Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

An antidote to despair

Nehad Selaiha marvels at how art can transform the bleakest of visions into exhilarating, empowering experiences

Al-Ahram Weekly

After his remarkable production last year of Jerome Lawrence’s and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, which he adapted and directed under the new title, Al-Muhakama (The Trial), and which scooped no less than six top awards at the 2014 National Theatre Festival, director Tarek Al-Dweiri treats us this year to yet another astounding theatre piece of overwhelming relevance and impact (see Issue 1187, “In defence of reason”). Unlike The Trial, however, or other earlier works of his – like Brecht’s The Life of Galileo (renamed Time of the Plague) in 2001, Antonio Buero Vallejo’s The Double Story of Dr. Valmy, rechristened Hafalat Al-Tawaqquf ‘An Al-Ghinaa’  (Stop-singing Concerts) in 2006, Hassan Ahmed Hassan’s Al-Garaad (Locusts) in 2009, or Sa’dalla Wannus’s Bilad Adyaq Min Al-Hob (Countries Too Small for Love) the following year (see Issue 1028) – Al-Dweiri’s latest venture, Al-Zombie wa Al-Khataya Al-’Ashr (Zombie and the Ten Sins), is not an adaptation of a single play, but draws on several literary sources. If you are familiar with Al-Dweiri’s work, Zombie would seem to you like a throwback to his least remembered and least celebrated 2006 production Al-Mawqif Al-Thalith (The Third Position).

Written by Al-Dweiri in collaboration with Rasha Abdel-Moneim, the script of The Third Position was a collage of texts (including Albert Camus’s The Just, Euripides’s Trojan Women, and Max Frisch’s Fire-Raisers) that morally investigated the validity of war and armed struggle in general, giving both sides of the argument, and was staged as a multi-media-theatre-of-images piece, with live music, dance sequences, recorded voiceovers and oversize grotesque puppets. With a verbal text consisting of a string of monologues punctuated by recordings of loud, imperious voices thundering volleys of orders and spates of bombastic slogans, all extolling self sacrifice in the interests of ‘God, the Homeland, and the Family’, the show was propelled by the contrastive, paradoxical, and often ironical relations between the scenes and successive images that constantly engaged them in intense, visual/conceptual dramatic dialogue.

Zombie follows a similar strategy in building its text, drawing on different sources for inspiration. Unlike The Third Position, however, where all the sources were dramatic texts, Zombie relies for material on fiction, poetry and the popular tradition of zombies in western art and culture, particularly movies and pop music.

From fiction, Al-Dweiri and his co-writer, Nashwa Muharram, a professor of philosophy at Ain Shams University, picked out two foreign novels of the dystopian genre, both enormously popular among Egyptian  intellectuals and activists, whether in print of film versions: Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which he wrote during the McCarthy witch-hunt of dissenting intellectuals and presents a futuristic American society where books are outlawed and burned; and George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, to warn against the rise of dictatorship and fascism, especially in an age of advanced technology. Both novels portray the evils of totalitarianism: the brutal suppression of the freedom of thought and expression; the hunting down and persecution of dissenters and renegade intellectuals; the systematic psychological manipulation of citizens by propaganda and their ‘re-education’ to think only what they are told to think; physical control by mental and physical torture and constant monitoring by telescreens; control of information and history and the falsification of reality and erasure of personal memories.

Using elements of both novels – words, themes, images and characters, Al-Dweiri and Muharram interwove them with other material to create a nightmarish vision of a soulless, ruthlessly repressive society, ruled over by an authoritarian alliance of religion, politics and capital; a world where people are systematically exploited and brainwashed by a powerful, partisan, media industry, becoming cogs in a monstrous production machine, in a materialistic, consumerist culture, where difference is the greatest anathema and strict uniformity the prime and sole virtue. In this monstrous world, where invisible forces blare their orders, instructions and threats in metallic voices from unknown regions and occasionally materialiSe in the shape of grotesque, gigantic puppets, love is forbidden, history is falsified and personal memories are erased in favour of manufactured narratives that serve to preserve the status quo, and rebels languish in prisons and mental asylums, or take refuge in nature and secret hideouts.

To represent what happens to people in such societies, Al-Dweiri and Muharram draw not only on the above-mentioned novels where people are rendered mindless, will-less and mute, but also on the concept of the zombie as featured in protest songs, such as Fela Kuti’s 1976 album Zombie and The Cranberries’ 1994 single “Zombie”, and in American movies, particularly those that, like George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, use the concept as a vehicle to criticise real social ills and warn against the dangers of conformity, repression and exploitation. The world of Zombie is populated not by living individuals, but by animated dead bodies who only have a semblance of life and are.

But, as in Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, there are rebels too, who, if caught, end up in torture cells and madhouses. In the former novel, there is Guy Montag who, though chased by hounds, helicopters and a television crew, is determined to break free from the oppression of ignorance, runs off toward the river and drifts downstream into the country in search of “the Book People” – those renegade intellectuals who, led by Granger, defy the book ban. There is also the adolescent Clarisse, who is identified with nature as a force of innocence and truth, and who persuades Montag to taste the rain for the first time, thus changing him irrevocably. In the latter novel, there are only Winston Smith and Julia, and both, unlike ‘the Book People’ in Fahrenheit 451, end up thoroughly defeated.

In Al-Dweiri’s Zombie, the rebels mostly speak in the voice of Lebanese poet Wadih Saadeh whose poetry communicates, in the words of Anne Fairbairn, who translated a collection of his poems under the title A Secret Sky, ‘a unique vision drawn from the simplicity and the spiritual harmony he enjoyed in his village and surrounding fields during his childhood.’ This vision is best expressed in his own words, in the preface to the volume where he says: ‘I was born in a peaceful village called Shabtin, in northern Lebanon. It was a place were the people, fields, trees, rocks, birds and animals were one family. Nature was part of our being. The soil and the people were one.’ In his poetry, however, ‘this vision’ as Fairbairn points out, is poignantly juxtaposed with his painful memories of Lebanon’s brutal wars and the suffering of his fellow Lebanese’.

Al-Dweiri and Muharram found in Wadih Saadeh’s vision, as expressed in his poetry, an ideal vehicle for communicating the meaning of rebellion as experienced by the rebels in both novels and in their play. In both novels, rebellion involves a love relationship and takes the form of a flight from the centre to the fringe. In 1984, Winston Smith and Julia fly into the poorest neighborhoods in London, where the proletarians, or proles, live squalid lives but are relatively free of Party monitoring and therefore can still love and sing; and in Fahrenheit 451, the ‘Book People’ take refuge in the countryside, where Guy Montag follows them down the river, meets a child of nature in the figure of Clarisse and tastes rain water for the first time, becoming a different person. In both cases, rebellion eschews violence and bloodshed, crosses over from the political into the existential realm, and its ultimate goal is to make the individual truly alive and recover for the people their dignity, freedom and full humanity. It is the same goal that inspired the rebels who led the 25 January revolution in Tahrir Square, and of whom many are now in prison.

In Zombie, the theme of rebellion is mainly represented by two figures who combine features of the rebels in both novels without exactly reproducing any: a Woman in black, dragging a wheelchair and wandering through the crowds, like a benevolent spirit, reciting lines  from  Saadeh’s poetry that speak of a deserted road, a river and a quest for absent friends; and a Youngman who defiantly opposes the system, strives to escape the world of zombies to join the ‘Book People’ and is constantly chased by the mighty machinery of the state security. As these two individuals periodically flit through the murky, terrifying world represented on stage, alone or threading their way through the crowd, a journey/quest motif emerges and acts as a thread that links the kaleidoscopic medley of scenes. Indeed, the play begins with a recorded voice-over giving directions as to how to reach the secret hideouts of the fugitive ‘Book People’. This voice-over, however, is soon drowned by other cold, metallic ones, shouting instructions, blaring propaganda and slogans and conducting tests on the crowd on stage.

The crowd’s subservience, however, is not complete; the rebellious spirit of the Woman in Black and the Youngman is fitfully echoed in the troubled musings, doubts and longings of other figures who fitfully split from the line of zombies, singly or in couples, to stand before a microphone downstage and air their thoughts, or engage in short dialogues that recall scenes and passages in the source novels. Occasionally too, the crowd of citizens who are being ‘re-educated’, ‘integrated’ and relentlessly drilled into complete, mindless submission rebel, break free to indulge in tender love-making, join in wild, defiant protests, vividly reminiscent of those in Tahrir Square in 2011, or ecstatically dance in the rain. Thus the show progresses through the alternation of monologues with short dialogues, natural voices with recorded ones, live images with video projections and camera shots, and scenes of abject submission with ones of protest and rebellion. The result is a rich and intricate multi-media dance and movement piece that at once partakes of the theatre of images and Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, works like a poem, awakens painful memories, wrings the heart and overwhelms the mind and senses.

To realise this haunting theatrical piece, Al-Dweiri picked an artistic crew from among the best creative talents in the field. Mohamed Abul-Seoud’s austere, multi-purpose, geometrical set consisted of a number of fixed and mobile screens, all high and transparent, metal sheets, a square block topped by a high metal pole, a ladder on one side, reaching into the flies, and a small platform at the back. Black and grey in colour, it looked befittingly grim and harsh, providing a perfect setting for Al-Dweiri’s nightmarish vision of Egypt today. Ibrahim Abdou and Nirmeen Habib’s inspired choreography and movement design created a series of captivating, alternately excruciating and exhilarating sequences that drew on various sources, including blood sports, children’s games, gymnastics, erotic cabaret numbers and zombie movies. Ingeniously lighted by Bakr Al-Sherif, they were accompanied by Camillo’s atmospheric and intensely evocative sound score and punctuated by Amr Wishahi’s and Ahmed Mohsen’s filmed footage, video projections and sundry visual effects which flashed on screens strategically placed round the stage.  

The 25-strong cast, led by Nashwa Muharram as the Woman in Black, did a wonderful job considering that many of them, including Muharram herself, were making their first stage appearance. Somberly and roughly dressed (by Nashwa Maatouk), as befits an oppressed, exploited people, they acted and danced with passion and evident commitment, and their performances were effectively supported and greatly aided by a live band placed in the background, consisting of percussionist Rozza, saxophonist Handouka, Al-Mekdad Al-Mansi on the piano and Mahmoud Gabr on the cello. This lively quartet of players accompanied the performers live, orchestrating their movement and regulating the general tempo of the performance.

Some of the actors too had the added burden of masquerading as gigantic, grotesque puppets, wearing huge, sculpted heads (designed by Ayman Hamdoun) and thickly padded costumes to represent religious authority, political tyranny and rabid, overblown capitalism in the shapes of a priest, a business tycoon and Big Brother. These figures sometimes appeared on the platform at the back, glided in on an executive-manager’s chair, or rolled in on skates. Al-Dweiri also used his actors to create two compelling, symbolic images that formed a recurrent motif: one showed a half naked man trying to climb up the ladder on the side of the stage to reach the top and repeatedly slipping down but never giving up, and the other showed a man at the back of the stage, naked to the waist, struggling Sisyphus-like to raise a huge, round boulder upwards and always finding it coming down. The two images were intermittently flashed at us as symbols of resistance and reminders of the indomitable strength of the human spirit.

Though the dramatic interplay of words, music and visuals in Zombie seems to hurls us into the depths of an infernal world, and though the penultimate harrowing scene shows us the citizens completely defeated and lining up to walk into Room 101 (Orwell’s chamber of horrors in 1984), there is still a glimmer of hope. In the final scene, and contrary to Big Brother’s teaching in 1984 that 2+2=5, a little girl, who has refused to enter Room 101, skips and dances round the stage, waving coloured ribbons and recalling to mind Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451. At the end of the brief dance, she steps up to the microphone downstage and defiantly shouts into it: 2+2=4. The 25 January revolution may have failed to fulfill its promise; the revolutionaries may be dead, in prison, exiled, or dispirited and tired out; but resistance will continue and find new champions in the future.

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