Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The first hour

Nora Amin on the state of Egyptian theatre now

The first hour

In its 11th edition, the National Festival of Egyptian Theatre (19 July-2 August) brings the microscope to a selection of 2017-2018 Egyptian productions. The audience can enjoy a panoramic view of all existing production sectors, from university and state to commercial and independent theatre, and from Cairo Opera House to Higher Institute of Theatre productions. The festival is also an ideal chance for the theatre critic to combine the panoramic view with the microscopic, fusing synthesis and analysis and, in the process, summing up Egypt’s performative trends-realities within this one year. 

For me, the National Festival has been an eye-opener indeed: I came to realise the position of the audience in relation to various productions as I followed the movement of spectators from one venue to the other, attending to their dynamics live at each performance. Before proceeding to review representative performances with a view to providing a summary of the topics, aesthetics and experiences of Egyptian theatre in 2017-2018, gradually building up a picture of the stage and the spectatorship over a few weeks, I want to thank Professor Hassan Atteyya, the president of the festival, for maintaining excellent standards of organisation and artistic direction despite the general state of decline in the cultural scene and in cultural policy. Another reason for gratitude is that Atteyya has been available round the clock to serve the festival and offer support and information, breaking the traditional distance usually kept by people in power even in the cultural sector. 


The Al-Ghad Theatre production The Last Hour, written by Issa Gamal Eldine and directed by Nasser Abdelmoneim, ironically filled my first hour as a festival spectator. The last hour to which the title refers is the final 60 minutes in the life of Thomas Wilson*, the American pilot who dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945, during which he reviews his entire life before he dies. The process is prompted by Wilson’s birthday, bringing birth and death within an hour of each other. The play itself is 90 minutes long, to evoke the slowness and heaviness of Wilson’s subjective time. 

We sit at the Al-Ghad venue’s unusual space, where the seats are unevenly arranged, restricting the scope of spectatorship, to witness a long flash back through which Thomas is trying to understand who he is and how-why the beast in him came to win. The performance immediately strikes us with its brilliant text, written by a playwright whose name sounds unfamiliar to most of us, and who proves to be a true triumph for the Egyptian stage. Very fast we also recognise that we are in the presence of a master director, who places transparent curtains in front of every scene-space at first, so that for a little while we can be veiled in something transparent and soft. We do not know if this is to protect us from the cruelty of directly facing the truth or to symbolise the harshness hidden within the deceptively accommodating fabric of experience. 

The master takes us on a journey through history, not so much in terms of the events’ timeframe and political context as the historic consequences for us of “witnessing” the truth. We sit in the tiny hall of Al-Ghad, and we are first struck by the image of Adolph Hitler. The first image projected on the video screen is that of the world’s most famous assassin. Adolph Hitler shakes my heart while I am sitting in the tiny hall in the neighbourhood of Agouza attending a performance by Nasser Abdelmoneim in our Egyptian theatre festival. What is Hitler doing here? Why does his distant black and white image still have this power over me? 

It is actually a testimony to Abdelmoneim’s that he displays this image. In itself this is a directorial achievement. On the one hand he immediately puts us in the political context of war crimes, and on the other he shocks us, announcing that this will be a daring theatrical presentation. The old documentary footage will keep appearing every now and then during the performance, bringing on an additional impact of honesty and cruelty every time, and reminding us that this is not just a play, it is truth, it is the facts of history in a global reality to which we have all to some degree contributed. That is why the footage is alarming every time it appears, as if we are seeing it for the first time. It reminds us of our eternal tendency to forget or live in denial. The footage works to remind us of that tendency. The community of spectators witnesses a difficult moment in which universal pains are revived, coupled by the futility of witnessing (because it does not have the power to change either past or the present). 

The first hour

As Egyptian spectators we confront a history of dictatorship, a universal one, and history of objectifying and de-humanising people for the sake of politics. Thomas dropped the nuclear bomb destroying all human and natural life in Hiroshima within six minutes. His competitor Charley did the same in Nagasaki. The supremacy of their nation’s order dictated that they should serve. Theirs was a Patriotic Act, and performing it they were pronounced heroes. Nobody stopped to question that supreme order, nobody thought of distinguishing duty to the homeland from from the political leaders’ commands. Somehow those political leaders managed to convince everybody that they were the sole guardians of patriotism, the only teachers of heroism in existence. In fact, they were the nation’s disgrace, and the USA still puts down the national flag every year on the anniversary of Hiroshima. 

The Last Hour bravely puts Egyptian theatre on the map of political criticism. This is no facile approach nor simplistic vision. The performance manages to hold onto political criticism while psychologically analysing the personality of the hero-criminal and contextualising the whole story within its factual history. It touches directly on the very sensitive issue of the criminal believing he was a National Hero, a trap into which all countries can fall, committing collective massacres against an enemy without realising that, more than war, they are committing a crime against humanity that will never be forgotten, and that makes their political and historic situation much worse than having been defeated. Sometimes it is an honour to be defeated, instead of becoming an enemy of humanity and of life. 

In the performance, Wilson does not know exactly what the effect of the bomb he is assigned to drop will be, yet he is brave enough to admit that even if he knew he would still do it because of the beast that dwells in him. He has the courage to confess to the presence of this beast released by patriotism in all righteousness. Had he defeated the beast he would’ve been called a traitor. This too he realises. It is the politics of convenience and power. The most powerful dictates the rules. And so Wilson lives the rest of his life alone and in disgrace. Everybody punishes him and he punishes himself on daily basis. 

Thus Gamal Eldine reminds us that today is not far from yesterday, and that the Holocaust committed by Hitler and Hiroshima are similar, and are not far from today’s politics. It is this history that brought about today’s world order. Today’s world order is born of all those crimes against humanity. Japan survived, but our collective universal conscience needs to survive too. We need to ask ourselves where our responsibility as humans towards other humans across the world begins, and how not to lose our humanity, how not to deny collective responsibility for all the misery in the world.

The Last Hour leads us to all those questions and realisations in an amazingly aesthetic way. We watch a play written like a fiction, yet totally based on fact. The facts are formulated in a very emotional, theatrical and aesthetic way. This play is not happening in an imaginary world, nor are its events invented. Even the “imagined” psychological and emotional dimensions are true beyond the real. The death of the hero towards the end of the last hour before celebrating his birthday confirms the tragic nature of the performance, but again: what could be more tragic than the life of the man who dropped the first atomic bomb in human history? The tragedy effects catharsis by cleansing this fictional character and relaxing our conscience if only momentarily. Nonetheless it gives a certain mythical dimension to the character and his story, which enables us to interpret it beyond the actual events as a representation of all current war events in the world. 

A special tribute should go to Sherif Sobhy, who played the role of Wilson. He is a genuinely versatile actor who waited several year for this chance. I’ve personally watched Sherif since the early 1990s, appreciating the rare kind of actor he was working hard to become. Sherif did achieve this level of talent, skill and experience, but he had never got the role that could invest his abilities. The Last Hour was that role. He was given the opportunity by a master director who saw in Sherif the universal artistic excellence to match the political issue being addressed in the performance. There could not have been a better Thomas Wilson, it’s as simple as that. 

For her part Samia Atef, who played the two roles of the child Thomas’s mother and the blind Japanese woman who meets Thomas right after he drops the bomb, was Sherif’s female counterpart. Atef is an actress of a very special calibre. The one scene she plays as the Japanese young woman, which looks like a mini monodrama within the play, is a strong proof of what it means to be a stage actress and break all the conventions of “the market”, triumphing in a rare moment of truth within the acting itself. By achieving this extended moment, Atef honours a unique line of stage actresses that is fast going extinct. 

Abdelmoneim deserves the deepest salute of all. In his hands state theatre is finally speaking to the politics of dominance and supremacy at the global level, reviving our spectatorship as a reservoir of fictional eyewitnesses, and as potential for change. 


* The real name of the air pilot responsible for dropping off the atomic bomb over Hiroshima is Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. (23 February 1915-1 November 2007).

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