'1980 and Above': A cultural rather than theatrical phenomenon

Dalia Basiouny, Wednesday 10 Jun 2015

A highly successful theatre performance, 1980 and Above, presses many hot buttons of youth frustrations, yet the theatrical execution leaves room for improvement

1980 and Above
1980 and Above (Photo: Dalia Basiouny)

1980 Wenta Tale (1980 and Above) is more than just a play, it is becoming one of Cairo’s cultural phenomena. Hundreds of audience members gather daily, at the doors of Hosapeer Theatre, in Galaa Street in Downtown, trying to secure a ticket to this hip happening.

Director Mohamed Badr stands near the box office repeating loudly: “The tickets available are floor tickets only,” he references the standing tickets option as the tickets have "floor" written in pencil on them.

I attended the performance during the peak of university examination season, yet the theatre was packed. The auditorium filled to the brim with audience members, many of them willing to sit on the floor to watch this performance.

When most of the government-run theatres suffer from a scarcity of audience, it is worth exploring how this performance packs a theatre with more than 500 audience members for eight shows a week, continuously for the last six months.

Their secret is word of mouth, it spreads on social media, through fan pages on Facebook.

The sketches

The performance consists of 17 sketches, addressing some of the problems and frustrations Egyptian youth face today. Twelve performers (two women and ten men) present 17 sketches.

In the first sketch, all the performers pose to take a photo, then each of them tells the audience their age, or the year they were born. This simple scene is repeated throughout the performance, and offers an easy platform for the performers to give commentary on the current state of affairs in Egypt, or share some jokes with the spectators.

Sometimes they present poignant commentary on the current political situation.

One actor remarks on the acquittal of the leaders of the old regime from killing any protesters, while the people who killed a dog were sentenced to three years in prison, and wonders: “Why didn’t we take some dogs with us during demonstrations?”

Another performer comments on the hype about how people would benefit from the New Suez Canal, pointing out that he had not seen much of the benefits of the old Suez Canal.

The simple format of standing in a photo tableaux, and cracking jokes, and dark comedic one-liners allows the creators of this piece to easily update the performance, offering commentary on the most recent events, in an attempt to stay connected to the pulse of the streets.

Other scenes struggle to present dramatic content. The two couples scenes over simplify youth struggles. They reduce Egyptian youth’s problems to young women wanting to get married and young men who cannot afford to purchase an apartment.

The futuristic scene (supposedly taking place in 2150) mainly offers funny commentary on the looser morality of the future, and the great-great-grand children of current celebrities who will still be controlling the future. Yet, the scene lacks imagination and genuine ideas.

The scene of six friends pretending to get high on a non-existing joint, feels like a group improvisation while high. It is supposedly nostalgic, but it is unclear what they are longing for.

There is deep dark humour in the “Delivery from the Ministry of Interior” scene, where the protests are booked through an automated service.

The black comedy in this sketch exposes the absurdity of the current requirements to issue permits for protests. It ridicules the number of the pro-government protests, and the heavy hand used against demonstrators who dare to differ.

The devil is in execution

Unfortunately most of the dramatic scenes lack in every aspect of drama; with poor writing, sloppy dialogue, no accurate logic, or reasonable progression of argument. The acting for the most part is overdone and full of clichés, and the formulaic music does not help either.

The feel good final scene utilizes popular music from memorable operettas such as El-Leila El-Kebira and the Lunatic Asylum, replacing the lyrics of the well-known songs with new lines commenting on the political scene.

It relies on the high energy of the young cast, who sing with passion about Egypt’s troubled recent history, from Khaled Said’s case, to the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to protests, and to the pains of daily survival.

Playing the youth factor till the end, the curtain calls are done chronologically. Actors are called from the youngest to the oldest, starting with the 27-year-old female actresses, and ending with the 35 years old Mahmoud Gamal, the sketch writer, who also acts in the performance, and happens to be born in 1980.

Generation of the 1980s and a cultural phenomenon

The audience demographics are worth noting. More than 80 percent of the audience are young, some of them too young to have been active participants in the 2011 revolution.
Moreover, many of these spectators are new to theatre.

They do feel, however, that what is on stage resonates with their reality; their disappointments, dissatisfactions and discontent with their lives. The unique power of live performance gives young audience members a feeling that their voice is represented on stage, even if that voice is rudimentary, undeveloped, amateur, or overacting.

While there are many enthusiastic audiences, some of the hard core revolutionaries do not feel that this performance truly represents their continuing struggle; as it mostly skims through the surface of events and does not delve deep into the intensity of current revolutionary challenges.

Artistically lacking, '1980 and Above' is a cultural phenomenon nonetheless!

Theatrically, this performance leaves a lot to be desired in all aspects of theatre. There is no well built drama, no development or progression, no depth of thought, comedy driven from jokes, cliché character and elevator music. Yet somehow just by pressing near the hot buttons of youth frustrations, this performance touches its audience, and moves them to laughter or pain, that they highly recommend it to their peers in Cairo and beyond.

The show must go on…

It is worth noting that some version of this play has been running for a few years. The flexible format, which does not depend on a tight dramatic arc, allows its creators to update it.

It used to criticise the Muslim Brotherhood, now it critiques the current government, maybe proving that regardless of who is in power, nothing changes under the sun, at least in regard to the problems of youth.

Currently ‘1980 and Above’ finished a six months run at Hosapeer theatre. This week it will be showing in Port Said starting 14 June, followed by a performance in Alexandria, before it returns to its Cairo fan base starting 10th of Ramadan (28 June).



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