Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A curious flip-flop

Nehad Selaiha watches a monodrama intriguingly masquerading as a two-hander

 A curious flip-flop
A curious flip-flop
Al-Ahram Weekly

Al-Fanaar (The Lighthouse) by Mohamed Mahrous, based on by J. L. Galloway’s The Dark, directed by Maher Mahmoud, Youth Theatre, December 2015.

In talking about two-person plays last week I said that sometimes they can be structurally like solo plays where instead of having two characters of equal dramatic weight faced off against each other in a shared conflict, we have either two separate monologues spliced together, as in Harold Pinter’s Landscape, or one monologue by a main character who soliloquises or holds forth to the audience while the other serves simply as a sounding board, verbal prod or stimulant to him or her. Al-Fanaar (The Lighthouse) adapted by Mohamed Mahrous from a virtually unknown play called The Dark, by J. L. Galloway, represents a curious case where a genuinely solo show masquerades as an authentic two-hander that focuses on the relationship and dramatic interaction of two people in an enclosed space.

Of the original play, which I have not read, I could find no trace on the net except a single, doubtful entry that lists it as ‘a play for broadcasting’ aired on ‘National Programme Daventry, 10 June 1939 at 19.30’, with seven characters and two ‘practically simultaneous’ actions, one taking place on ‘the bridge of a tramp steamer, outward bound in the teeth of a gale,’ and the other in ‘the living-room and lantern-room of a lighthouse’. The Arabic translation of the play, however, which was done so many years ago (I saw a production of it over ten years ago or more) and which, I might add, is only available in a faded, almost illegible photocopy that omits the translator’s and publisher’s names though it clearly carries the name of J. L. Galloway as the author, has only one setting, one action and only two characters. Curiously, however, these two characters have the same names as two of the seven characters listed in the above mentioned net entry. One wonders if the same author wrote two plays carrying the same title, one for broadcasting with seven characters and one with only two for the stage. It is also possible that whoever wrote that net entry had a faulty memory and mistook two different plays as one. Obviously, more research is needed to clarify this mystery. But for the purposes of this article, I am going to compare the staged adaptation with the Arabic translation of the text, a copy of which I have, trusting that it was a faithful one of the original.

The Arabic translation of The Dark (rendered Al-Zalam) qualifies as a genuine two-hander. It features two lighthouse attendants who cooped up together for weeks on end, with no other company (their boss having been taken ill, leaving one of them in command) begin to get on each other’s nerves. As Charles Isherwood once wrote in the New York Times (May 5, 2010): ‘Put a pair onstage, and you automatically have a relationship, and from the complicated ways in which two people relate to each other can grow myriad dramatic developments.’ The relationship that develops between the two characters in Al-Zalam is rendered more tense and explosive by the marked difference in their temperaments, which matches their different physiques. While big, sturdy Quayle, the one left in command, is phlegmatic, taciturn, practical and down-to-earth, the small, frail Morgan is imaginative, excitable and loquacious.

The action is triggered by Morgan’s urgent human need to connect with another, to achieve a degree of intimacy with his mate in order to escape his crushing sense of futility, alienation and hopeless entrapment. His attempts, however, are invariably thwarted by his companion’s lack of interest or response. The reason for this lies in their different perspectives on their common situation. Isolated and surrounded by darkness on all sides, Morgan, who has a poet’s imagination, views the situation metaphorically as expressive of his existential predicament and feeling the unbearable weight of time and the dark, he takes refuge in words to fight back his rising existential terror. Quayle, on the other hand, views their isolated situation mundanely, in a matter-of-fact way, as part of a job and finds in knitting, a manual occupation, a soothing activity that helps him pass the time.

Reticent by nature and stolidly self-sufficient, with next to no imagination, Quayle finds Morgan’s poetic musings and aphorisms on the meaning of their benighted existence and his attempts to engage him in his thoughts and feelings, which he constantly rebuffs, increasingly exasperating. Their dialogue takes the form of slabs of verbosity from one character juxtaposed with pauses and stunted sentences from the other. As the frustration of one character and the irritation of the other spiral, leading to periodic eruptions of violence, this seemingly simple conflict takes on a tragic direction and culminates in a desperate act of destruction, including suicide. The play ends with all the lanterns and search-lights of the lighthouse smashed, plunging the scene in total darkness and obliterating all existence at it were, and with Morgan dead, at the bottom of the sea, having finally embraced the surrounding velvety darkness, and Quayle saddled with a murder charge and the prospect of being hanged, or ‘dangling’ for it, to use Morgan’s expression.

This powerfully poetic existential play was performed, as I said earlier, many years ago by students of the Theatre Institute in a basement store-room at Al-Salam theatre, temporarily recreated into a chamber theatre for this one production and never used as such again. The play was picked up again by playwright Mohamed Mahrous, probably on the suggestion of one of its two original actors who also performs in the current production, and re-written as a psychological drama about a character with a split personality, both sides of which are represented by two actors. The audience is not let in on the secret, however till the very last scene. Though the writer and director Maher Mahmoud plant many clues along the way for the alert spectator, like surreptitiously replacing an enlarged photo of the two actors playing Quayle and Morgan hung on the wall with a solo one of Quayle midway in the performance, or having Quayle eat some bad nuts and showing Morgan suffering the consequences, or revealing that the two characters have the same intimate recollections of the past, it is not until the very end that the truth about Quayle’s schizophrenia is fully revealed by the intrusion of a psychiatrist either in the flesh, or as a voiceover, to explain the case and tell us that Quayle is being held under observation after suffering sudden mental collapse while on duty.

With Quayle as a mental case and Morgan as his alter ego, with both characters preserving the mental and physical traits of their prototypes in the original text, Mohamed Mahrous was able to process the revelations about his troubled central character through dialogue, conflict and argumentation rather than through monologue and narration. This allowed him to dramatise a deeply tortured mind and a shattered personality in a vivid, lively way. Mahrous’s Quayle emerges as a maimed man, burdened with a hidden, debilitating emotional pain since childhood, haunted by memories of his father’s rejection and his brutal abuse of both himself and his mother – himself for being a sissy, and his mother for being held responsible for making him one. A sensitive, affectionate, artistic child who loved music and making beautiful things with his hands and dreamed of becoming a singer, he had his artistic impulses ruthlessly suppressed as effeminate and was savagely coerced into despising his nature and natural gifts and assuming a macho character alien to his real nature. His paradoxical feelings about darkness, which he at once craves as protection and fears as a threat of annihilation, date back to his traumatic childhood when he was repeatedly shut up in the dark by his father while he, the father, maliciously savaged his weak, submissive mother, or when his father submerged his head in water, inducing a near death experience (a method of torture known as ‘water cure’!) to teach him to be a man.

While the original Arabic translation of Dark gives us two characters shorn of histories and social data to solely focus on their responses to the metaphor enshrined in the title of the play, Mahrous’s adaptation supplies a meticulously detailed history of Quayle’s past and a vividly accurate map of his mental state. In the process, Mahrous was careful to preserve the basic poetic metaphors in the original text – namely the darkness and cannibalism metaphors and the eloquently expressive image of the two rats trapped in a glass case and placed on a wheel that they try to escape by running, only succeeding in making it turn round and round while they do not budge an inch.

Staged in the tiny hall recently built by the Youth Theatre next to the small hall of the Floating theatre in Giza that has served as the main venue of the company since the closure of the Youssef Idris hall in Al-Salam theatre a few years back – a space that I have christened in my mind ‘the garden shed’, Mahrous’s adaptation of Galloway’s The Dark, found an ideal home. The small, cramped space and intimate atmosphere of this venue were ideal for a psychological drama set in the tiny living room of a lighthouse. Set-designer Yehia Sobeih dressed the tiny stage of this venue to realistically resemble such rooms in reality while communicating at the same time in the rugged aspect of the walls and props the emotional atmosphere of the play. Dominating the scene and punctuating its emotional transitions was a window in the central back wall revealing a vista of tumultuous dark clouds and waves, indistinguishable from each other and shot through with flashes of light every now and then. Nael Abdel-Moneim’s lighting played off the beams of the lighthouse lanterns that flashed outside and above head against the small, flickering light of the lamps inside to mark the dramatic emotional gradations in the relationship between the two characters, making the set come alive both visually and metaphorically.

Of course the credit for choosing this excellent artistic team (including composer Ahmed Shaatout who supplied a wonderfully atmospheric musical track) and orchestrating their contributions to support and enhance the performances of the two gifted actors – Mohamed Darwish and Ahmed Osman – who undertook the parts of Quayle and Morgan goes to director Maher Mahmoud. To further showcase the talents of his two actors, Mahmoud cast one of the crucial scenes near the end in the form of a rap song in which the two actors vocalised the dialogue as a rapid, slangy, rhyming patter, glibly intoned against an insistent, recurring beat pattern providing background and counterpoint and rising to a frenzied pitch. Vocally, visually and emotionally, the Youth theatre’s Lighthouse was a captivating memorable experience and, furthermore, a very intriguing one.

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