Afashtak: Adapted hostage drama comes to Cairo

Sara Elkamel, Thursday 8 May 2014

Afashtak, adapted from British playwright Barrie Keefe’s 'Gotcha,' is a harrowing production capturing an aggrieved schoolboy’s descent into crime. It runs until 10 May at AUC's Greek Campus


From 27 April to 10 May, a room on the Greek Campus of the American University in Cairo (AUC) is transformed into a classroom where a crime scene is waiting to happen.

'Afashtak,' adapted by theatre director Ahmed El-Alfy from Barrie Keeffe’s 'Gotcha,' is a drama centred around a disillusioned 16-year-old schoolboy who takes two teachers and the principal of his school hostage for one hour.

Due to the clever adaptation, the audience gets the impression that the play was written by Keeffe specifically for Egypt. The powerful tale about the disillusionment of youth and the failure of education is as relevant here and now, if not more, than when Keeffe's play premiered in 1976 — a time of debate around comprehensive schools in the UK. The idea for 'Gotcha' came to Keeffe while he was spending time playing football with kids in a park in East London, hearing their frustrations and feelings of anonymity at school.

With a pressure-cooker setting (at first almost literally, due to the heat wave that fell over Cairo), this short and sharp performance definitely grips the viewer. It is a story about someone who feels so nameless, so unnoticed, so overlooked, that he desperately propels himself into the spotlight.

The audience is ushered into an unlikely setting; a classroom inside AUC's now almost deserted Greek Campus. The attendants were, for all intents and purposes, locked in as well. Seated on wooden classroom chairs occupying half of the room, the audience played the part of unseen pupils throughout. In their anonymity and their silence, and their lack of involvement in the action, they personify the ghost-like character of the nameless student at the centre of the play.     

The unidentified boy, played by Abdel Rahman Adel, oscillates, almost unsettlingly, from untenable conceit to wistfulness to ill-disguised feebleness. One's sympathies seesaw in accordance, from wanting to hug him to experiencing a desire to kick him. Hard.

The nameless boy is unrecognised by the teachers, now his captees. The only piece of paper that has his name on it is ripped apart during the play, distancing the audience and the teachers from his identity even further. During five years he spent at school among 1,200 other students, he was a phantom of sorts. But now he is on the brink of making his presence known.

The key antagonist is the PE (physical education) teacher, who is the classic spiteful and parsimonious foe. Ahmed El-Turki was particularly convincing as a melancholic and troubled middle class teacher. Walaa Kaddah’s performance as Miss Reem was also impressive, as she proficiently put on the role of a maternal figure.

Passing time with the hostages, the boy reminisces about his grandparents and his brother with a palpable dose of nostalgia. He mentions the birds his grandfather used to care for, envying their ability to “fly away at any time,” a recurrent symbol for the freedom he seeks.  

For a while the boy decides that he wants to become a surgeon, and the principal (an almost caricature-like figure who drawing laughs from the audience on various occasions, played by Ahmed Mokhtar) half-heartedly convinces him that he can indeed become one if he puts in the right amount of dedication and hard work. The audience is acutely aware of how bizarre that sounds, which brings about a pang of pity for the boy.

When the teenage captor says, “I am not leaving this room,” that sense of pity is magnified, because you realise that there is nowhere else for him to go. Apart from the anonymous protagonist, however, character study, while not exactly shallow, left much to be desired.

For a hostage drama, the action is at times dry and there is barely an actual edge-of-seat sense of danger. The shrill screams of Miss Reem and the PE teacher’s outbursts did little to build tension in the room.

At times it even feels that the play has a sort of Kafkaesque circularity to it, with no real sequence of events. Somehow the play brings about a sensation akin to being stuck in a dream. Yes, you are fully engaged, the doors are locked, but your emotional involvement with the situation is not complete.

The notion of “dreams coming true” is repeated quite often, and it is especially poignant when the boy tells one of the teachers: “Stop selling us dreams that won’t come true.”

One major oversight on the part of scenography was that since the performances were held at night, the windows revealed a slice of dark sky that  stood at odds with the supposed morning setting presented by the narrative. Still, it somehow serves the play poetically. The fact that it was night outside perhaps adds a sense of surrealism to the performance, as if there were an hour-long eclipse during the day.

The play still has resonance today, especially in Cairo. Perhaps the drama that Keeffe had originally scripted in 1976 was not about the plight of British students in comprehensive schools, but about a universal plight and deep-seated fear of failure and anonymity.

The production is not really a polemic against the dire state of public education in Egypt. Yet it somehow still leaves one feeling distraught.

Ultimately the piece is a compelling drama on the struggle for identity, the search for a name, and the hunt for your place in the world.

Thursday, 8 May, 8pm
Friday, 9 May, 5pm and 8pm
Saturday, 10 May, 5pm and 8pm
28 Falaki Street, Bab Al-Louq, Cairo

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