Lessons in theatre: On Duncan Macmillan's play 'Every Brilliant Thing' in Cairo

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 19 Jul 2022

Duncan Macmillan's play Every Brilliant Thing was staged in Egyptian Arabic at the Rawabet Art Space in Cairo

Every Brilliant Thing

Every Brilliant Thing, was translated into Arabic, adapted and directed by Ahmed El-Attar. The play had its Arab world premiere in Egypt on 13 May at the Rawabet Art Space, where it continued to be performed until 17 May. It returned to the same stage between 17 and 20 June.

Before moving onto the play, it is worth highlighting its unique background and how it found its way to the Egyptian audience. Macmillan’s highly innovative text, one that has met with great success on stages in the UK and internationally, became part of a project titled “Theatre in Translation” motored by Orient for Film and Theatre Productions, which is headed by Ahmed El-Attar. It is an endeavour that aims to translate 24 contemporary plays by European playwrights to Arabic, with each representing a different European country. Every Brilliant Thing – one of the six plays translated in the first phase of the project – was chosen by the late director, actor and theatre professor, Mahmoud El-Lozy (1958-2021) to represent the UK. In the programme notes, El-Attar refers to El-Lozy as “my teacher,” and dedicates the performance to him.

But while recommended by El-Lozy and translated by El-Attar, the play is not just an item on the 24-play list, or more addition to the almanac of foreign plays made accessible in Arabic. Every Brilliant Thing goes far beyond the art of translation that allows a given text to be enjoyed by new communities. It is an eye opener on contemporary theatre, its role in today’s society, its malleability within societal and cultural differences and similarities, and its ability to depict, question and assess the entanglement of human relations in the world that surrounds us.

While using theatre as a platform for communication with the people, not only does the format of Macmillan’s text allow but it also encourages – not to say forces – directors and translators to sculpt it around the communities that the theatre-makers represent and address. Once we remember that at the heart of theatre’s creation – take ancient Greece as the springboard – was the attempt to reach deep into the souls and minds of the spectators, to pass the message, to make a difference, to move the spectator and even to effect catharsis, in Every Brilliant Thing the playwright remains particularly faithful to those fundamental values of theatre.

This is done through a number of components, from the topic at hand and the removal of the fourth wall and allowing the audience to take part in the play, to cultural and linguistic inserts, to the text itself. The end result is a play accessible to everyone, regardless of one’s cultural, economic, educational, linguistic or geographical positioning, presented in a way that is highly enjoyable.

Tackling the difficult subject of depression, Macmillan proves that it 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, 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. Hope is definitely one of the driving forces behind its positive treatment.

The monodrama goes deep into that heartfelt journey through a mother’s suicidal depression and its repercussions on her family, and specifically on the daughter who in the Rawabet Art Space’s take was portrayed by Nanda Mohammad. Here comes the first component of the text’s plasticity. In a number of previous international stagings of Every Brilliant Thing and a film made from theatre in 2016 and directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the protagonist was a man, a son who faces the parent’s mental illness.

As Macmillan writes in the notes to the play, “The Narrator [as he calls his protagonist] can be played by a woman or a man of any age or ethnicity. In the first production [June 2013], the Narrator was portrayed by a British man.” In other words, with the gender barriers lifted, the real power of the text lies in its ability to diffuse any differences defined by gender-driven privileges and possibilities.

With Nanda Mohammad depicting the ill mother’s daughter, we realise that the actor’s gender is irrelevant. The son or daughter is primarily a human – a child, a teenager, an adolescent and then a grown-up – who is, it seems forever, stained by their mother’s depression. Every Brilliant Thing is a list of all the amazing things a human – Nanda Mohammad in this case – encounters in all stages of life: ice cream, water fights, staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV, the color yellow, coffee… The list includes moments and experiences which, though they seem so trivial, form an abundance of brilliant things. This is a list with items counted in thousands, created over the years with an aim to help the mother see positive aspects of life, but even more so, to create a self-supporting mechanism for the human enumerating them.

Nanda Mohammad was placed on stage by Every Brilliant Thing’s translator and director Ahmed El-Attar. As encouraged by Macmillan himself, El-Attar adapted the play to the community he addresses, starting with text being presented in Egyptian Arabic. This take on Every Brilliant Thing does not shy away from a unique 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.

The local, regional and international aspect are additionally emphasised by the choice of music compiled by Hassan Khan, with compositions highlighting the specific charge of the text as well as adding to the emotional positioning of the character. 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, the Masryeen Band’s Bahebak La (“I Love You, No”), Um Kalthoum’s El Awela Fe El Gharam (“The Beginning of Passion”), Rima Khcheich performing one of Sabah’s songs Min Sihr Ouyounak (“From Your Eyes’ Charm”), among others. They act as a convincing background to the many stories and events through which Nanda walks us.

As El-Attar clarifies in the notes to the play, “Every Brilliant Thing is a real lesson in theatre. The play manages to engage the audience, while providing clear-cut emotions and inciting ample reflections. At the same time, its topic is extremely important, especially in our times, locally and internationally.”

The play has no scenography, no costume design and minimal lighting. Supported by minimal accessories, the text becomes at the centre of the performance.

Presented by the actress, it flows directly to the audience, whose relation to the play is not limited to pure spectators, since Macmillan incorporates small roles for the audience. The Narrator invites chosen spectators to take part in the performance: the Narrator’s dad, Sam – her boyfriend-husband, a vet, a lecturer, a sock used as a puppet held by an audience member, Mrs Peterson, the Narrator’s school teacher. There is also an abundance of participation by the audience which reads points from the list of Every Brilliant Thing as enumerated by the Narrator, and distributed to viewers prior to the entry to the theatre hall.

Those elements allow the actress to create strong interaction with the audience, without jeopardising the theatrical delivery as the play retains its dynamic flow and performative tightness. Indeed, as El-Attar perfectly puts it, the text is a lesson in theatre. It is also a great challenge taking into account all the unique procedures fused into the play.

Interaction with the audience opens the doors to occasional improvisation and gives each performance a dose of a new spirit. This procedure requires however that each time, faced by new spectators, the actress continues to exert meticulous control over the play’s progress. While being embedded in the character, she needs to shift quickly between both spectra: the text and movement drawn by the director, and interaction with the audience that often borders on improvisation. Each time after allowing the spectator into the play, Nanda smoothly returns to the text, making the passage look natural.

With all the components mentioned above, we need to pay tribute to Nanda Mohammad who managed to pull all the elements together into one comprehensive and brilliantly presented performance. I attended both stagings of the play, in May and in June, enjoying the development of this “lesson in theatre.” In fact, Every Brilliant Thing is a play one needs to watch more than once, and if possible, in different cultural settings. Without a doubt, in June, the performance matured significantly with Nanda having full control of the text, the spectators, her movement and the art of interaction through the fourth wall.

An accomplished Cairo-based Syrian actress and a graduate from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus (2001), Nanda has a large portfolio working with numerous renowned directors such as Naila Al-Atrash, Amal Omran, Samer Omran, Jihad Saad and Omar Abu Saada as well as in many Syrian TV series. She also collaborated with international names, from Tim Supple (UK), Jean-Michel Pesenti (France), Nullo Facchini (Danmark), Khaled Al-Tarefi (Palestine), Catherine Schaub Abkarian (France), to Laila Soliman and Ahmed El-Attar (Egypt).

Since her move to Egypt in 2012, she has worked as voice trainer for the actors of the internationally renowned El Warsha theatre company (2013-2014) while continuing to join numerous Syrian projects, in addition to acting in various Egyptian performances, many of which were taken to international theatre festivals. Nanda is known for her participation in many Egyptian television series with her latest role being in Bitloo’ al-Rouh directed by Kamla Abu Zekri and aired last Ramadan. Most recently, Nanda became the first Syrian actress to receive the French Order of Merit with the rank of knight.

It is obvious however that Nanda leans towards theatre the most, something she makes clear in an interview to the BBC: “I’m biased towards theatre. For 20 years, theatre has ben the place where I learn and enjoy. My best memories are on stage and backstage, in Syria and Egypt and all the countries where it was performed.”

It is safe to say that Nanda’s passion for theatre, her obvious efforts to hone her craft and her ambition were all poured into Every Brilliant Thing where she remained in control, shifting between numerous emotions and situations with a perfect fluidity. The role of the director, Ahmed El-Attar was equally obvious during the performances, and even more evident in the June staging of the play. Being one of the leading Egyptian theatre directors and producers, El-Attar worked with Nanda on several occasions, in performances produced by his Temple Independent Theatre Company.

Nanda’s portfolio and her creative relation with El-Attar enabled the director to capitalise on all the strengths of the actress as he shaped the Narrator’s character without taking away Nanda’s own unique creative personality. Nanda convinced us with the character she presented, whether she embodied a young girl, an adolescent or a grown-up woman.

The passage of time is definitely one of the challenges of the play that packages a few decades into a 75-minute performance. Nanda’s emotions change as we watch an innocent girl who tries in her naturally naïve way to understand her mother’s illness, then a confused teenager, and a fully aware adult who only begins to assess the situation surrounding her alongside a great deal of introspection. While the audience learns about the depression within the family and social contexts, Nanda and El-Attar take us deep into the psyche of the character in a tender yet poignant way.

Leaving the hall, we reminisced about the mother’s illness, about the main character, her joys, confusion, struggles. We pondered over the cultural and social aspects presented in the play; and eventually we found ourselves feeling compassion, sympathy, distress, enlightenment… all at the same time. From the British playwright Duncan Macmillan to the Cairene audience, from El-Attar’s translation and mise-en-scene to Nanda Mohammad embodying the character, from the theatre makers to the spectators – call it catharsis if you will, or call it enlightenment – something major takes place. On leaving the Rawabet Art Space we are already transformed. And isn’t this precisely the role of theatre?

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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