Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1406, (16 - 29 August 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1406, (16 - 29 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Beyond campus

Nora Amin celebrates the presence of the university stage within the national theatre movement


University theatre has been a wellspring of vitality and renewal for the theatre scene in Egypt. Many of the most talented actors emerged out of campus auditoria, and one particularly strong wave of university theatre (1985-1993) gave birth to the independent theatre movement. But because of the way it is restricted by the extracurricular competition framework — with faculties and then universities competing against each other and so permitted to perform only so many times — university theatre has tended to remain at university performance venues.

Judging by the amount of work and creativity that goes into a university production, the fact that it can only be seen so many times is an enormous loss. If such productions could be staged for a fortnight at a time, the campuses would become agoras of knowledge and creativity, breeding artists and intellectuals. This is the least that can be done if we are to fight ignorance and fundamentalism, since there are few spaces of tolerance and community as effective as theatre. Fifteen instead of two shows would also be a less wasteful use of a budget for set and costume design, lighting and sound equipment and even, in some cases, a professional, non-student director.

Last year the jury National Festival of Egyptian Theatre withheld the best script award by way of warning, announcing that dramatic composition in Egypt was in a state of decline. The 11th National Festival, on the other hand, gave the prize to Mahmoud Gamal for Prison by Choice, which he also directed for Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering. Gamal had won the same award twice before, for 1980 and After and The Stranger. And I don’t believe the same award should go to the same person more than twice, but this is the festival’s not the play’s problem.

Although Gamal formed a successful duet with director Mohamed Gabr, he eventually opted for directing his own scripts. Prison by Choice is a powerful example of what university theatre can achieve in terms of artistic excellence, social discourse and theatrical professionalism. At the Miami Theatre (the state’s comedy theatre), the production played to a full house. Even the balcony, where I had to be for lack of seats anywhere else, was packed. But my experience with The Castle of Death at the Gomhouriya Theatre had prepared me for this inconvenience. And it was worth it.

This was an overwhelming triumph. It felt like the good old days of going to the theatre, and I wished the production could go on playing after the end of the festival, instead of the regular show I knew would be replacing it. Prison by Choice is a full course. It includes thought, aesthetics, acting and, above all, good writing. The story of a man who, after several years of travel, returns to Egypt to gather his university friends and colleagues and use money to persuade them to willingly enter a prison — his fancy villa, where they are to stay for as long as possible. The last to leave wins the greatest amount of money.

Over an hour and a half, Gamal presents a panorama of young Egyptians’ economic and social conditions: seven cases including couples showcase a depressing range of difficult circumstances. One young woman is forced into prostitution by the need to support herself. A promising young intellectual becomes a drug dealer. There is also a young man who dreams of becoming a famous actor but knows he won’t because of corruption within the industry, a photographer who holds onto his picture-taking passion despite seeming homeless, a man without any ethical sense at all — and two even more miserable couples.

The therapist married to his former patient, a drug addict, as we eventually discover, has placed her in a cage where no life is possible, an exciting relationship to an audience seldom confronted with man-woman relations where good and evil are nuanced. The balance Gamal achieves between the husband as healer and the husband as oppressor testifies to complexity in his craft. This gradually adds a layer of interpretation to the notion of prison, which emerges as the life that had been lived before entering the villa, making the prison warden a saviour. For once the young wife and mother traditionally convicted in Egyptian social drama is acquitted, her suicidal behaviour deemed justified.


The other couple have a less complex relationship but they reflect a convincing dynamic, with the wife insisting on staying to the end to win the money and the husband eager to return to their children. When he finally leaves she decides to stay by herself, telling him that she hates him and has stayed with him only for the children. This could well be the play’s most powerful moment: the wife’s monologue in which she kicks her husband out of her life and declares she will be the money’s winner.

The wife describes her husband as a hopeless failure, completely without ambition and incapable of development, which has left her no room for love. But she also describes the poverty she has had to endure, managing a household and children on the husband’s insufficient salary. It rings a true note, and connects theatrical experience to economic reality. The actress was expert, her delivery brave and you could tell she believed and adopted her character to the greatest extent possible. The script not only presented great drama but also challenged the societal hypocrisy on which the performance arts have constantly fed.

On the one hand, dismantling the female villain, the script gave her flesh and bones, pulling her loose of the supposed social hierarchy and analysing her behaviour without judgement. On the other, both script and direction transformed the tradition of fake acting usually employed by an actress in this role to distance her personality from the character’s “evil” nature and become that character’s judge rather than true embodiment. In Prison by Choice the female characters take it upon themselves to criticise the damaged social system and the broken family structure, they have the courage to hold the mirror to our faces to show us our society’s corruption — and we can only gratefully applaud.

In the end the former addict leaves, ordering her oppressor to remain as if reversing their roles in an act of revenge, only to kill herself prompting him to leave in turn. Horrified by her friends’ aggression towards one another, the young woman also leaves. So does the failed actor, the photographer and the drug dealer. In all these cases the feeling is that they are starting a new life, escaping the deathly temptation of money. It is the man without ethics who remains, alongside the ambitious wife.

He will die for the millions he has been promised, literally. He does not leave to see his dying father or attend his funeral. He does not leave to see his seriously ill son or attend his son’s funeral. But in time he too is dying and forced to negotiate with himself whether to risk almost certain death for the money or to leave and live. This crucial existential moment is very professionally presented. The young man is forced to choose life and he leaves for the hospital. Such a dramatic moment without melodrama or emotional blackmail is a rare gift indeed. In Prison by Choice the scene came across as real rather than in any way surreal.

At the end, only the ambitious wife remains, she wins the money, but by now she has become a wreck no amount of money can reclaim. Now the old friend who designed the game announces why he did so: while he was abroad, he agreed to serve a prison sentence instead of a very rich man for a huge sum of money. He describes how much he suffered in prison, and how he wished he could be released, but he had already confessed the crime and nothing could reverse his decision. He wanted to know if his friends would behave as he did: go to prison by choice in return for money. But he gave them what he never had: the choice to opt out at any moment. Those of them who chose to stay were even worse than he was, because they made the same choice over and over, every day.

Prison by Choice is unforgettable in every sense: the dramatic, highly aesthetic scenography by Abu Bakr Al-Sherif, the set design by engineering students, the music, the costumes and the acting, which surpasses some of the most mature professional acting on state stages by far. It is an eloquent expression of a very real prison, too: the prison of financial need in a collapsing economy, which destroys the social fabric of community. In this prison we can make things worse for ourselves by asking for more, but asking for less is no guarantee that we can make them better.

In a mature artistic style, university theatre expresses and criticises the reality of young Egyptians’ lives, finally bringing social criticism to the Egyptian stage and probably also artistic criticism to those institutions that insist on defining it as amateur theatre by forcing it to remain confined to university venues for a tiny number of performances. Let’s break a prison that does not reflect a choice of those young artists by letting them play for a month at one of the state theatre venues — if only as a reward to the prize winner.

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