Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Sex in cyberspace

Nehad Selaiha is intrigued by Sameh Mahran’s new play, Inbox, at Al-Ghad Theatre

Sex in cyberspace
Sex in cyberspace
Al-Ahram Weekly

Inbox by Sameh Mahran, directed by Galal Osman, Al-Ghad theatre, opened 24 April 2016. Still running.

In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), a philosophical treatise on reality, symbols, and society, French sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard introduced the postmodern semiotic concept of “hyperreality” to describe the effect of contemporary media, including television, film, print, and the Internet, on our lives and perception of the real. Rather than represent reality, contemporary media has replaced it with simulations, i.e., created sets of symbols or signifiers which represent things that do not actually exist. By simulation, Baudrillard does not mean some mode of representation in the traditional sense: ‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody’, he says. ‘It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself. … It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.’ The danger of this is that whereas ‘feigning or dissimulating leaves the reality principle intact’, with the difference between reality and its images, though masked, always clear; ‘simulation threatens the difference between “true” and “false”, between “real” and “imaginary”’. When this difference is blurred, the world we live in disappears and is replaced by a copy world where we seek ‘simulated stimuli’ and nothing more. 

Sameh Mahran’s latest play, Inbox (currently on at Al-Ghad theatre), seems to owe much in terms of inspiration and ultimate message to Baudrillard’s ideas and critique of the hegemony of information technology in the modern world. While the title refers us directly to the world of the Internet, the action consists of a series of simulations unfolding in a boxed in, artificial environment which, to quote from John Tiffin’s definition of ‘Hyperreality’, ‘allows the co-mingling of physical reality with virtual reality and human intelligence with artificial intelligence.’ The illusion of reality theatre usually strives to create – an illusion that Antonin Artaud has called “la réalité virtuelle” in his famous 1938 collection of essays, Le Théâtre et son double – is here systematically shattered in every aspect of the performance in the interest of creating a ‘hyperreality’. 

The setting is supposed to be the bedroom of an aged, wealthy Internet junkie; but nothing about the room we see on stage has any semblance to reality. On three sides, the room has mirrors for walls and imaginary windows that the characters make as if to look through only to see reflections of themselves and their surroundings; there is nothing, no reality outside the box. The fourth wall is of red brick and almost completely taken up with a huge clock-cum-radio in brownish red, with a little door at the bottom. Moreover, all over the mirror-walls and dangling high up from the flies are cardboard cutouts of human figures in different positions – standing, bent, recumbent, or falling; they are all blank, without any features or details. The floor and furnishings are all in red, in various shades, and all look odd: the bed, which occupies centre stage, hangs down from above, suspended midway between the floor and ceiling like a swing, and has what looks like a basketball net draping down from it to the floor; another swing, downstage right, which provides the only available seat, completes the set. Rather than a real bedroom, the set here (by Ramah Farouk) suggests a room in Madame Irma’s bordello, or ‘house of illusions’, in Jean Genet’s The Balcony

Into this bizarre environment, the aged owner of the room walks in, elegantly and expensively dressed, accompanied by his newly wed, poorly clad, youthful bride, carrying a shabby bundle. The sexual insinuations in the initial dialogue between the couple suggest the opening scene in a bedroom farce. The impression strengthens as hints at the aged hero’s impotence are subtly dropped. There is one jarring note, however: the constant intrusion on the couple’s foreplay of a talking robot or cyborg that emerges at intervals from the little door in the radio-clock to mechanically recite bits of world news, make ironical comments on the couple, or to speak out loud their real secret thoughts. In other words, the opening of the play suggests a conflation of the world of the familiar bedroom farce, where sex is the main subject and dramatic primum mobile, and the world of hyperreality described by Baudrillard. 

This conflation is achieved in the following scenes and provides the framework and substance of the action and even informs the discovery that triggers it – namely, that the groom is physically impotent and can only enjoy virtual sex on the Internet. When the groom reveals this, the bride, anxious to have the marriage consummated in order to be able to credibly palm off her illegitimate unborn child on her lawfully wedded husband, tries to humour him and yield to his wishes in the hope of stimulating him. The action that follows consists of a succession of grotesque, licentious sexual fantasies created by the couple on the Internet as virtual or computer-simulated reality. In these fantasies the bride and groom change their looks, age, dress and identity, thus allowing the actors who undertake them plenty of room to display their comic talents and virtuosity.

But there is more to the play. The sexual impotence of the groom and consequent failed attempts of the bride to arouse him does not only spark off and propel the action; it also works as a dominant, sustained metaphor for the author’s bleak vision of post-revolutionary Egyptian reality. This political dimension is introduced visually through the paper figures that encircle the set and hang above it and are revealed in the course of the play to be the effigies of martyrs who died in the 25 January revolution. It is also built into the play by the fact, admitted by the groom, that he made his wealth working as a paid activist, advocate and agitator in the employ of the Muslim Brothers during their ferocious campaign to cease power after the revolution. More forcefully still, it is present in the figure of the dead lover of the bride who fathered her unborn son; though he died in the revolution, fighting for a new and different reality, he fitfully appears to her as a vision in the dark, in a pool of light. The symbolic inference here is obvious and inescapable: it is that Egypt, while still carrying the seeds of the new reality dreamt of in the January revolution, has thrown herself into the arms of its worst opponents who can never father a future and has consequently a floating sign, with no referent in reality; a simulation in a world of hyperreality.  

It is grimly ironical that the only live reference to any reality outside the artificial world of the play should come in the form of a ghost from the past. His intermittent visitations to the bride culminate in a mock resurrection ritual in which the bride, using scattered bits of polystyrene foam shaped like dismembered parts of a human body, presumably that of her dead lover, tries, like the goddess Isis in ancient Egyptian mythology, to put them together to bring him back to life. Predictably, according to the logic of the play and the author’s vision which informs it, this fallen, degraded, modern-day Isis dismally fails. As soon as the body is put together in the shape of an upright statue, it collapses in a cloud of smoke. At this, the paper figures dangling from the flies start coming down to surround her on all sides and she realises that she is forever doomed to a world of shadows and simulations. Though the dead lover still speaks of hope in a voiceover that fills the stage, she screams out that all hope is lost. In her hyperreal world, ‘illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible’, to use Baudrillard’s words.

As an intellectual, black comedy which processes a bleak political vision in the form of a bedroom farce enacted in cyberspace, with impotence as a ruling metaphor and dramatic propeller, Inbox is a difficult play to stage. In directing it, Galal Osman accepted a big challenge and successfully met it. But for a few clumsy spots here and there, particularly his management of the mock-ritual scene, which should have been presented as a Black-Light-Theatre sequence, as stipulated by the author in his stage-directions, the production does him credit. His choice of cast and crew was admirable. As the aged, impotent groom and the young, low-class bride, Abdel Rehim Hassan and Iman Imam gave captivating, exquisitely delineated and superbly orchestrated performances. As the robot and the ghost of the dead lover, Wafa Al-Sayed and Nael Ali made their few appearances quite vivid. Osman was also particularly lucky in his choice of Ramah Farouk as visual artist. Her set and costumes were imaginatively zany and in harmony with the spirit and drift of the play. Hers was a real creative contribution to the play. Finally, if what theatre presents is ‘virtual reality’, as Antonin Artaud says, then one can describe Inbox as ‘virtual reality’ representing a ‘hyperreality’. Therein lies its fascination and intriguing allure.

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