The “Be changed and bring about change” festival, held at downtown Cairo’s Metropolis Theater, presented its final play, "The World is a Comical Novel," this week. Adapted from a book by Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987), it was produced by the Fayoum Cultural Palace Group and directed by Ahmed Taha.
In the play, philosophical ideas are dealt with through the issue of reincarnation, using fantasy and black comedy. Reincarnation was a recurrent theme in Hakim’s writing after his 1933 novel “Return of the Spirit.”
A question of existence
The play revolves around a young man who works in basement archive room, which to him feels like a grave. From the very start Hakim thus brings up the idea that in order for man to exist he must work, and that unemployment goes against his very nature, even if he is reimbursed for it. The man waits around all day for something to do but no one ever assigns him any work. The archive reflects his feeling that he has been placed on a shelf, like an old useless file.
The production’s graceful rhythm was characterized by cinematic jumps that made it appear more like a film. Alongside strong visual motifs, this rhythm enabled the director to sum up details and intensify events in order to deal with the large number of characters played by the protagonist.
This type of storyline relies on the viewer’s ability to assemble the play’s details, scene after scene, through successive mental processing of the nature of each scene and its implications. There is a scene about power in which the young man’s soul become reincarnated in the body of a superpower’s president; a satirical scene about love using the story of Antony and Cleopatra, in which the two lovers appear as foolish children; a scene about art in which the protaganist is reincarnated as an actor performing Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in a populist format suitable for the current era; and a scene on science that attempts to defeat death. We thus face the major feelings and ideas that people struggle for in life, such as power, love, art and death.
Both the novel and the play are clearly influenced by Shakespearean motifs. Apart from the appearances of Antonio, Cleopatra and Juliet, a fantastical dream sequence in which souls exchange roles and forms is reminiscent of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The play’s satirical intertextuality fits the mode of absurdity through which it presents its philosophical ideas.
In collaboration with designer Mohammed Saad, Taha created an abstract set with philosophical connotations. Step ladders of various lengths resemble small pyramids under which the main character sat during the first scene, as if buried or mummified. The director re-used the ladders in various formations and with different meanings throughout the play. When the main character falls asleep after reading a book about reincarnation to find himself on a long journey in which his soul is reincarnated through a number of characters, the ladders spoke of death and ascension to heaven.
When the young man’s soul becomes reincarnated in the body of a superpower’s president, we found him standing at the top of one of the ladders. His assistant first sat on a lower step to hear him speak of the universal peace he wishes to achieve, before lurking beneath one of the ladders to indicate his scheming. The assistant then murders the president and his soul ascends to the heavens once again.
Two angel-like characters responsible for taking people’s souls and reincarnating them in new bodies were placed on top of two high ladders, utilizing not only the stage’s depth but also its height – a dimension usually neglected by directors.
A singing crisis
Why so many theater directors in Egypt insist on using song and dance to shorten a storyline or explain characters’ emotions remains a mystery. Few plays successfully achieve this without falling into vulgarity or primitivism due to amateur performances that lack rhythm and professionalism.
Unfortunately, Taha packed the play with dance performances that lacked the storyline’s intellectual depth. Songs would have sufficed.
Despite the amateur and poorly utilized dance sequences, the funny, satirical lyrics and music served to intensify the play's idea of reality’s absurdity and deepen the humorous format through which it presented serious ideas.
Absurdity was also reflected in the strange costumes, especially in the Antony and Cleopatra scenes and the Juliet balcony scene. A scene in which souls came out of the sea of forgetfulness — in which they had forgotten their past lives — wearing towels and robes as if bathing, provided a comical image befitting the nature of the play and its storyline.
To the production's detriment, the playwright followed the original text to the very end instead of creating an original ending. In the final scene the main character wakes up from his dream and goes to work to find he has been transferred to a better job, rendering all of the experience gained through his fantastical journey worthless, and bringing him back to where he was at the beginning — awaiting his fate.
Instead of the main character taking a decision, based on the experiences of his lengthy dream, to bring meaning to his existence, he gets engaged to his colleague at work. The more important decision comes from a higher authority moving him up the career ladder, as if to say that man will continue to be imprisoned by his fate, no matter what he does or how much he tries to create his own future. This idea contrasts with the play’s main concept that free will shapes our lives.