Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Home, sweet home

By Nehad Selaiha

Nehad SelaihaAfter his writing debut, Oedipus, The President, an intricate polyphonic collage of a number of varied texts (including plays, poems, letters, memoirs, and documentary films in Arabic, English and French) which he directed and presented at the Wallace Theatre in 1995 during the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre, director Ahmed El-Attar (a graduate of the Department of Performing Arts at the American University in Cairo, 1992) went on to produce his first original, full-fledged play. The Interview (Al-Lagnah), performed in 1998 at The French Cultural Centre, the Swiss Club and Howard Theatre successively to packed audiences seemed startlingly different, in both conception and technique, from the earlier Oedipus. Gone were the mythological dimensions, the free overlapping and merging of past and present, myth and history, the grand, panoramic spatio-temporal sweep, and the studied use of montage to create multiple stages and perspectives. Oedipus was a fascinating experiment, if somewhat rambling, self-indulgent and over-embroidered.

By comparison, The Interview seemed technically tame, less exuberant, almost a throwback to the classical Aristotelian model, three unities and all. The time of the dramatic action (the interviewing of a young man for a government job by a bureaucratic committee of three) is exactly the same as that of the performance -- a quality much praised by Aristotle. There are no scene changes, no intrusion or side-tracking. El-Attar's austere manipulation of the classical dramatic model, in its most rigid of forms (seldom found even in Greek drama) was a masterly feat and endowed the play with a remarkable degree of tautness and cohesion. The play was simply the interview which provided everything -- the action, the dramatic development, the climax, the revelation and the tragic end. Decked out to look initially like a realistic drama (in terms of set, costume, characters and props), the play proceeds to gradually shatter the thin crust of ordinariness, the illusion of a sane, logical, familiar, comprehensible and well-ordered world and to transform itself, through bizarre wit, grim humour, the surrealistic management of the dialogue with its many verbal absurdities, into a kind of nightmarish, Kafkaesque trial. Neither the audience (who are for the best part of the performance falling off their chairs with laughter), nor the timid, fawning young man, who is willing to say anything and contradict himself constantly in order to gain favour with his interviewers, understands the reason for the growing hostility and mounting aggression of the committee. As the verbal assaults develop into physical violence, and the now panic-stricken young man begins to break down under the combined pressure of terror and mental confusion, the vacuum of incomprehension, created by the sinister and frustrating absence of motives, widens and grows more menacing, threatening to swallow us too. What the play finally and ultimately communicates to us, amid the crazed, frenzied ravings of the young man, is the senseless, wanton brutality and ruthless oppression of the inherited patriarchal powers (military, political, bureaucratic, cultural or ideological) which dominate, terrorise and corrupt the individual, particularly the weak and young. No wonder the play stirred up a hornet's nest when it was first performed, enraging one censor who bullied the French Cultural Centre into cancelling two scheduled performances.

El-Attar, however, is not easily intimidated and guards his artistic freedom and integrity with ferocity and grim determination. For six years the independent theatre group he founded in 1993 worked without financial help from any quarter, funding productions out of their own pockets. It was only last year that they started accepting small grants from some foreign cultural agencies. Nevertheless, El-Attar and his comrades are as audacious and brave as ever, as their latest production, Life is Beautiful, testifies.

Salwa Mohamed Ali and Magda Abdu

In both Oedipus and The Interview the lust for power and its effect on individual and human relationships was a major preoccupation -- a central theme that linked the two scripts despite their formal and technical differences. It also informs Life is Beautiful -- a horrendously, bitterly ironical title; but this time it is worked out dramatically in the context of family life and relationships, in the private, intimate space of the home. Predictably, the choice of home (an emotionally loaded word, traditionally connoting shelter, security, warmth, and mental and physical nourishment) gives the theme a personal edge and renders it more poignant and deeply disturbing. The family home which confronts us in this production, however, is a cruel, cynical travesty -- a cage-like frame of metal poles and wire fences which embraces both the stage and auditorium and divides them into smaller cages. On the fence which extended from the stage along the left side of the auditorium hung a shuttered window, a clock and row of books. The effect was surrealistic and quite unsettling. The three cage-like rooms on stage, however, were naturalistically furnished, down to the smallest detail. The first (the younger son's) sported a bed, a wall-cupboard, a television with a lighted blank screen, magazine pictures of pop stars on the wall and a high mound of rubbish made up of soft drinks cans, magazines and fast food containers. The second was hung around with used blood bags, with their attached tubes dangling to the floor; in the middle was a typical hospital bed on which lay the shrivelled mother, pale as a corpse, painfully coughing and wheezing. The third, the elder son's, was simply a toilet with piles of newspapers everywhere.

The scene, with its dull, muted colours, cold-white or ghostly yellow lighting, was eerily chilling, suggesting some godforsaken underground cell or dungeon reeking of sickness, death, excrement and human waste. The impression is deepened by the inhabitants repetitive movements, the alternately mechanical and deranged manner in which they scream or mumble their words and keep repeating them, and their desperate reaching up at intervals (marked by ethereal music and special lighting) as if to clutch at an elusive promise of fulfillment or liberation. Ironically, this recurrent collective dream of salvation is rudely interrupted and dissipated every time by a call from the rich uncle in America who dangles a different promise: wealth and the power that comes with it, but on one condition: that all submit to the authority of the father and obey him blindly.

The father who sits on a chair in front of the cells, like a jailor, waiting for his brother who, like Beckett's Godot, never comes, alternately curses the maid and scolds his wife and sons, pompously displays his superior knowledge and wisdom in deliciously absurd monologues or spins out fantastic visions of future wealth and luxury -- a priceless, hilarious caricature of the dry, tyrannical, vainglorious, power-hungry and sterile patriarch.

To this grotesque, macabre family portrait (in the present) El-Attar juxtaposes images from their early life, when they were young, warm and loving, with an enormous zest for life and a capacity for kindness and generous compassion. Ironically, it is the maid, frequently scolded and cursed by them, and who has slaved for them for nearly 20 years acting as a life-support system, who fondly recalls those images in tender, vivid and moving monologues. The juxtaposition of past and present inevitably poses the question: What went wrong?

In the final scene, after the only blackout which marks the death of the mother, the father and his sons indulge in soul-searching monologues, voiced simultaneously, suggesting several answers in a deafening cacophonous din. The answers have one thing in common, though expressed differently: a warning against the debilitating, soul-crushing, deadening effect of fear -- fear of breaking the rules, disobeying the authorities, being different, being oneself, being with the other. The play ends with a loud, passionate, rebellious choral call for freedom, and the effect is liberating and exhilarating.

Life is Beautiful has restored my faith in the artistic vigour and intellectual vitality of the Free Theatre Movement with its independent groups. It is at once serious and hilarious, urgently relevant and accessible and artistically subtle and sophisticated. It is finely conceived, designed and staged, and boasts a superb cast who gave stunning, haunting performances: Salwa Mohamed Ali as the maid; Ahmed Kamal as the father; Hassan El-Kredly as the younger son; Walid Marzouq as the elder son and Magda Abdu as the mother. Equally inspired were the contributions of stage-designer Hussein Baydoun, sound-designer and composer Hassan Khan, lighting-designer Christoph Gilarmet, and costume-designer and make-up artist Rania Sirag. If Life is Beautiful plays at the coming CIFET in September, as I expect it will, give yourself a treat and see it. It may make life seem as beautiful to you as it has done for me.

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