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Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Big Brother is watching you: Adaptation of Orwell's 1984 performed in Cairo theatre

In El-Romady (Gray), theatre director Abir Ali proposes a new take on George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). Performed by the El-Messaharati troupe

May Sélim, Thursday 26 May 2016
1984
Grey, play directed by Abi Ali, based on Orwell's novel 1984 (Photo: Al Ahram Hebdo)
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"Please do not go out of the way. Trust us, we always tell you the right path to follow,” we hear a voice say from the speakers at the entry to the Hanager Theatre where the play El-Romady (Gray) is taking place. 

Curious, we follow the instructions in order to discover this dark world where everything is systematised. The screens capture the audience in the hall, zooming in and out the images.

The actors appear in uniform. They hold scarves of different colours. Hearing the mechanical phrases, they move towards the stage, putting the scarves away. They stand behind the screen, looking at us astonished, muttering incomprehensible words. Are they imprisoned? Or did they choose voluntarily this excessively structured world?

We enter the world of theatre director Abir Ali, who gives her take on George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, adapted by Amal El-Marghani and staged by the independent troupe El-Messaharati. The performance opened on 14 May and runs until 27 May.

The famed novel presents the world of Winston Smith, member of the Outer Party in Oceania, one of Orwell’s fictional super-states, believed to reference the Americas, the British Isles, Iceland, Australia and New Zealand.

Freedom of expression does not exist. All thoughts are monitored, and large banners on the streets remind everyone that "Big Brother is watching you."

Not convinced with the principles of the party, Smith dreams of a change, of a rebellion. Together with Julia they become close to O’Brian, a mysterious and conflicting character; a member of the party and yet, as Smith suspects, also an anti-party Brotherhood member.

Later on, Smith and Julia are arrested and the couple is sentenced by the Ministry of Love, a body that maintains law and order, for the crime of thinking. The beliefs of both are shaken through torture and they betray one another.

Director Abir Ali, a winner of the Ezzedine Gannoun Memorial Theatre Award, reveals that adapting Orwell’s novel for stage was not her idea.

“I read the novel and I hardly thought it would fit for the theatre. Also, the main theme is very different to topics that usually attract my attention. However, Amal El-Marghani, who did the adaptation and who is also my friend, encouraged me to look into it again."

On the visual level, Ali paid attention to many details which aim at transposing us to the meticulously monitored universe. She used the screens and cameras that duplicate scenes from life: video projections show war scenes, landscapes, etc. All serves to emphasise the idea of a mechanical life. There is neither a place for thinking nor for questioning the regime in power.

Ali deprives the actors of colours, dresses them in gray uniforms and short black wigs. These details trigger the audience laughter, especially when the actors talk about gender equality. Women defend the wearing of uniforms in order not to turn into sex objects.

Black humour betrays painful and paradoxical messages long propagated by the Islamists and male society. To ease the tension and resume everyday images, Ali opts for a simple, everyday dialect.

The songs written and performed by Mohamad Ali, who plays the protagonist (Smith), summarised some ideas and scenes from the novel.

Having completed their sentence, Winston Smith and Julia meet by chance. They reveal their weakness and admit their treachery. But Smith is now a broken spirit, he gives up on Julia and accepts to love the Big Brother.

The actors put their hands on a screen and look at us, speechless, with frozen expressions. Yet, despite this rather sad end, Ali still wanted to close on a hopeful note.

The rhythmic music plays, as the actors take off their gray uniforms, sing, dance and celebrate life.

"Despite the hard times, there will be certainly a time to sing freedom,” their lyrics end the show.

Catch the last two days of the performance on 26 and 27 May at Hanager Arts Theatre, Cairo Opera House grounds, until the end of May

This article was first published in Al-Ahram Hebdo

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