INTERVIEW: 'Comedy can help in illnesses, suffering': British director Richard Talbot on comedy during war

Gihan El-Gharabawy, Tuesday 28 Nov 2023

Speaking from the Sharm El-Sheikh International Theatre Festival for Youth (SITFY), taking place 25-30 November, where he is being honoured, British director Richard Talbot talks about the art of comedy and its role in times of war or political and social conflict.

Richard Talbot with his wife, Carran Waterfield (Photo: SITFY)


Over the past decades, Talbot has developed a strong connection with Egypt and its theatre circles in particular. 

As a young man in the 1980s, he visited Egypt frequently, traveling all across the country. While establishing himself in the international theatre scene, he crafted friendships with Egyptian theatre makers.

In September 2022, he participated on the jury panel of the 29th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. His article on therapeutic clowning and puppetry was published during the conference and presented during one of its panels.

In September 2023, Talbot gave a three-day workshop on innovation in clowning and puppetry at the 13th Alexandria International Theatre Festival.

This year, SITFY is honouring Talbot for his contributions to previous editions, where he gave workshops. Moreover, Talbot’s wife, Carran Waterfield, who is a renowned theatremaker in her own right, sits on the jury of SITFY's main competition. 

Ahram Online (AO): You are deeply involved in the Egyptian theatre scene, including educating and developing young theatre practitioners in physical comedy and physical theatres. Specialized in immersive theatre, clowning, and the art of comedy in general, how would you describe the field of comedy in Egypt?

Richard Talbot (RT): The Egyptians I have met always joke and seem to enjoy irony too. From what I can see on Egyptian TV and Film, the Egyptian understanding of comedy is usually drawn from absurd situations and eccentric characters. This is a bit different to England for instance, where the satirical voice is the dominant form of comedy, a fact stemming from our love of subverting pomposity or power. 

AO: Which comic performances by Egyptian or Arab artists impress you the most? 

RT: Let's begin with Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria Again and Forever (1990), where in one scene a cartoon animation of spinning stars is layered onto Hussein Fahmy’s head just after he is crushed by the huge hand of a Greek statue. Here, classical art and animation come together through comedy... 

Of course, I love Naguib El-Rihani’s famously grumpy comedy character, Mr Pigeon, in The Flirtation of Girls (1949). 

More recently I have enjoyed work by several comedians from Ahmed Helmy in Molasses (2010), to a recent theatrical comedy Siib Nafsak directed by Gamal Yakout.

AO: Egyptians have been very vocal regarding Israel’s war on Gaza, with some voices using comedy to transfer the messages. How do you position the role of comedy to address such events? 

RT: At the beginning of the war in Gaza, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef used comic rhetoric to take command of an interview with the British media figure Piers Morgan on Piers Morgan Uncensored. No wonder the video scored millions of views in a matter of days. 

Bassem used dark comedy to shift the frame of the discussion and not allow Morgan to impose his strategies on the interviewee. Bassem used the hyperbole of comedy to shock the interviewer and make his point while leaving Morgan silenced. 

Of course, in this case, the interviewee's high-octane comedy was fuelled by his outrage at a situation in which humanity is desperately out of kilter. As we know, Piers Morgan was beaten and he asked for a re-match a week later. 

Bassem Youssef used the second encounter to explain the history of the conflict from the Palestinian perspective. But in a wonderful theatrical coup, he presented Morgan with some olive oil “harvested from my family’s farm in Palestine.” What actually happened is that Bassem was performing a clever parody of the European stereotype of an Arab salesman. Again, it is through the comedy that he presented how one’s political opinions are strongly informed by one’s cultural context. Very clever!

AO: How can comedy play a role in treating the effects of wars, crises, and difficult times?

RT: There is a branch of clowning literally dedicated to using comedy to treat trauma. Examples of its practitioners are countless.

Clowning can create a zone for play and pleasure in the midst of crises and in sites like the refugee camps in Gaza and Syria. 

Clowns without Borders (USA), The Institute of Very Very Serious Studies (Lebanon), and others have been working in this way to overcome a difficult context. 

Hospital clowning was developed by Patch Adams in America, a method made famous by Robin Williams in the film Patch Adams (1998).

Ranad Thalgi (Jordan) also experiments with the positive social effects of playful interactions.

AO: What is the role of laughter in times of crisis? 

RT: Sigmund Freud argued that just as dreams help us to process psychological obstacles, jokes, and laughter also function as a relief mechanism. 

Roger Caillois writes in Man, Play and Games (1959) that fooling and comedy are productively wasteful when considered in economic terms: in a high-pressure capitalist system, we need to take time and make the space to laugh freely. 

When we laugh, we forget ourselves and that can also be quite scary (listen to the noises you make when you laugh!) 

On the other hand, Slavoj Zizek is a famously funny philosopher who examines the way that jokes play with formal logic. 

And philosophers Erasmus and Kierkegaard took on comical voices to address philosophical concepts.

AO: Could art treat war depression and confront waves of hatred?

RT: This is a huge claim for art, but it has certainly been proven to help with all kinds of mental illnesses and suffering. For instance, the Dada comedian-performers scrambled meaning and language in their performances to respond to industrialized warfare during the First World War. 

In Britain, comedians who had been soldiers in the Second World War created eccentric post-traumatic comedy.

Spike Milligan often referenced his own depression and wartime record in his performances and writing. Even art that seems to be esoteric and for itself offers an alternative to groupthink that can get us into a state of paranoia and hatred.

In Northern Ireland during The Troubles in the 1990s, artist Andre Stitt made Hebrephrenic characters that were comical and shamanistic, to puncture sectarian hatred.

AO: Can the art of comedy support humanity and acceptance of others? 

RT: Laughter is a double-edged sword, and we need to engage our intellect as well as enjoy a good laugh. The standup comedy sometimes laughs at the expense of others, while the culture changes over time.

Some of the stand-up comedians of 1970s Britain now seem very outdated because their targets – different racial groups for instance – can now speak for themselves in their own comedy.

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