Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A menagerie of gentlemen

Nora Amin discusses theatre as a disruption of understanding

A menagerie of gentlemen

Staging The Glass Menagerie by the American playwright Tennessee Williams is nothing new on the Egyptian theatre scene. Egyptian theatre directors have often visited American plays, feeling they are indirectly relevant to Egyptian reality. Among the plays frequently produced in Egypt are The Zoo Story by Edward Albee and The Crucible by Arthur Miller; Tennessee Williams does not appear to be as popular, but some of his plays are definitely next on the shelf.

Transforming Williams’ Glass Menagerie into The Gentleman Caller is the latest project of AlMadina for Performing and Digital Arts. Originally based in Alexandria, AlMadina presented its new production at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the AUC Falaki theatre in April. AlMadina is the oldest operating independent theatre group after The Alternative Theatre founded towards the end of the 1980s by Mahmoud Aboudoma. With The Gentleman Caller AlMadina claims to be presenting what could be described as an innovative approach to Williams. In such an approach lies the attraction and the risk of making a re-introduction of Tennessee Williams into the Egyptian scene. Supported by the US Consulate in Alexandria, in partnership with the French Institute in Alexandria, The Gentleman Caller is directed by the founder and artistic director of AlMadina, Ahmed Saleh. The play is produced by Mohab Saber, with scenography by Saleh in collaboration with the prominent scenographer and writer Maher Sherif.

A menagerie of gentlemen

Saleh’s Glass Menagerie is a multi-lingual performance, with a separate language for each of the play’s characters. The mother (Yolanda Hurtado) speaks French, the daughter (Marialusa Burgos) speaks Spanish, the son (Ahmed Mostafa) speaks Arabic and the gentleman caller (Paul Spera) speaks English. With this combination Saleh does not present an Egyptian production, but rather an intercultural and international one. This in itself could be seen as a leap forward for any local independent theatre group. It reflects a unique ability to manage different languages within the same script, not to mention the diverse cultures of the actors and the different acting crafts they belong to.  For Saleh, as introduced in the press release, the aim of such diversity in language is to approach the concept of globalisation where individuals who can live together with their different languages are obliged to lose their authenticity and linguistic identity when visited by the English-speaking American groom. At this moment everybody shifts to one language, that of globalisation. While Williams initially wrote his play about the Great Depression of the 1930’s – a mother’s concern to get her daughter married for economic reasons while the father deserts the family, and the son is living in a fantasy world in flight from a job that he hates – Saleh tries very hard to create an equivalence between the context of the writing of the original play and current times. He attempts to shift the economic crisis of American society into a universal crisis that drives diverse cultures and communities to enslavement for the sake of economic survival. In his interpretation, the family is enslaving itself here to the American groom, but isn’t the family also American? And isn’t this enslavement purely financial and not related to a hierarchy of nations or countries? How does globalisation step in? And how does the family remain one until the groom appears while the director is driving the interpretation towards a divided world from the beginning?

It was perplexing to see this American family, which remains clearly American despite its many languages, speak French, Spanish and Arabic. I searched for a dramatic reason for this and found none. The script does not offer any dramatic or historical explanation of why the members of this small family might be speaking different languages. I must admit that this point remained a distraction throughout the performance, an open and unanswered question whenever an actor opened their mouth to speak. I was left with the feeling that a higher discourse was guiding the creation of the production as a multilingual one but there was no embedded or internal discourse within the play’s narrative or logic to justify that higher directorial discourse. It was almost as if one were watching the play while tracking, along a parallel line, the director’s notes.

I believe that I was also in the privileged position of a spectator who understood three of the four languages presented in the performance; only Spanish escaped me. I needed almost no need for translation or subtitles. Yet most of the audience could not have been trilingual. I wondered if Saleh had thought of installing a side screen for translation but never managed to technically implement it, or if he really wanted to deprive the audience of full access to the text. Any choice here is drastic.

I imagine that taking out the translation is a choice that decides for the spectator not to understand, and that this strategy of not understanding and projecting non-understanding as a mechanism of the performance places the spectator in an inferior position.

On the one hand there is a kind of violence in deciding that one should not fully understand, a violence that recycles the superiority of the stage as a power position towards the community of spectators, and on the other there is the planned positioning of the spectator as marginalised within the theatrical process. In this context, the very critical concept of diversity emerges. And, as it is among Saleh’s goals to support diversity, it is strange for him to deprive the spectator of the possibility of subtitles that allow the diversity to be understood and articulated.

Understanding between the diverse languages is the foundation of communication and acceptance, therefore one would not appreciate the diversity and authenticity of the diverse identity without having access to communication. Without the bridge of translation as a tool for communication, the spectators would not appreciate the diversity that Saleh is promoting, they might even feel offended by it because it is a diversity that closes in on itself, remaining self-contained rather reaching out to a community of others.

Then comes the moment when the gentleman caller appears towards the third and last part of the performance. The whole family starts to speak in English. It seems then, strangely enough for Saleh’s concept, that the English language is closer to the Egyptian audience compared to French and Spanish. I am certain that this was not the message Saleh intended, because the English language plays the role of the enemy in the initial directorial concept. Yet it comes as a kind of relief although it shifts the whole stage into an excellent duet where we only witness a long scene between the groom and the daughter.

This division is a division between the diverse complex family and the homogenous couple scene, it is a disruption of the performance transforming it into two separate performances. In both the Egyptian audience is being alienated by language, although the alienation is less during the duet because English is easier compared to Spanish and French, yet the disappearance of the character of the Arabic-speaking brother makes it less entertaining and less communicative.

The wonderful actor Ahmed Mostafa, who played the role of the brother, carried the great responsibility of entertainment. Sometimes his lines contained a summary of the foreign lines of the sister and the mother – not such a successful strategy especially when he seems like a translator beyond the dramatic nature of his character, and a clear load on his role in terms of time and logic – but his best moments were when he took the stage with monologues that describe his inner life and struggle between the world of dream and the world of reality. Mostafa moves with incredible ease between irony and drama, he navigates like an expert between jokes and heavy moments of pain. At moments the audience was so fascinated with his stage presence his performance felt like a monodrama within the bigger performance.

The great achievement of The Gentleman Caller is the scenography by the director and Maher Sherif. The visual accomplishment of this production demonstrates a quality of excellence rarely present in independent theatre. Almadina makes it clear that such accomplishments are due to creativity and long earned expertise rather than finances. It is this creativity in the aesthetics of stage design and scenography that remains with us after the play ends, ma be because the visual language transcends the verbal languages and leaves its mark beyond culture and language, and maybe because it conveys the inner worlds of the play and of its new interpretation to a much greater extent. Be that as it may, the re-introduction of Williams in Egypt in this production marks a definite visual signature, which carries the authentic identity of the artists beyond language games and political hierarchy.

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