Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1390, (19 - 25 April 2018)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1390, (19 - 25 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The art of whispering

Nora Amin reviews Akram Mustafa’s take on Dario Fo

Pretty Woman
Pretty Woman

While screaming has become a trend in Arab monodrama productions, Pretty Woman is a “whispering” performance that flies in the face of that trend. Inspired by a play by Dario Fo and Franca Rame and written by the director Akram Mustafa, performed by Marwa Eid, and produced by the Taliaa Theatre under the rubric of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, the production was recently presented at the monodrama section of the Sharm El-Sheikh International Theatre Festival for Youth (SITFY). 

Compared to Coffee Dregs, reviewed here last week, Pretty Woman does not make any political statement, nor does it adopt slogans against oppressive society. The performance does not present itself as a scream against injustice or a discourse that embodies the female struggle against discrimination and injustice. Yet Pretty Woman does all the necessary and relevant criticism without announcing it, without putting it in the foreground and above all without “screaming” it. 

In a simple but convincing set, the wife Sabah talks to her new neighbour across the window. She tells the story of her life, and confesses her deepest secrets. While standing at the imaginary window she seems to be standing on the edge of her life. The window becomes a thin space for being “in between” the world of reality inside her humble apartment, and the world of freedom that remains outside and out of reach. Sabah is locked in by her husband. Her only way to seek freedom is to tell her story to the new woman across the street. And since the street is extremely narrow like many streets in Cairo, she need not make her voice too loud; the neighbour can already hear what is going on inside the other house even if the other family is whispering. Sabah manages to re-visit her life struggle on the pretext of getting to know her new neighbour. The imaginary presence of this neighbour — equivalent to the spectator — provides her with a platform where she can deliver her testimony about her miserable life. The window becomes a replacement for the proscenium, the equivalent of a witness stand. 

Gradually it appears that Sabah does not care about providing her neighbour with information. Her profound need is to look back at her life choices, to talk, to create a sort of public presence through the sharing of her secrets with another woman. While sharing secrets and struggles between women in the Egyptian and Arab community is common practice, and while women do provide some acceptance and empowerment in each other’s the struggles, the sharing here is really about using this female Arab tradition to get to the spectators. The spectators here wear the shoes of the community of women who offer solidarity just by listening. And although the story of Sabah is a fictional one, it speaks to almost every woman in Egyptian society. A story about being objectified, about living with a husband who does not see you as human, about becoming the slave of family and domestic duties, about losing one’s own passion for life, about being disconnected from your own femininity, about being alone and caged within the ownership of the husband, about being fragile, about trying to defend your right to exist every single day of your life, about struggling to remain alive.

Pretty Woman tells it all without screaming it out. It tells it from within, and without falling into the trap of classical acting or pleasing the audience. Mustafa did a great job with the actress by avoiding the common mistake of victimising the character. Sabah comes across more like a heroine, a survivor of domestic violence and of a whole culture of de-humanising the female. Sabah is intelligent, funny, agile, hopeful and responsible. She seems like so many of our mothers and sisters, like so many of us. Instead of being concerned with demonstrating her abilities as a performer or showing off her talent, the actress Eid simply became the character. She was Sabah. 

It was beautiful to witness the transformation of the miserable Sabah into a passionate woman who discovers her body, beauty, femininity and sexuality when she meets her lover. Those sections were so uplifting they made the contrast between her real life and the exceptional moments of escape painful. Sabah, who is among a female Egyptian population that suffers sexual harassment both in the public sphere and at home, fell in love and betrayed her husband. The story of betrayal is portrayed in all authenticity and identification with the human need for love, and the performance does not criticise it or in any way take on a hypocritical attitude in order to appease a corrupt society. In this sense, Pretty Woman is a brave production. Nevertheless, the exceptional and momentary love story ends badly because the husband discovers it and resorts to locking his wife in the house after her attempt at suicide. 

Sadly enough, the lover who keeps chasing her ends by imposing himself on her at home. His hand appears across the half closed door as the hand of just another perpetrator. He transforms from the image of the heavenly lover to the image of the enemy trying to use her by force for his own pleasure. Sabah loses track of her connection with her neighbour the moment love appears at the door, and to put an end to her misery, she commits her final rite in front of the window. Although the end seems abrupt and without the required dramatic buildup, it was somehow expected as a traditional finale for the tragic character. I had truly wished that Mustafa would be able to break the tradition of dead ends and of suicide, it does not need to be an empowering end — the whole performance is empowering as it is — but it need not be closed either. If Mustafa and Eid succeeded in presenting a true performative experience with all sincerity and without screaming or pretending any sort of political activism, then they should have found an ending in the same vein.

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