Every Brilliant Thing is a play written by Duncan Macmillan in the 2010s. The play has been translated to Arabic and adapted by Ahmed El-Attar who also worked on the mise-en-scene, staging the work on five consecutive evenings (13-17 May) at Rawabet Art Space.
The translation is part of a bigger project titled “Theatre in Translation,” an endeavor that aims to translate 24 contemporary plays by European playwrights to Arabic, with each representing a different European country. In the programme notes, El-Attar explains that Every Brilliant Thing – one of the six plays translated in the first phase of the project – has been chosen by the director, actor and theatre professor, Mahmoud El-Lozy (1958-2021) to represent the UK. El-Attar referred to El-Lozy as “my teacher,” dedicating the performance to him.
The monodrama goes deep into a heartfelt journey through a mother’s suicidal depression and its repercussions on her family, and specifically on the daughter portrayed by Nanda Mohamed.
With no scenography, no costume design and minimal lighting work, the Rawabet Art Space’s stage was surrounded by audience from three sides with Nanda performing in the centre, interacting with the audience, at times inviting them to take small roles in the performance, at other times asking them to read statements – her diary entries of “all brilliant things” – distributed to the viewers prior to the entry to the theatre hall.
Macmillan opened his monodrama to both actors and actresses, as the human condition it depicts is genderless. This flexibility is further emphasised by the author inviting translators and directors from all cultures and walks of life to adapt the text to the communities they address. The key is to make the topic accessible to the audience, removing all social, economic, cultural or linguistic obstacles that stand in the way of viewers fully absorbing the meanings that the play carries. The Egyptian take on the play does not shy away from changes that give it a uniquely local flavour, from references to culinary items such as molokheya or to artistic icons like Um Kalthoum and Rushdi Abaza, among other community-specific social and cultural components.
These cultural references and interactions with the audience makes the play particularly engaging and adds a breeze of warmth to infiltrate the otherwise somber topic of one of the worst psychological ailments. The list of “all brilliant things” that Nanda experiences in life, and partially read during the performance, is yet another component emphasising hope.
El-Attar considers the text to be “a lesson in theatre” as it is a platform for the actor to showcase his or her expressive landscape. Nanda talks about her childhood, adolescence and adult years, all of which were clouded by her mother’s depression, whether directly impacting her life or skewing her perceptions on life, people, relations, hopes and expectations.
The spirit of the play capitalises on positive emotions such as joy, excitement, hope and love, infusing the topic at hand with optimism. However, even if Macmillian welcomes a lot of humour, we cannot ignore Nanda’s struggle with pain, confusion, grief and abandonment. It is these emotions that are among the fundamental challenges of a person faced by depression. Though joy and humour cannot bury the pain, they have a power to redirect our perception of this debilitating ailment towards hope.
The real challenge of the text is its emotional charge and frequent shifts between the variety of strong expressive modes. Nanda proved convincing throughout many feelings portrayed, especially those coming from the comic or cheerful spectrum. Shifts between highly dynamic emotions such as joy, excitement and amusement were well mastered by the actress, coming across in a very convincing manner. These emotions dominated the play, helping Nanda create a strong presence and an engaging aura which were duly appreciated by the audience. At times however, the same highly dynamic energy cast a shadow on more fragile segments which could have benefited from a deeper pensive character in order to better capture feelings such as sadness, desperation, concern or simply emotional displacement.
Throughout the 75 minutes, the actress playing Nanda is challenged by two creative forces: on one hand Nanda shifts through countless emotional colours, and on the other hand she needs to remain aware of the audience which is invited to participate through improvisation. The latter procedure can make it difficult for the actor to bounce back to the original text, and the emotional moment. During this performance, Nanda fell into this creative trap on a few occasions yet she gracefully returned to the script and to the expressive instance with the help of a prompter.
The director El-Attar guided the actress throughout this challenging journey and through the fourth wall. His presence was apparent throughout the performance starting with his work translating and adapting the text for the Egyptian audience, all the way to the mise-en-scene that provided broad lines for movement.
The improvisational component however and continuous strong dynamism of the actress overpowered the feelings of a daughter wronged by her mother’s suicidal depression. While we may feel it was important to see the contrasting emotional shifts in a better light, the dominance of positivity and hope served the author’s purpose which was to raise awareness of the devastating depression and find ways of dealing with and supporting people who struggle with the illness.
Among the interesting elements of the play was choice of music, a compilation of compositions with each highlighting the specific emotional charge of the text as well as adding to the cultural positioning of the character. The viewers were treated to fragments from Vivaldi’s Concerto in E Major (l’Amoroso), Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band, Eta James’ At Last, Masryeen Band’s Bahebak La (“I Love You, No”), Um Kalthoum’s El Awela Fe El Gharam (“The Beginning of Passion”), Rima Khcheich’s performing one of Sabah’s songs Min Sihr Ouyounak (“From Your Eyes’ Charm”), among others. They have all set a convincing background to the many stories and events that Nanda was walking us through.
Every Brilliant Thing is a brilliant text indeed. Highly innovative, it has seen a great success on stages in UK and internationally. It is a play one needs to watch more than once, and if possible, in different cultural settings. Tackling an important issue of depression that reaches its most painful borders shattering the human psyche, we uncover the sad truths behind this condition. Those truths are silenced by the person suffering the condition, often muted by the family, or remain insufficiently or wrongly portrayed by media and health campaigners.
Macmillan proves however that depression can be looked upon with an open heart, and that we all play an important role in supporting people who go through its dark tunnels. Moreover, the suicidal depression is a topic to address in all possible ways, including theatre – one of the important mediums that can contribute to at least helping the community better understand its hidden meanders. The hope is definitely one of the driving forces behind its positive treatments. As such, Every Brilliant Thing is an important voice in the journey while the theatrical solution suggested by Macmillan makes it heard by a countless viewers.