An elegiac love song for Isis
Nehad Selaiha marvels at the beauty, passion and political acumen of a new creation by an independent artist at Al-Hanager
For decades now, in fact since the early 1970s, the policy governing all state-run theatrical activities has been prominently characterized by wanton wastefulness. Leaving aside the army of useless bureaucrats that crowd the offices of the state-theatre sector and the cultural palaces organization, seemingly planted there to obstruct the work and eat up most of the budget allocated to these bodies, leaving only crumbs for the artists, the said wastefulness is nowhere more apparent than in the extremely short runs allowed to productions (2 to 4 weeks at the most, and in the case of theatre clubs 2 nights if they are lucky) and the almost complete absence of any publicity or marketing initiatives. The result is a dreadful waste Òê" not only of money, but, more painfully, of creative human effort and cultural capital. Productions that take long months of very hard work to prepare, in usually adverse circumstances, often play to empty auditoriums, are often heard of after they are taken off, are rarely videotaped and simply melt into oblivion. In the case of many regional productions, a plain, cheaply printed flyer carrying the basic information is all that remains as evidence of their brief, fleeting existence. A few weeks ago, I carried 5 bagfuls of these, hoarded over the years, to the National Theatre Centre in Zamalek, fearing that if I suddenly died they would be disposed of as waste paper.
One week before Ramadan I was stunned by another flagrant example of this kind of criminal wastefulness at Al-Hanager Òê" the last place I expected to find it. But I was wrong not to expect it. Now that Hoda Wasfi, an exceptional woman and the centre's artistic director for 20 years, has left it, one should expect anything. It has not taken the centre's new (inflated and purportedly temporary) management long to be infected by many of the endemic ailments of the state-theatre venues. After many frustrating delays and last-minute hitches, Mohamed Abul Su'ood's long-awaited Isis, mon amour, an ambitious project that took almost 2 years to research, write, design and rehearse, opened quietly, almost secretly, with no publicity of any kind, and not even a simple flyer to tell you who is who in the show. With some essential props and technical equipment still lacking, the few performances given before Ramadan were more in the nature of open dress rehearsals. When the production took its final shape at the end of that week, it was forced to close for the first 3 days of the holy month. When it resumed on Monday, 23 July, almost against the will of the new management, as if only to fulfill the 2-week run stipulated in the contracts of the cast and crew as a condition for payment of the agreed wages, there was a marked absence of all the well-known critics, none of whom had received the customary invitations, and only a handful of spectators, mostly young theatre people who knew about the show by word of mouth, or friends and families of the cast and crew. What a waste!
As a title, Isis, mon amour has struck some as odd and somewhat affected and pretentious. But using foreign words, written in Arabic letters, in the title of an Arabic play, though a rare practice, is by no means unprecedented in the Egyptian theatre. A recent example was Abeer Ali's Viva Mama in Al-Hanager's Independent Theatre Season in 2009. In the case of Isis, Mon Amour, the French words were deliberately used in the title to evoke the famous film Hiroshima, Mon Amour and initially hint at the general theme (not dissimilar to that of the film) and the mournful, elegiac mood of the play. Another reason for not using 'habibti', the Arabic equivalent of the French 'mon amour', was to distinguish this new piece from Mikhael Roman's Isis, Habibti (probably written in the late 1960s, or just before the author's death in 1973, and published posthumously in 1986). Originally, when Abul Su'ood started writing this piece in the wake of the January/February/2011 Tahrir demonstrations (an event in which he was a constant feature and played an active part), he had meant it as a celebration of the new dawn of freedom, of the 'return of the spirit' to Egypt, to use the title of Tawfiq El-Hakim's famous novel. In that optimistic frame of mind, he had called his work Isis, or the Coming Forth by Day, using the real hieroglyphic name of the ancient Egyptian text generally known as Book of the Dead. As the work progressed and the months went by, the hopeful mood gave way to doubt, frustration and, eventually, to disillusionment and a sense of betrayal. Nothing has really changed. The faces are different, but the oppressive power structure is the same. Rather than celebrating a 'coming forth by day' from darkness into light, the work metamorphosed into a mournful, elegiac love song for Isis, a betrayed, lost motherland.
Here, as in most of his earlier works, and particularly in his Briaska II: Exodus from Death in Daylight (1995), Phaedra, the Lady of Secrets (2001) and Antigone in Ramallah, Antigone in Beirut (2006), Abul Su'ood appropriates a myth, centering on a female figure, and turns it into a vehicle for personal, political and philosophical reflection, dismantling and restructuring the narrative core and interweaving into it other texts drawn from sundry sources, literary and factual, old and contemporary, as well as a multiplicity of varied images and sounds. As usual, the result is a highly original, multilayered, multi-media work, at once intensely lyrical, poignantly existential, technically dazzling and politically relevant. I once described Abul Su'ood's performance texts as instances of postmodernist 'writing on writing' and a manifestation of an intense personal drive to relate to history and the human heritage, to retrieve those neglected areas of Egyptian history, especially the Christian one, to view inherited narratives and power-structures in the light of the exigencies of the present and forge a fresh, vivid theatrical discourse that embraces cultural diversity, shuns dogma and revels in a multiplicity of perspectives and viewpoints. The same description fairly applies to the present work.
Isis, mon amour came across as a dramatic poem for many voices and a chorus, alternating solo and choral narration with confessional soliloquies, brief, illustrative sketches and satirical comments. It interweaves excerpts from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead), verses by the Arab Sufi poet Umar ibn `Ali ibn al-Farid (1181-1235), and chants and hymns inspired by the Pharaonic and Coptic musical heritage, and is accompanied throughout by back projections of ancient Egyptian monuments and mural paintings, documentary footage of contemporary Egyptian history, scenes and sounds of modern Cairo and a sequence of animated, expressionistic drawings, featuring a papyrus boat, resolutely sailing on the Nile, through stony deserts, bushes and marches, like the ritual "solar barge" that carried the resurrected ancient Egyptian kings with the sun god Ra across the heavens, or like the boat of Charon that ferried the dead across the rivers Styx or Acheron to Hades in Greek mythology.
Like the earlier Phaedra, the Lady of Secrets, Isis, mon amour opens with an ancient Egyptian funerary ritual of embalming and mummification, but here performed by a grand priest in his full regalia, with the god Anubis in attendance, bearing candles, while a lady in white hovers over the scene, rhythmically clashing two brass cymbals, and black-clad female mourners move around in circles. The ritual is accompanied by a mix of religious chants in which Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic prayers and supplications merge, while images of ancient Egyptian tombs and illustrations from the Book of the Dead flicker on white screens that form the background. At the end of the ritual, the scene suddenly shifts to modern times as an old woman in black appears, sweeping the stage and bewailing the disappearance of a beloved one, while the familiar sounds of a modern Cairo street in a poor quarter are heard in the background.
The rest of the performance follows the same principle of alternating scenes from the past and present, occasionally contrasting them by means of back projections, and deliberately mixing the costumes in most to neutralize the element of time. The tale of oppression the play tells seems to have extended from the times of the Pharaohs to the present. This is signified by assigning the parts of the High Priest in ancient times and the Military General in the present to the same actor (Hamada Shousha). Indeed, throughout, the play seems keen to distinguish between the official religion administered by the male priesthood in the service of the despotic ruler and the popular religion embraced by the simple people, by the peasants who till the land and build temples, churches and mosques. The wandering, hunted and persecuted Isis is the goddess of those people and is identified with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and embodied in all the female characters in the play Òê" all bereaved and suffering Òê" while her son Horus, the hoped for saviour, appears as a poor peasant, an exile who, coming back home after a long absence, is denied by all, thrown in prison and brutally tortured by the state security police. Finally, after a brief moment of triumphant rebellion and liberation, he ends up defeated.
The set, designed by Abul Su'ood, as he does in all his productions, consisted of a bare stage with two sloping ramps leading to 3 white, sliding screens at the back, which, when slightly parted, revealed a dark cavern with 2 spotlights high up, one white and one orange. This gaping, dark space at the back, momentarily glimpsed, was imaginatively used to create poignant metaphors in 3 non-consecutive scenes. In the first of these, it represented the mouth of a tomb through which a dead man, in a typical ancient Egyptian garb, cheerfully walks to the daylight of eternity after delivering some prayers from the Book of the Dead. In the next, it became the grim portal of a bridal chamber into which a beautiful young woman, a modern-day Isis in an ancient Egyptian dress, is pushed, having been swathed in black from head to foot after undergoing the traditional beautification ritual, to be received into the arms of an aged, inordinately obese and thoroughly repulsive oil-rich Arab sheikh. The contrast between these two similarly ritualistic scenes was enforced by the identical props and almost identical movements in both; the bride sat on the same table that had earlier carried the corpse of the ancient Egyptian dead man and her hired beautician handled the same instruments in the same manner as the priest had done in the mummification process; and while the same women in black surrounded the central figures in both scenes, the joyful serenity of the dying man in former painfully sharpened the ominous gloom of the latter. The impact of this contrast was shattering, bespeaking the utter degradation, betrayal and enslavement of present day Isis/Egypt by the combined forces of military dictatorship and conservative, capitalist, political Islam.
The third parting of the back screens marks the end of the play and constitutes its finale. It occurs after the failure of the prisoners' revolt and the substitution of the old general with a new one. A spotlight picks up the face of the new general, mounted high on a podium, as he announces that the game is over and they, the military, are still in sole control of the stage. A modern, young Isis tries to raise the spirits of her fellow revolutionaries, cherishingly dwelling on the glorious sense of freedom they all experienced in Tahrir Square and is promptly shot. All are still; the stage is quiet. An animated image, showing the dead Isis crowned, in a white dress, with a blood-red rose on her bosom where the shot pierced it, floating up to heaven, is repeatedly projected on the back screens from different angles. When the screens finally slide apart, they dimly reveal a figure sitting at a grand piano, accompanying the play's lead singer in a final prayer for hope and consolation, for freedom in a happy new world. The whole stage is softly lit and suffused in projections of tree leaves gently swaying in the moonlight. The play ends with the singer repeatedly echoing Christ's call (in Matt: 11:28): "Come unto me all who are weary and burdened, I shall give you rest", as the lights slowly fade to blackout.
Besides the stationary, sliding back screens, the set included 4 more mobile ones. Two of these were of transparent gauze to divide the space and mark locations, and the other two, much higher, were of metal to hide parts of the stage, or (by some technological trick that was not absolutely successful due to the lack of the necessary gadgets) to reflect the faces of the actors in an enlarged form on the back screens in some scenes for added effect. This was particularly effective in the scenes of the mother in mourning, a modern variation on Isis, begging the general to tell her the whereabouts of her disappeared son and daughter. For the prison scenes, shiny metal bars descended from the flies at the back and front of the stage, forbiddingly encaging the citizens within. In this prison, the barbaric abuse and humiliation of the Egyptian people under totalitarian military rulers throughout history, and particularly since the military takeover in 1952, was reenacted in telling, brief scenes that merged the present and the past and were threaded together by the goddess Isis and her son Horus in their endless wanderings through the ages and the land of Egypt in search of justice, dignity and freedom.
On the visual level, the haunting stage imagery conceived by Abul Su'ood were substantially complemented by Sarah Enany's costumes, which, following his instructions, combined the modern and Pharaonic, the military and civilian, and accurately represented different social classes, conditions and regions of Egypt. They were generally muted and harmonious in colour and beautifully blended with Abul Su'ood's lighting plan. On the auricular level, Reem Qandil's musical contribution was genuinely creative and absolutely seminal. Though Abul Su'ood always puts together the soundtracks of his productions, drawing on far-flung musical sources and traditions, for Isis, he needed more than the recorded sound effects, snatches of popular songs and eerie, atmospheric music that marked, or accompanied the different scenes. He needed live vocal and musical accompaniment and, luckily, he teamed up with Reem Qandil. Besides vocally training the actors to chant and sing in chorus, she beautifully performed the old folk songs selected for the play and, drawing on the musical heritage of the Coptic Church and, probably, other religious musical traditions, she devised a way of chanting the verses of Ibn Al-Farid and the prayers from the Book of the Dead in a manner suggesting ancient Egyptian music. Accompanied by Ahmed Mumtaz on the flute and clarinet and percussionist Mu'men Mohamed Magdi, her velvety, powerful, well-trained voice moved the heart, stirred the soul and charmed the imagination. Had the rest of the performers been blessed with similar voices and musical skills, the whole piece could have been vocally delivered as an oratorio.
With no plot and no individualized, well defined dramatic characters in the traditional sense and next to no dialogue, Isis is obviously an unusual, difficult play for run-of-the-mill actors, requiring scrupulous, alertness, split-second timing and plenty of self-denial. Ensemble playing is essential for its working, and so is attention to mood, appearance and vocal tuning. The actors are called upon to change parts and costumes repeatedly, at short intervals, to stand out from the group one minute, then melt into it the next, and have to adjust movement, facial expression, body language, vocal delivery and acting style accordingly. Some training in stylized acting and classical declamation is required, as well as physical agility and a decent capacity to chant or perform choral songs. It is a credit to Abul Su'ood's predominantly young, inexperienced cast that they acquitted themselves the way they did, often making up for the lack of professional training in elocution, voice production, tonal variation and emotional colouring with strict discipline and boundless enthusiasm. With more training and experience some of them may go far.
Fortunately for the play, the cast was led by two seasoned professionals Òê" Hamada Shousha and Mai Reda, assisted by Gamal Ibrahim Atiya, a budding actor of remarkable competence and substantial talent. As the 'eternal General', Shousha was mesmeric, at once horrible and fascinating Òê" a really frightening figure, masking an infinite capacity for evil, violence and brutality with a deliberate coolness of deportment, urbane manners, a polished voice and a sinister, sardonic smile. When the mask dropped for a moment, he looked shockingly inhuman. Mai Reda assumed her different Isis guises Òê" as a resplendent goddess in the full accoutrements of her station, a disheveled, abused prisoner, a weary traveler in trousers and a pullover, lugging a suitcase, an elegant, aristocratic woman in a fur coat, a peasant in mourning, or a middle-class, black-clad, bereaved mother Òê" with elegant ease and seemingly effortless conviction. Her powerful voice, immaculate enunciation, fine emotional shadings and overpowering stage presence were a real pleasure and made up for the lack of such qualities in most of the other actors. As her son, Horus, also in different guises, Gamal Ibrahim Atiya, though a novice, gave a polished performance, matching hers in clarity, economy, force, tonal variation and apparent ease. Such wonderful performances should have been widely enjoyed and celebrated, and, hopefully, they will be if and when Abul Su'ood revives the play in a more propitious, congenial venue.