Bilingual theatre company The Thousand Tongues is currently presenting its first show, an adaptation of Khaled Al-Khamissi's novel Taxi, at Vent in downtown Cairo. The troupe presents the play in Arabic and English.
Co-directed by American Brian Farish and Egyptian Rewan El-Ghaba, the play presents a selection of El-Khamissi's 58 conversations with taxi drivers in an entirely new way.
The novel's third person narrative is transformed to the first person with the voice being one of the characters in the skit. While juggling between the stories, each of the six actors shifts characters from one skit to another.
The audience moves around the space as the actors pop up in different corners of the relatively limited space, where sometimes you are in the first row interacting with the actors and others in the back row having to hop to catch a glimpse of the skit.
Vent is a non-traditional culture space in downtown Cairo, functioning as both a pub and a restaurant while also offering film screenings, live music and theatre.
Among the attendees on the opening night was Al-Khamissi himself, who after the performance commented that even though they used some bad language not in the book, he thought it was a wonderful performance.
During the press and VIP viewing two days before the show opened, Al-Khamissi told Ahram Online that he felt the way the play was adapted cleverly to reflect the scattered nature of the stories he told.
"The world of the characters was very different to what was in my mind - but I was ready to see a different take on it which is the perspective of the directors - so even though it was different, it was presented very nicely," he said.
(Photo: Courtesy of The Thousand Tongues)
Even though the mise-en-scene choice left room for the audience to get distracted, everyone remained attentive throughout the one-hour performance.
One of the best skits was of a local sheikh, played by Abdel-Rahman 'Boudi' Nasser, practicing his radio speech on how women are the biggest vice in the Islamic nation. His wife, played by Hend El-Shimy keeps popping up from the make-shift balcony - which is actually Vent's DJ spot - making fun of him and asking him to fold the laundry while he rehearses.
Throughout the sheikh's speech, another character, played by Omar Madkour, sits on the bar agreeing with him as would followers at the mosque. When Madkour is challenged by a character appearing from the edge of the stage, the attention is shifted from the sheikh to the two characters arguing. El-Shimy reappears, this time not as the sheikh's wife but a woman who gets in a heated debate with the Islamist.
The skit smoothly ties into the next scene – one of the most memorable in the novel – of a young woman wearing a niqab, who rides the taxi from Shubra. During the journey, she starts taking off her face veil, then her whole veil to end up wearing a short skirt. After a heated argument with the driver she explains that she is a waitress and cannot leave her neighbourhood dressed as she would for her job. We discover that the very same woman appeared already as the sheikh's daughter, a change from the novel. This development created an additional commentary on the double standards and hypocrisy shown by some sheikhs.
Most of the skits had an enjoyable character and evoked a few laughs from the audience along the way. Touching upon feminist issues, police brutality and government corruption, the audience was offered a realistic picture of life in Mubarak's Cairo and equally pondered the post-revolution situation.
According to Farish, the troupe plans to show the play at several other venues across the country in collaboration with Doum Cultural Foundation, of which Al-Khamissi is a founder. Part of Doum's mandate is to bring culture to people with limited access to it, especially in the provinces.
The Thousand Tongues also hopes to take Taxi abroad. They are currently working on the possibly showing of the play in Poland.
Taxi will be performed once more in English on Wednesday 29 January at 8pm at Vent.
Update: Two more Arabic performances have been added on Wednesday 5 February and Sunday 9 February.
Due to limited space the organisers recommend audiences arrive at 7pm to secure their tickets.
6 Qasr El-Nil Street, Downtown, Cairo