Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Blasted with ecstasy

Nehad Selaiha hails two productions of two monodramas about women, violence and madness. 

Blasted with ecstasy
Blasted with ecstasy
Al-Ahram Weekly

Of the productions presented this spring season, two distinctly stand out: A Woman Alone, by Franca Rame and Dario Fo, directed at Rawabet by Amr Qabil and starring Aya Soliman; and Paranoia, Rasha Faltas’s debut as playwright, staged by veteran director Mohsen Hilmi at Al-Hanager and starring Reem Hegab. Both are monodramas featuring lonely, oppressed, incarcerated, mentally and physically abused women, and in both the burgeoning sexuality of the heroine suffers a rude shock, triggering feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing. But while in the former we watch the woman teetering on the verge of madness, in the latter the young woman has already gone over the edge, plunging, as she says, ‘into a bottomless pit.’ This accounts in part for the palpable difference between the two plays in terms of mood, tone and impact. There are more significant differences however, and they have to do with the drive behind the writing, which determines the structure and technique, which, in turn, decide the performance of the actress and her relationship with the audience.
As a political activist, Franca Rame believes that the function of theatre ‘is to try to provoke self-awareness in the audience, a consciousness of what’s going on around them, and to provide, in a sense, a mirror of society.’ In the same BBC Radio 4 interview in January 1991, she goes on to say: ‘I draw on problems that women have within the family, problems that women have at work, in the factories, in the office, and, of course, problems that they have within society at large. …The most important thing, the crucial thing that I would wish to see, that I would demand, is respect for women everywhere: at home, in the street, in the family and in bed… Very important’ (as quoted by Gillian Hanna in her introduction to her translation of A Woman Alone (in A Woman Alone and Other Plays by Franca Rame and Dario Fo, Methuen Drama, London, 1991). In A Woman Alone, as in the rest of the monodramas in the book, the dramatic strategy is to use laughter as a weapon to raise consciousness and bring about change. Though the situation of the woman in the play (deliberately left nameless to represent all women in her situation) is quite tragic – a battered housewife, locked up in her own home and driven to madness by loneliness, the endless drudgery of domestic chores, a forever screaming baby, dodgy phone calls, a Peeping Tom across the street, a sex-mad brother-in-law (head to foot in a plaster cast, able to move only one ‘groping’ hand) and a desperate pig of a lover, not to mention an abusive, sadistic, possessive husband, who literally rapes her every night while beating her though he knows she loves another – the play is written as a hilarious black comedy that frequently dips into farce.
The laughter is mainly triggered by the woman’s desperate attempts to turn a blind eye, or reconcile herself to her unbearable situation by lies (‘My husband treats me like porcelain’), or boasting about her fridge, ‘which makes round ice cubes’, her ‘twenty-four programmes washing machine’, her ‘non-stick slow cooker’, her radio, television and cassette machine; ‘what more could I ask of life?’ she exclaims to the neighbour she discovers and gets chatting to through a window. This imaginary neighbour, at once invisible and voiceless, serves as an expedient device to allow the actress to address her monologue to the audience and may be taken also as a figment of the woman’s disturbed mind, conjured up to help her escape her loneliness. Indeed, the woman’s thrill at discovering this neighbour is poignantly pathetic, and even at this early stage, despite all the glib boasting, we get a harrowing glimpse of her real state of mind when she tells the neighbour: ‘I always have to have the radio going full blast when I’m at home on my own … otherwise I feel like sticking my head in the oven.’ As the one-sided chat progresses and gets more intimate and confidential, the life of the woman slowly unravels in all its horrible reality in front of us and the woman herself is gradually forced to acknowledge this reality and take action. The violent, explosive end of the play, which involves attempted suicide, inflicting possible fatal injuries on the brother-in-law by sending him crashing down the stairs and through a glass door in his wheelchair, scalding the harassing lover with boiling water, shooting the Peeping Tom across the road and pointing the gun at the door through which the husband is about to enter, may be viewed negatively as madness, or positively as a violent act of revolt and a liberation. In either case, it seems like the only possible logical conclusion.

In the production at Rawabet, the text lost something of its bite, animal vigour and grotesque humour. Director Amr Qabil pared down the text, removing all the endearing vulgar language of the heroine to make her more decent, more delicate, and more sympathetic to an Egyptian audience and suffused the remembered scenes with her lover with romance and lyricism. The beautiful, petite and bewitchingly graceful Aya Soliman, who studied ballet and modern dance, performed these scenes as choreographed dances, dressed in a flattering, sleeveless, bright red dress, with the help of a long, flowing scarf, representing the lover. Even the monologue describing her great expectations and dismal disappointment on her grueling wedding night was rendered as a dance, with the self-same scarf, this time, representing the husband. It was obvious that Qabil fitted the play to the actress, using it as a vehicle to showcase her talents. Rather than the ordinary, harassed, overworked, slightly coarse housewife of Rame and Fo, we had the ‘damsel in distress’ of romance. And in accordance with this image, the violent end of the play had to be softened. No boiling water here, no deafening gunshots or loud crashes. After getting rid of the lover at the door and quietly pointing the gun at the peeping Tom, Aya sits calmly at the table where she had been washing and ironing, fetches from under the table a make-up bag and a pair of glittering, red, high heeled shoes, arrays herself as a femme fatale dressed to kill and walks to the door of the flat and leans seductively against it, holding the gun in her hand. The message is clear and in line with the director’s reading of the play: if all what men see in her is a body, then she will turn that body into a lethal weapon. Those unfamiliar with the original play found nothing to regret in this production and much to enjoy and admire. And it is a credit to Aya Soliman that though she did not look the part and could only get some halting laughs out of the funniest lines that Qabil kept in his version, she communicated the character’s anger, frustration, regret and guilt with great credibility and managed to capture the intense paranoia, the tragic disintegration of identity and the inner turmoil lying beneath the surface.
Unlike A Woman Alone, which has a conventional structure with a clear narrative that holds the monologue together, propelling it to an inevitable, emotionally logical climax, and where the detailed stage directions firmly contextualize the heroine in a familiar, easily recognizable social reality in terms of place and time, Rasha Faltas’s Paranoia, like the work of some expressionist dramatists, dispenses with plot, setting and characterization. She replaces them with fragmented monologues, auditory hallucinations, pathetic pleas and violent accusations directed at invisible people, vivid but disconnected memories of painful moments in the past, a longing for and fear of death, foul self abuse and loud cries of pain. She places her heroine in a kind of existential hell, a kind of torture chamber, haunted by ghosts and voices and overseen by an invisible lover/torturer/rapist. Unlike A Woman Alone too, and though its only character is a woman who has been sexually abused and sees the society she lives in as thoroughly corrupt, false and hateful, Paranoia is not a feminist play, nor was it intended, in my belief, to protest against the oppression of women in patriarchal societies and show the effect of such oppression on their psyche, as some critics have argued, and as the writer herself was led to say in a television interview. With its nightmarish atmosphere, passionate intensity, existential anguish and despair, pared-down, raw, stark language, savage self-abuse and harping on the themes of sadistic love, incest, sexual desire, guilt, pain, physical and psychological torture and death, Paranoia is a progeny of the kind of drama written in Britain in the 1990s and later grouped under the rubric ‘in-yer-face theatre’ on account of its new, shocking aesthetic and sensibility.
In his book In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (Faber and Faber, 2001), Aleks Sierz defines ‘In-Yer-Face Theatre’ as a theatre that ‘shocks audiences by the extremism of its language and images; unsettles them by its emotional frankness and disturbs them by its acute questioning of moral norms. … Most in-yer-face plays are not interested in showing events in a detached way and allowing audiences to speculate about them; instead, they are experiential – they want audiences to feel the extreme emotions that are being shown on stage. In-yer-face theatre is experiential theatre … [It] describes the kind of drama, usually put on in studio spaces, that aims to give audiences the experience of actually having lived through the actions depicted on stage…. Instead of allowing spectators to just sit back and contemplate the play, experiential theatre grabs its audiences and forces them to confront the reality of the feelings shown to them’.

According to Sierz, ‘you can you tell if a play is in-yer-face if: the language is filthy, there’s nudity, people have sex in front of you, violence breaks out, one character humiliates another, taboos are broken, unmentionable subjects are broached, conventional dramatic structures are subverted. Expect tales of abuse; don’t worry about the subversion of theatre form; expect personal politics, not ideology.’ There is no nudity, of course, in Mohsen Hilmi’s production of Paranoia. However, actress Reem Hegab sheds off one garment after another, performing the two final movements of the play in what passes for underwear, coming closest to what qualifies as nudity on the Egyptian stage. Filthy language is there in an unprecedented way and to a shocking degree, though its impact is softened by the use of classical Arabic. Violence is there in the self-flagellation scene and plenty of abuse and humiliation. The taboo on the subject of incest is broken for the first time on the Egyptian stage, and though we do not actually see people having sex before our eyes, Reem Hegab stunningly mimes being ‘forcibly taken’, as she puts it, by her abusive lover. And like ‘in-yer-face’ plays, Faltas’s Paranoia is in part a ‘critique of modern life … which focuses on the problem of violence, the questioning of masculinity, the myth of post-feminism and the futility of consumerism.’
 As experiential theatre, Paranoia discards conventional dramatic structures in favour of a musical organisation of the monologue into four movements varying in tone and tempo. The movements are marked by a change of costume and introduced by brief musical interludes (by Amr Selim), accompanied by the lighting up of two revolving, monstrous shapes flanking the stage at the back, which are mercifully blacked out when the acting resumes.  Mohsen Hilmi, I guess, meant these ugly structures as visual aids to the imagination of the audience to suggest some of the horrible images that haunt the murky depths of the heroine’s mind. Unfortunately they only looked ridiculous and seemed a rude intrusion on the superb performance of Reem Hegab. Indeed, the first time I saw the play I raised a big fuss at the end of the show because the mechanism that makes these figures turn round and round produced a loud humming and buzzing that distracted the actress and the audience. Hilmi worked hard and long with Reem on the play and the result of their work was a masterfully choreographed, breathtaking performance, sensitively lighted by Abu Bakr El-Sherif. What did he need these mechanical things for?

Describing the impact of in-yer-face theatre, Sierz says: ‘At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces you to react – either you want to get on stage and stop what’s happening or you decide it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen and you long to come back the next night’ (for all quotes, And in the hands of director Mohsen Hilmi and the stunning, versatile Reem Hegab, Rasha Faltas’s Paranoia came across as experiential theatre at its best. In the five times I watched the performance, I often caught myself fearing for Hegab’s sanity, indeed for her life as she writhed and gasped on stage, her muscles all contorted, and wanted to stop the play, and every time Reem fell on her face at the end of the third movement, screaming in agony at her torturers: ‘Erhamouni’ (Have mercy), I could barely stop myself rushing to the stage to take her in my arms. I hated the play for what it did to Reem and to me, but it fascinated me in a morbid kind of way and I kept going back. Hegab did not portray, or embody the extreme, raw emotions expressed in the text, she actually ‘became’ them, as if by magic, and in her presence, the audience were mesmerized, were drawn into the circle of her magic. In the final scene, when all the passion and fury are spent and she decides that she her only escape lies in death, or God (both are the same), she quietly and resignedly whispers that she is ‘walking in the valley of the shadow of death’, then slowly walks up the narrow, softly lighted gangway at the back, waving a final goodbye as the scene blacks out.
One year before her death, British playwright Sarah Kane, who helped shape experiential drama in the 1990s, said that she keeps coming back to the stage ‘in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind’(The Guardian, 13 August 1998). Reem Hegab’s performance in Paranoia gave me a store of such images.

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