Imagine if the sensation of agony could materialise and be performed on stage. The theatre double bill that played out on the Falaki Theatre stage in Downtown Cairo Thursday, 8 May, featuring performances from Morocco and Norway, did just that.
Both performances were experimental in execution, using unconventional formats and emphasising a close relation between the performers and the audience or spectators. At the same time both works were uncompromisingly strong in their message. In 'Capharnaum,' Moroccan actress Latefa Ahrare takes the dimly lit stage and launches into a one-woman show that beats the living daylights out of the taboos that permeate Arab society — from religion to sex to art. In 'Points of Pain,' Kate Pendry creates a theatrical survey of the tragic shooting that took place in Oslo in the summer of 2011, capturing its emotional afflictions on a society best-known for peace.
'Capharnaum' is a fully engaging affair, albeit unsettling at times and outright bizarre at others. But there is no doubt that in its eccentricity and noncompliance, it grips you and does not let go until a part of you is sore.
The audience is ushered right onto the stage, where a woman is laying flat on two white cubes; her head rests on one and her feet on another, the rest of her body as if suspended in mid-air. The crowd clumsily assumes their places on the chairs and cushions assembled in a U-shape around the centre, where Latefa Ahrare would later sing, scream and dance, squeeze oranges and smear their insides on the ground, and lick honey off her fingers.
In this piece, Latefa Ahrare utters words in four languages — two dialects of Arabic, French, Spanish and English — and alternates from mid-sleep mumbles to singing to reading text to screaming. She goes as far as altering Quranic verses and merging it with poetry, which draws chuckles from the crowd.
In perhaps the loudest and most intense part of the piece she repeats in Arabic and in French, "I did not come here by chance." The repetition of these words, and the vigour with which she utters them, creates an impassioned and climatic moment that forces you to look closely at their meaning. In one sentence she is stating at once that she exists, that she is here, and that she comes with a purpose. She says that she is not about to be discarded or overlooked as an accident.
At times, the piece appeared choreographed to make the audience uncomfortable. Being so close to the action, the audience at times felt at liberty to giggle, exhale loudly with frustration, but the option of walking out of the play was rendered difficult by its logistics.
The performance entails impressive physical dexterity on the part of Ahrare. It is as if her body could speak. At one point, she picks up a grey burqa, tosses it over her head, and uses it as a prop to express the barriers to freedom she perceives in Arab society.
This play is a classic case of how the artist uses art to prove that it is within her or his right — if not prerogative — to create it. Art as an act of defiance and as a statement of existence reappears elsewhere in the Red Zone Festival, in This Is Not a Film by Iranian filmmaker Jan Panahi, in which the director, banned from making films and confined to house arrest, creates a documentary that uses the mundanities of house arrest to tackle the artist's inability to not create art, even in the face of oppression.
Also part of the Red Zone programme was Spoken World, two consecutive evenings combining poetry, sounds and visuals by artists from Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Senegal and Congo. The poems and songs that played out on the Falaki stage to packed audiences on both nights — 3 and 4 May — carried a very potent sense of defiance, youthful resistance to oppression, and an almost palpable revolutionary sentiment.
The second performance of the night was Kate Pendry's 'Points of Pain,' described as a theatrical examination of the events of July 2011 in Norway, in which Anders Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people, before shooting and killing 69 more people, most of whom were teenagers, at a Workers' Youth League (AUF) camp on the island of Utøya.
There is almost no movement on stage, as the four actors read from their scripts as they surround Pendry, who wears a rather disturbing sculpture of Breivik's head as a glove until the last few minutes of the play. In her prelude, Kate Pendry explains that the reason for the absence of a sequential dramaturgy in this piece was that it handles a national tragedy that is ongoing, not an event with a beginning, middle and end.
The piece was a harrowing portrait of the shock and sorrow that unfolded over Oslo in the aftermath of the shootings, yet not devoid of painful longueur that led many to walk out throughout the performance.
The play is presented as a microcosm for life in Norway, somehow, and in a way Pendry wanted to prompt the same dynamic for the audience — seeing in them a miniature Egypt, in its agony and scars. There are five million people in Norway, and there were five actors on stage. Kate Pendry looks to the audience and asks "How many people are in your play? Do they move around much?" The play was tailored to Cairo's audience, yet in a way that felt somewhat forced, or not capitalised on enough. It is as if the performance sought to create an artistic conversation with the audience, but would not allow them to speak.
The double bill made for a strong, albeit slightly traumatic, experience that certainly seemed to capture the Red Zone Festival’s raw and potent energy.