading to the bedrooms, a curtained arch in the back right corner leading to the kitchen and a door in the right wall leading outside, the play begins in a quasi-realistic, quite mundane vein, with a squabble over the TV remote control between the daughter of the family -- a young, working woman engaged to be married -- and the eldest of her two brothers, a trainee lawyer who, as we gather from a telephone call and the comments of the family, is worked like a dog by a legal firm for a pittance of a salary.

When the father, a high-ranking but poorly paid civil servant, announces to the family that his department has offered him the choice of early retirement against a compensation of 150,000 Egyptian pounds plus his pension, another squabble erupts. His children urge him to accept, but all for different, thoroughly selfish reasons: the daughter, because the money would cover her marriage costs, and the two sons, because they dream of starting up a small private business -- buying a tuk-tuk, or auto- rickshaw, perhaps, and taking turns manning it. This would earn the lawyer son some extra money and save the younger son, a graduate, about to finish his military service, from the grim prospect of unemployment.

The raucous fight is temporarily terminated by the mother ordering every one to the dining table to eat breakfast. As we watch the family stolidly munching real bread, cheese and eggs, while the television set blares out gruesome reports of hair-raising massacres, brutal atrocities and grim predictions for the future, the realism thickens; the sight of all those hard-to-get subsidised loaves, which can cost a person his life, touches a raw nerve in the predominantly middle class audience and seem to drag their humiliating daily struggles on stage. And the illusion of seeing a life-like, albeit sourly comical, reflection of our own drab and apathetic existence is enhanced by the mother's pointed mention that to get those real, precious loaves, she had to queue for two hours, from 6 to 8 that morning.

Meanwhile, the quasi realistic set (by Ayman Fathi), which had earlier seemed to us ridiculously flimsy, with transparent walls -- a few sheets of hardboard and see-through cellophane paper, with a length of black cloth knocked together, not to mention the prominent breaker-of-illusions' booth -- begins to take on a disturbing, symbolic meaning. It seems to tell us that however real and solid this family's life, and ours, may seem, it is nothing in fact but a fragile, haphazard fabrication and a deadly dull theatrical charade. Rather than suggest any of the feelings traditionally associated with such family scenes -- feelings of intimacy, togetherness, some sort of holy communion -- the family reunion here has negative connotations and provokes a backlash.

Judging that the play has veered too much in the direction of realism, the breaker of dramatic illusion makes a timely intrusion just as the mother is removing the table and carrying the dirty dishes and leftovers into the kitchen. When she comes back screaming she saw a mouse and appeals to the family to join forces in driving it out, the action proper begins and the initial realism gives way to a dizzying variety of styles. The presence of the mouse reveals the real character of every member of the family, their hopes, fears, and selfish drives and heralds the arrival of a stream of visitors, some voluntarily summoned to help get rid of the unwelcome rodent -- like the pious mosque sheikh who claims that a recitation from the Koran can drive away all evils and ends up brawling with the family over his fee and calling up the police, and the American chemical cleaning company that charges an exorbitant fee for spraying the flat with useless stuff -- and some quite unwelcome, like the bashful fiancé and his domineering, snobbish mother, the gas/water/electricity/ telephone bill collector, and a couple of door-to-door Chinese peddlers who sell a lurid assortment of goods, including human organs for transplants.

All the while, the realistic illusion battles against such rude onslaughts which, successively, put an end to the daughter's projected marriage, lands the lawyer- son with a charge of criminal assault, pushes the younger son into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists, and, at one point, drive the homely mother out of her wits, and out of home and hearth, transforming her into a travesty of a seductive bimbo, gaudily bedecked in a thick, blonde wig, and bouncing her into the steel arms of a Rambo-like lover.

Would melodrama save the day? No way. Though the father falls sick and is told by a ghoulish, money- grabbing surgeon, in full operating-theatre gear and waving a scalpel, that he would certainly die unless he has a liver transplant, none of his kith and kin is willing to help him out and donate to him part of their livers. Indeed, his children tell him ruthlessly that since he is already 56, and since the average life span of an Egyptian is 60, it would be foolish to squander so much money on the hope of buying him only a few more years while they, themselves, have not even started to live and need the money to marry, build families, and fulfill their basic needs. That so many members of the audience realised that in a similar situation they would probably think likewise, though they may not dare to voice their thoughts, was a revelation and a shock.

That the mouse is discovered at the end to be nothing more than a plastic toy that the child daughter of the neighbours upstairs had unwittingly dropped into the balcony of the family's kitchen before going away on holiday and now suddenly appears to retrieve it, provides a neat punch line, redefining the whole play as a sour joke and sending an audible sigh of relief into the auditorium. The relief, however, is only momentary. At the very moment that we think we are laughing at the stupidity of the family who had taken such a worthless toy for a real mouse and allowed it to occasion so much fear, trigger so many hallucinations and haunt them so obsessively, to the point of destroying their relationships, we suddenly realise that we, ourselves, had been taken for a ride.

The word Fa'r we had assumed all along to refer to a real mouse not only turned out to signify a toy mouse, but also not to mean a mouse at all. Rather, it meant Faqr, i.e. poverty, which we pronounce colloquially as Fa'r. This clever pun (couched in the title), which compares poverty to a voracious, slippery rodent that can cause untold damage, is the backbone of the play. Once grasped, it cannot be easily dismissed. It lingers in the mind, long after one leaves the theatre, provoking you to look for all the metaphoric mice in your own life, examine what they have done to you and ponder the ways in which you tried to face up to them.

To revive a variety of popular theatrical traditions and comic routines, whip them into a form of light, popular entertainment that, nevertheless, urgently bears on current, daily reality, was the guiding target of Al-Haraka troupe in this production. To make a virtue of strained means and a cramped performance space was their achievement. Leading this delightful pageant were Al-Haraka members: Hamada Barakat, Hamada Shousha, Nirmene Za'za', Atiya Dardeeri, Amr Rashad, Adel Salah, Tamer El-Qadi and the author/director's own daughter, Hanin Sayed Al-Ginnari, with substantial contributions from guest actors: Azza El-Husseini (from the Gypsies troupe), Mohamed Abdel-Khaliq and the delightful comic singer Osama Fu'ad (from the Theatre Atelier troupe), and Hisham Mansour from the university theatre. Together, they treated us to a hilarious variety show cunningly encoded with a serious message.

Fi Baytina Fa'r (A Mouse in Our House), Al-Haraka (Movement) troupe, written and directed by Sayed Fuad Al-Ginnari, Rawabet, 7-13 April, 2008.

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