Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A trickle of two-handers

Nehad Selaiha wonders at the paucity of two-person plays on the Egyptian stage and detects signs of a rising interest in this dramatic form

A trickle of two-handers
A trickle of two-handers
Al-Ahram Weekly

Two-person plays, or two-handers, as they are nicknamed in the profession, are rare in Egyptian drama and rarely performed. Perhaps the most famous specimens of the form are Ali Salem’s quartet of plays, Al-Kateb fi Shar Al-Asal (The Writer on his Honeymoon), Al-Mutafa’el (The Optimist), Al Kateb wa Al Shahaat (The Writer and the Beggar)  and Al-Mulahiz wal Muhandis (The Overseer and the Engineer) – published in Rewayat Al-Hilal, No. 407, November, 1982, and Mohamed Enani’s Plays for Two Actors, which includes Al-Sageen wal Saggan (The Jailor and the Jailed), Al-Sadiqan (Two Male Friends), Al-Sadiqatan (Two Female Friends), and Al-Buhayra (The Lake) – published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) in 1978. With the exception of Enani’s The Jailor, which is very popular with amateur and provincial troupes and frequently produced, none of these plays has been staged since Nour Al-Sherif directed three of Salem’s in a triple bill in 1982.

In recent years, however, old two-handers as well as new ones began to find their way to the stage, with productions of Alfred Farag’s Al-Ghareeb (The Stranger) in 2009, Said Soliman’s Al-Shal (The Shawl) in 2012 (see ‘Swimming against the tide’ in the Weekly, Issue No.1129, 3 January, 2013),  Akram Mustafa’s Qareeb Giddan (Far Too Near), about the life and conflicts of a pair of male Siamese twins conjoined at the head, at the Youth theatre in June, 2014, Farid Kamil’s Estegwab (Interrogation) at the AUC in 2015 and Naguib Mahfouz’s Al-Nagaa (The Rescue) – reviewed on these pages last week. Moreover, since it was established in 2012, the Theatre Prospects Festival for budding independent and amateur troupes has dedicated a separate section in its annual contest for duologues, or duodramas, in its successive editions, featuring as many as twelve in its second edition (2013-14) and a near number in its third (2014-15).

Most of the two-person plays by fledgling writers featured in Prospects and elsewhere, expose the dramaturgical challenges of the form. Even when they take place in a single setting and more or less in real time, some are very much like solo plays with a central figure soliloquising or holding forth to the audience and the other serving only as a sounding board or a verbal prod. Others consist of a pair of monologues spliced together, both relating past events. Such plays, though they meticulously stick to the two-character formula, do not genuinely qualify as two-handers. On the other hand, plays like  Farag’s Al-Ghareeb, Naguib Mahfouz’s Al-Nagaa, Farid Kamil’s Estegwab and Akram Mustafa’s Qareeb Giddan that may have a walk-on for a third character or group of extras near the end, as in the first two plays, or use the voice of an invisible one, as in the other two, to explain a certain mystery basic to the situation or to wind up the play, are fundamentally genuine two-handers in the sense that they focus exclusively on the way two people relate to each, show us how they interact dramatically and what dramatic developments and/or revelations grow out of their fraught encounter minute by minute just as they, themselves, are experiencing them.

Abu Al-Ela Al-Salamouni’s vintage two-hander Taht El-Tahdeed (Under Threat), written in the mid 1960s when he was still in his twenties, is one such genuine two-hander, even though it requires at one point three voices/speaking extras. I do not know if it was staged in the 1960s or 70s, but I do know that it has been quite popular with theatre-makers since the 1980s when I first saw it in a production starring the famous soprano Niveen Allouba in her debut as actress and directed by the late Abdel-Sattar Al-Khodari. A taut psychological drama in one act, it features a mentally unstable sculptor who, having been unjustly imprisoned for a murder he did not commit and holding his wife accountable for his accusation and arrest, though she did no more than innocently report the discovery of a dead body in her husband’s studio to the police, he hounds her with his suspicions and mercilessly drills a sense of guilt into her, driving her finally to suicide. The play opens on the first anniversary of the sculptor’s release from prison and he marks the occasion by replaying his trial from his own point of view. In this new trial, his wife, the prosecutor who accused him, the lawyer who failed to defend him and the judge who sentenced him, all of whom he suspects of having colluded with his wife to put him away and are represented by statues he made of them in the year succeeding his release, are found guilty and condemned, together with all the figures who persecuted and hounded him in the past – his father, his teachers, his step-mother and school fellows.

 The main conflict, however, is between the sculptor and his wife, who represents for him all his persecutors. It evolves as an intense, teeter-tottering power game, with each character trying to gain control, to impose their reading of reality on the other and have it ratified while baring their soul in the process, and involves feelings of betrayal, fear, anger, erotic attraction, a festering sense of persecution and attempts at conciliation and destruction. In this dance of death, the couple is trapped in a dangerously mucky psychic terrain and the wife, increasingly growing desperate in the face of her angrily loquacious, unhinged  husband, gingerly picks her way through it as if through an emotional mine field that finally explodes in her face. The intensity and frantic pace of this intimate, increasingly combustible situation is heightened by the single claustrophobic setting and the constricted fictional temporal space of the action, which nearly tallies with the real one-hour performance time.

Needless to say, a split-gender psychological two-hander of this caliber, so fraught and taut and cut to the bone, with wonderfully complex, challenging roles, is bound to have an irresistible allure to actors. Is it any wonder then that Under Threat is periodically staged, or that productions of it featured in the 4th and 6th editions of the Egyptian National Theatre Festival (in 2009 and 2013 consecutively), scooping on both occasions several awards, including the top acting ones? Is it any wonder that the year 2015 began with a new production of the play at Bibliotheca Alexandrina in February, directed by Ahmed Mekki and starring Mohamed Foad Abdeen and Bahira Amr, and ended with another at Al-Ghad theatre? Curiously, this last production, which is still running, was directed by Mohamed Metwalli, the same man who staged the 2009 prize-wining production. What could have prompted him to go back to this play except, perhaps, the hope to score another success with it at this year’s National Festival and garner more prizes.

Unfortunately, however, Metawlli’s second go at the play was not as satisfying as his first, even though it removed the extra voices, saddling the male actor, Rami Al-Tanbari, with their lines. Unhappily rechristened Ishq (Love), perhaps for purposes of commercial promotion, it replaced the original realistic set with a pronouncedly expressionistic one (by Mahmoud Al-Gharib), as if there was not enough expressed in the dialogue, and added two dancers on a raised platform at the back, dressed like the couple in front, who replayed in dance what was spoken in the dialogue. This was not only redundant and totally unnecessary, but also naïve and burdensome, cluttering the stage, diluting the tension, obstructing the flow of the action and slackening its pace. There was something insulting too in the director’s multiplying of signs that communicated the same meaning over and over again, reiterating visually, as in the case of the dancers and the rows of prison bars on both sides of the stage, what was already amply and fully expressed in the acting and in Amr Shaker’s eloquent music. It was as if he thought the audience a crowd of dunces without a whit of intelligence. This is really a pity since with two excellent actors like Rami Al-Tanbari and Lamia Karim, who acted with passion and conviction, bringing out every fleeting feeling and subtle shade of emotion, he needed no frills and no gimmicks.

Almost simultaneously with Ishq, another two-hander called Al-Fanar (The Lighthouse) opened at the small-box venue of the Youth theatre company, giving us another specimen of this form that may help to give it a firmer foothold on the Egyptian stage. But our trip to the Lighthouse will have to wait till next week.

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