Nehad Selaiha hails the Egyptian premiere of Ben Elton's Gasping at Rawabet
When director Leila Saad kindly emailed to invite me to a performance of a play called Gasping by a playwright called Ben Elton I did not know what to expect or make of the title. I had not known of the existence of such a writer (shows how impossible it is to keep track of everything happening on the world drama scene) and could not guess whether he was British or American (probably American, I surmised, since Saad's all previous productions had been of American plays as I remembered. On this occasion, however, I was wrong. He turned out to be British to the bone). The title, however, was so intriguing, so pointedly, ironically relevant in view of all the tear gas fumes that, factually, have been intermittently clouding downtown in the areas surrounding Tahrir Square and the gaseous, hot rhetoric that has been, figuratively, emitted by all the TV channels and websites, snuffing any glimmer of good sense and dimming all future prospects. With creative, rational thinking and fresh, enlightened feelings being daily, persistently smothered and strangulated, we were all indeed gasping, I thought.
Adding to the attraction of the title, which vastly, poignantly amused me, triggering, for the first time in months, a playful train of thought, which delighted in ironies and double meanings, was the venue. For years Al-Hanager had been my favourite; but in its new, altered look -- so drearily, soullessly hygienic, making it the nearest thing to a low airport building or a military hospital (as I wrote here some weeks ago) -- it has been readily supplanted in my affections by Rawabet. In that modest, converted garage off Tahrir Square, which has been the refuge and shelter of many a homeless performance and many an independent theatrical troupe, I had spent many enjoyable, thought provoking and, sometimes irritating evenings. Like Al-Hanager, it had always boasted liveliness and variety, challenged deep seated values and convictions, teased, harassed, or delighted, and never been dull.
That I love, cherish, heartily admire and profoundly respect Leila Saad the artist (for we are not what you would call friends and have only known each other personally a few years) is no secret. I have intimated as much more than once on this page in the course of reviewing some of her productions. I knew that with Leila on stage, even in a small part, or almost a silent one, such as the homeless lady, wheeling around all her worldly goods and earthly possessions in a supermarket metal cart, and, in doing so, enriching a performance, giving it a real feel and deep humanity, as she did in her performances as the --Bag LadyÞ in Autumn in New York (a triple bill presented at the AUC in 2006, with Nagle Jackson's The Noon Watch and John Guare's The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year knocked together in one part, lasting a little over half an hour, and Edward Albee's harrowing Zoo Story forming the second part of the evening), or as the garrulous, Eastern European waitress in Who's Having the Duck? (a double bill of two Harold Pinter one-act plays -- Celebration and Party Time -- in 2009), or in the director's seat, as she was in her productions of Michael Frayn's Noises Off in 2007, of the famous American musical Guys and Dolls in 2010, or The Taming of the Shrew in that same year, you could be always sure of being stirred and excited. You could also be sure of the highest standards of theatrical craftsmanship and delicate, artistic showmanship with a measure of subtle, playful wit. (See 'Up the garden path', 'Farce from behind' and 'It's all in the move', in Al-Ahram Weekly, 23 March, 2006, Issue 787, 12 December, 2007, Issue 874, and 6 May, 2010, Issue 997 consecutively).
Of that slender, tall, elegant artist's record I wrote in 2010 that 'born to a rich family and taught at the AUC (where she studied theatre, graduating in the 1960s), Leila Saad 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 Cairo 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.' Back in Egypt, Leila joined the AUC and in 2009 formed with friends and fellow theatre enthusiasts -- including Ashraf Shenouda, Noha El-Kholy, Hassan Abdel Salam, Nimet Naguib, Leslie Croxford, Nadia Abdel Naby, Zeinab Nabil Monir, Yasmine Riad, Ahmed Omar, Amina Khalil and Hani Eskander, among others) the Alumni Community Theatre (ACT) -- an independent troupe that stages plays in English and sports the delightful motto: 'Give us a space, we will give you a show.'
The space this time was Rawabet, rented for 3 nights. On the 2 nights I was there it was packed full and while many went away in deep chagrin, the more persistent queued till the last minute, hoping that some of the ticket holders would not show up and they could take their places. It was obvious that the ACT troupe had built up a good, enthusiastic following and a prestigious reputation. And no wonder. With Saad at the helm as artistic director of the company you could be sure that the plays on offer would always be varied, witty and intelligent, of creditable dramatic merit, topical interest and wide appeal. Moreover, with a professionally trained team of artistic assistants at hand, including the amazingly multi-talented Ramsi Lehner, the ardent Farah Al-Muhtasib, the devoted Menna El Laithy, the diligent Hadeel. El Deeb and the indefatigable Reem El Meligui, all of them AUC graduates, and all of them earning their living somewhere else and volunteering their time and technical expertise to ACT for the pure love of theatre, Saad could be assured of being able to stage superb performances for very little money. Indeed, ACT is an exemplary case of talent and love making up for very little money.
Gasping, the latest achievements of ACT, proved a poignantly topical black comedy and acrid satire of definite socialist leanings, fiercely anti-the ethos of globalized economy wherein the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. A four-hander, competently and finely played by Adham Zidan, Ali Nasser, Ahmed Amer and the exquisite Reem Kadry, it slotted comfortably in the category of science fiction, but the kind of science fiction that works as a metaphoric caution against very real evils and present threats. Satirizing the avarice and unconscionable greed of big business and the tycoons maneuvering its insidious, shady operations all over the world, it tells a tale of horror, wherein even the air we breathe becomes a marketable commodity, subject to the values of supply and demand. That the play ends in tragedy, with the suicide of the ingenuous company executive who develops the project of the 'suck and blow machine' -- a machine that sucks all the oxygen in God's given air into expensive, salable bottles, like mineral water and Pepsi Cola then allows its release at a certain price -- but not before he has exposed his suave, criminal boss to the agony of breathlessness, of lack of oxygen, which ends in his dying of suffocation, is a credit to the author's humanitarian ideology and disgust with consumerism, economic globalization and big, multi national corporations.
Saad's elegant, low-key and infinitely eloquent directing, her delicate, meticulous attention to detail in terms of sets and costumes -- features that distinguish all her work --, her sensitive shading and orchestration of tones and moods, to which her actors did ample credit, made the message of the play all the more poignant, sinisterly shocking and profoundly agitating. But, notwithstanding the grimness of the play, Saad found in the black humour of its author ample opportunity to indulge her own sense of ironical humour and wry wit. Regulating the grim progress of the global disaster the play presents was a recording of Edith Piaf's La Vie en Rose, played at ever slowing speed that progressively grew ridiculously distorted like the whining of a dying animal. It was a masterful stroke. Also to her credit was the editing of the play she entrusted to Leslie Croxford, who not only cleaned up the original text of some of its most offensive, smutty jokes and curbed its self-indulgent garish prolixity, but also removed all the immediately topical references to Britain, plentiful in the text, thus giving it a more universal relevance and appeal. That she did not allow her actors after the final tragic scene to come out and take the audience's rapturous applause was definitely cruel to them and thwarting to their admirers' wishes. But it was discerningly correct and perfectly well judged, dramatically speaking. When all the third world countries, as the play tells us, have been deprived of air, sold to multinational corporations by corrupt rulers as they do oil and other life-sustaining resources, condemning their populations to slow, painful starvation or suffocation, who can have a heart to clap? Funny that a play about people dying of lack of oxygen should prove such a truly breathtaking treat and a real breath of fresh air.