Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Revisiting a Mahfouz play

Nehad Selaiha welcomes a rare revival of one of Naguib Mahfouz’s 1960s’ short plays

Revisiting a Mahfouz play
Revisiting a Mahfouz play
Al-Ahram Weekly

While the state-theatre organisation has blithely ignored the centenary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth, the independent theatre has honoured the occasion with a revival of one of the five one-act plays he included in his 1969 collection of short stories called Taht Al-Mazala (Under the Shade of the Bus Stop). Three of these plays – namely: Yumeet wa Yuhyi (The Resurrection), Al-Tarika (The Legacy), Al-Nagaa (The Rescue) –  were staged

in the same year by director Ahmed Abdel-Halim with magnificent casts featuring theatre superstars Sanaa Gamil, Galal Al-Sharqawi and Aida Abdel-Aziz. The other two plays, Mashru Lilmunaqasha (Project for Discussion) and Al-Mouhema (The Task), were never produced. Indeed, of the rest of Mahfouz’s dramatic output, which includes three more one-act plays [Al-Mutarada (The Chase), published in the 1973 Al-Garima (The Crime) short story collection, and Al-Gabal (The Mountain) and Al-Shaytan Yaaiz (The Devil Turns Preacher), included in the 1979 short story collection bearing the title of the latter play], only The Chase was aired and only in a one-night performance stage by independent artists in the basement of the Goethe Institute in Cairo in the late 1980s.

This dismal history makes the revival of Al-Nagaa (rendered as ‘The Rescue’ in a published translation of the play in 1989 but on this occasion translated as ‘Deliverance’ in the production’s English publicity sheet)  all the more welcome, particularly as it ranks among the best of Mahfouz’s plays.  The play is set in the elegant living room of a modern flat where its sole occupant, a bachelor, sits warm and snug, reading by a fireplace. The familiar realistic setting, however, is quite misleading; familiarity and ordinariness are here only to be exploded. The quiet, cozy atmosphere is soon shattered by the insistent ringing of the outside door bell and the sudden intrusion of a strange woman who rushes into the flat, apparently fleeing some unknown danger, and asks for protection. Both the Man and the Woman are nameless figures, devoid of personal traits and identity. We never know what the woman has done to send the state security after her in such force. Nor are we told what the Man has done to make him dread a house search, or what kind of compromising evidence he fears will be discovered.

What follows is a grotesque mixture of violence, dark comedy and black despair, with love-making thrown in for good measure. A sense of mystery and suspense envelops the situation and persists throughout and ambiguity remains the structuring principle. The more we see of the characters, the less we discover about them and the more vexingly mysterious they become. Shorn of all ‘characterisation’ in the familiar realistic sense, and with no past or future, the Man and Woman in the play come to represent ‘poor bare, unaccommodated’ humanity,  to borrow Lear’s words, caught in a senseless, hostile world, always feeling menaced and hunted, and whiling away the time as they wait for death with booze and vacuous antics. The woman echoes this existential predicament when she says: ‘Details are not important. It’s enough to know that we are hunted and that on every side, overhead and underneath, we are surrounded by implacable enemies’ (One Act Plays by Naguib Mahfouz, trans. by Nehad Selaiha, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1989, p. 91). I once described the world of Mahfouz’s plays as a world that ‘cannot be explained realistically and rationally by either good or bad reasons; it raises questions which are never answered, expectations which are never fulfilled, leaving us in the end with characters who are only identifiable by their anguish, despair and utter perplexity’ (my Introduction to One Act Plays by Naguib Mahfouz). This is the world we meet in Al-Nagaa.

The recent revival of Al-Nagaa by Osiris for Art Production and Training, which unfortunately gave only two performances on Saturday, January 2, 2016, was promoted as ‘a site-specific performance’, a term that, as Andy Field points out, was used in the early 1980s by certain theatre groups ‘to describe their own particular performance practices and their relationship to the local environment’.

Originally, he goes on to say, ‘it referred to a particular mode of working that Wrights & Sights [a group of four artist-researchers – Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, Phil Smith and Cathy Turner –based in Exeter, the UK, formalized in 1997 and committed to producing experimental, site-specific work focused on peoples’ relationships to places, cities, landscape and walking] have described as “performance specifically generated from or for one site”, with the inference being that layers of the site would be carefully peeled back through a performance that was not an imposition upon the location but sprung forth from it.’

According to this definition, Deliverance does not qualify as a site specific performance in the true sense of the term. Rather than authentically experiment with a certain site, explore its history and uses and generate a performance out of it, the Osiris creative team started with a dramatic text set in a flat, then appropriated a flat in an apartment building (the Osiris Headquarters) in a literal movie-location manner, simply because that’s where their chosen play, Mahfouz’s Al-Nagaa, is nominally set. Needless to say, this mode of working completely inverts ‘the original instinct of site-specific theatre’, to use Field’s words. By borrowing the atmosphere and aesthetic of the site in a superficial and inorganic manner, Deliverance belongs among those performances Field describes as ‘straight theatre merely reproducing itself, dressing itself in radical trappings and passing itself off as its other’.

Such performances not only falsify the term, but also ‘provide fodder for those who have suggested that site-specific theatre is merely a gimmicky staging of “real” theatre for’ the cheap thrill of sensory titillation. Indeed, of sensory titillation there was plenty in Deliverance, including following the man into his bathroom and the couple into the bedroom, and peeping through the joints of a door to catch a glimpse of a love-making scene supposedly taking place behind it.

In fact, the performance publicity played up the novelty value of the show by emphasising that it ‘features a promenade theatre experience presented for the first time in Egypt’ and giving the following tips to prospective audiences to maximize their enjoyment of ‘this unique experience:
Explore all spaces, set pieces, props and rooms within the space whenever you wish;
- Feel free to follow the actors or make your own route within the world of the play and explore as much as you can. In all cases you will catch the plot;
- Don’t follow your companions. Instead, follow your own instinct. Move individually;
- Try to see every scene from different angles. It really does matter.

Unfortunately, none of these tips were any use, except for the first one, and this only because we had some time to move around the flat before the actors appeared. Once the play started, the actors, quite naturally, became the focus of attention and the main attraction, which makes the second tip quite absurd. How can one not follow the actors? And what ‘world of the play’ is left to explore after we thoroughly explored the flat at the beginning? This is not to mention that the reassuring ‘In all cases you will catch the plot’ is an insult to Mahfouz’s play and reveals a misconception of plays as ‘plots’ and of performance as divorced from the performer. The third tip was equally ridiculous since the instinct of every member of the audience was, naturally and correctly, to follow the actors, which makes the advice to move ‘individually’ quite a joke. As for trying to ‘see every scene from different angles’, as the fourth tip advises, one was lucky to catch a glimpses of any scene, let alone seeing it from different angles. There simply wasn’t enough room for the performance to breathe. The venue was so crowded that you had to jostle and painfully crane and twist your head to see anything. And when the atmosphere should have communicated feelings of fear, anxiety and suspense, when we should have been feeling the relentless menace of violence and death, a kiddy was skipping around with a bag of crisps in her hands while some grownups were tittering audibly, taking pictures with their mobiles, or pitifully looking round for a place to sit. The makers of Deliverance should have heeded Maxie Szalwinska’s warning that ‘Productions give off different vibrations depending on how many people are there watching, and theatre magic can vanish if companies don’t get decisions like how to move the audience around right’.

I am all for taking plays out of traditional venues into alternative spaces, a practice established in Egypt since the 1960s, when director Hanaa Abdel-Fattah staged a peasant play in a real granary, and even earlier. Indeed, the idea of having purpose-built theatre buildings where the audience sits in tiers is a Western one, exported to us in the 19th Century, and is relatively recent even in the West. Therefore, by all means let us have performances in alternative venues and promenade theatre experiences provided their makers suit the play to the venue and do not always gratuitously label such productions site specific.  Al-Nagaa is an intense play that centres on the interaction of two characters and requires the undivided concentration of the audience on their evolving relationship. It is also a play which, as Mustafa Riad has noted in ‘The “Absurd” in Naguib Mahfouz’s Plays’,  ‘evokes the atmosphere of certain absurd plays where characters are tied down both literally and metaphorically while cut off from a threatening outside world’. A play with such a claustrophobic atmosphere, where a police cordon progressively tightens round the characters is not, to my mind, the best choice for promenade theatre.

Indeed, the desire for novelty, even at the expense of the play, seems to have been uppermost in the mind of the makers of Deliverance as would appear not only in their choice of venue, but also in their adapted version of the play. The adaptation replaces the Man’s male friend, who drops in unexpectedly, with a suspicious girlfriend who smells a woman and becomes jealous, thus underlining the sex motif in the performance, and also alters the end. In the original text, when armed policemen rush into the flat after the Woman commits suicide unnoticed by the Man, it transpires they are looking for someone else and withdraw into the room overlooking the street where fire shots are immediately heard. As the firing intensifies, the Man is advised to leave at once to avoid danger and he exits carrying the Woman, whom he thinks asleep, and whispering to her amid the din of firearms, that they are both safe and will be together forever. In the Osiris performance, the policemen were not in uniform, merely in black, and they immediately rushed into a distant room, where the audience had not been before, closing the door behind them. When we opened the door, we discovered them playing a game of table-tennis. On seeing us, they disappeared into the balcony, with the audience at their tail, reappearing at another room then rushed out of the flat altogether. This absurd touch was so startling it produced some loud laughter and would have been delicious in another play. But here, it hardly suited the mood and was the worst preparation for the play’s finale which followed immediately afterwards. In this finale, which takes place in the bedroom, the Man takes the dead woman lying on the bed in his arms and whispers to her amid his tears, as the light slowly fades, that they are safe.

In a performance like Deliverance where one is denied a continuous view of the actors, seeing them only in glimpses, and always ‘in pieces’, as it were, glimpsing a head here, a leg there, but rarely the whole person, one can hardly comment on the acting except to praise the stamina of the actors (Adham Osman, as the Man, Ayat Magdi, as the Woman, and Mona Soliman, as the Friend) and their physical agility and power of concentration. Nor can one speak of the scenography (by Omar Al-Moutaz Bel’lah) except to say that he redressed the Osiris headquarters to look the nearest thing to a bachelor’s flat. I am sure that some of the audience enjoyed the show and got a thrill out of the novelty of the experience regardless of the play. However, if Deliverance is repeated in a longer run and is more widely seen, it might catch on, making this spurious kind of site specific promenade theatre a new fad among young theatre practitioners avid for novelty for its own sake, eager to pose as experimental, or anxious to find an easy way to attract publicity and audiences. This is dangerous, for all too often, as Szalwinska once remarked, ‘the novelty value of watching plays in unconventional spaces papers over the cracks in slipshod work.’

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