A Very Moderate Day was among the many plays showcased within the Egypt’s National Theatre Festival which ran between 19 July and 2 August on 13 stages around the city.
The play was conceptualised and directed by Sameh Bassiouni, written by Bassiouni with Sameh Osman and staged at the Opera Malak Theatre.
Not so long ago on these pages, I reviewed Osman and Bassiouni’s Oliver Twist-based piece, staged at Opera Malak in the spring of 2018 — when I called on the Artistic House of Theatre to pay more attention to that venue in terms of marketing, outreach and development of the premises including the seating area.
Opera Malak still suffers from very limited space that creates a clear imbalance between stage and audience. This imbalance not only influences the dynamics of perception and the sharing of the theatrical experience, it also restricts the potential spectatorship and limits the spectators to a maximum of 60s.
On this occasion, the organisers had to stage A Very Moderate Day twice back to back, at 8pm and again 9.30pm and still many spectators were furious about failing to get in. I was among the lucky ones who attended the first performance, and so I have survived to tell the tale of a production that fails to meet the expectations even of its own title.
The play is a day in the life of Moderate, a young man who suffers from the most common problems among young Egyptians. He comes from a very modest family, his father does not support him and he is continuously complaining of lack of resources. His colleagues at work are corrupt, and the girl he loves has a much richer suitor whom her greedy father prefers.
Against this very familiar, all too ordinary background, the twist comes when we see how every scene-situation is reversed. Probably following Bassiouni’s concept, Osman presents the audience with a series of encounters that Moderate has — with his father, his colleagues, a group of stoned young men who harass his girlfriend in the street, security officers following his fight with the young men, his girlfriend’s family in the company of the rich suitor — all stock situations that the spectators can predict to the letter. The trick is that each encounter is repeated with a positive attitude that alters the dynamics of the characters’ interaction and produces a different ending.
This reversal of attitude using the same situation and characters is an actors’ improvisation exercise that helps to develop technique. It varies according to the director’s method. In Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, for example, a technique based on reproducing the same situation in a different environment is used to train the actors to sharpen their interpretations and attitudes, reshaping their delivery and characterisation in response to changing factors.
In this sense, A Very Moderate Day can be seen as a series of situation reversals where the actors do an amazing job transforming their attitudes while singing and dancing (the singing is actually recorded). Yet the normal goal of a production is not to exhibit the actors’ potential, but to advance discourse related to an issue, via a narrative that constructs itself in a structured way, and designs itself through dramatic dynamics, preferably multi-layered and rich in significance.
Unfortunately the production does not provide any of this, although it gives a certain joy sometimes due to the cleverness of the actors.
It is worth noting that, except for Kamal Atteya who plays the lead, Moderate, all the actors in this production were trained at the Youth Theatre workshop for new talents and made their stage debut in A Very Moderate Day. This is quite an accomplishment in terms of training and theatre education, but in terms of a professional theatre production there must be more to convey in terms of playwriting, dramaturgy and direction. There must be more in order to serve the spectatorship, and to do justice to an outstanding amount of young talent at risk.
Nevertheless, one should not ignore the role of Kamal Atteya, one of the most talented in his generation, who is totally equipped to play lead roles in tragedy and comedy, and who has not yet had the opportunity he deserves. Nor should one ignore Karim Arafa, the composer who made the music for the production, creating a young sound that could lift the performance in situations that were too predictable to enjoy, at which moments the music stimulated attention and broke the monotony.
This is why it would have better served the production to have live musicians and live singing by the actors. Not only would this have emphasised and sustained the performance, it would also have brought more pleasure and connectivity to the experience, making it a real musical.
And yet, aside from wishful thinking, the production fails to create meaning out of the series of situation reversals, and it doesn’t have a meaningful ending. The lead is forced to end the play by telling his girlfriend how he was dreaming that people he knew had started treating him in a positive way, then the actors take their bows in order.
No explanation is given as to why those people should reverse their treatment of Moderate even in a dream. The audience is left perplexed, not knowing what the play’s creators imagined its impact to be.
I imagine A Very Moderate Day might work as an educational experience for an audience in the 12-18 age bracket, but even so it would still need work to develop some meaningful discourse on our shared reality — why and how does a negative attitude turn into a positive one, with corrupt colleagues suddenly becoming honest and hardworking, and the aggressive security officer becoming just and tolerant (note that the troupe avoids calling the character a police officer lest they should be accused of attacking the Egyptian police).
Even as a young adult play, as it is A Very Moderate Day can be seen as encouraging daydreaming and apathy.
There have been productions by the two Samehs that I admire. This time, in all honesty I invite them to rethink their choices and to take some time to review previous experiences before deciding on the next station stop. I believe it is of the utmost necessity to the artist to stop and think, and review, and move forward.
One bright trick cannot become the foundation of a whole production. Tricks do not replace intellectual discourse, nor do they make up for lack of vision. Only talented and clever artists like the two Samehs can rise from a failed experience to create a new turning point in their career and the kind of theatre they present.
Talented and clever artists ought not to be blinded by carnivalesque applause. They should embrace constructive criticism, self-criticism above all, so that this Very Moderate Day can turn from a “below moderate experience” to a critical discourse on our daily realities of consumption and hierarchy. The small man is equipped to achieve his liberation without magic tricks.
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
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