Borrowing much from theatre of absurd, play is divided into 13 seemingly unrelated vignettes tied by themes of alienation, resentment, indignation and fear of unknown.
Backstage of the dilapidated Hosapeer Theatre in the heart of Egypt’s sprawling capital Cairo, the energy of the cast of 1980 and Over is electrifying.
An hour before curtain, award-winning director Mohamed Gabr, who also plays a part in the black comedy portraying the challenges faced by the ’80s and ’90s generation, is on the edge of his seat.
“We are not discussing issues facing the youth; we are talking about our own problems. We’re a microcosm of the reality out there. This play is not one generation trying to portray another,” he said.
His words hit home as he explains the struggle to keep the play alive.
The earliest version of the play opened in January 2012 to a handful of spectators. Gabr, who started acting at university, had a rehearsal studio space to support independent troupes.
“It was there that the play was written and directed in 11 days,” he said. “But three days after we opened to the public we had to shut down. With a 10-pound ticket, we couldn’t afford the 1,000-pound theatre rent even though all we needed were a 100 people to show up.”
Those days are long gone. Following a roller-coaster ride of performances nipped in the bud for lack of funding and proper marketing, in 2013 Gabr took the National Theatre Festival by storm, raking in awards for best rising director and original script for playwright Mahmoud Gamal.
Making their mark in the annual showcase of state-sponsored and big-budget commercial plays was a major morale boost, but, as Gabr clarifies, that has nothing to do with the popular appeal the play has witnessed in recent months.
The 450-seat theatre has been hosting an average 700 people a night, with audience members standing at the back or sitting in the aisles.
Fervent standing ovations are proof the play has struck a chord, not only with the generation it portrays, but with a wider audience that has grappled with its identity and a protracted political struggle that culminated in the January 2011 uprising that ousted 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak.
However, both Gabr and Gamal insist the show is not solely political, which is why the authorities have not shut them down.
“Yet we can’t ignore that fact that over the past four years each of us has made a political statement on Facebook … but still I cannot label it a political play; it’s more of a revolutionary play, revolutionary in its politics, its social critique, its dreams,” says Gabr.
“They must also know that people need a place to vent, otherwise they will explode,” continues Gabr. “The explosion of applause happening in the theatre every night could happen outside.”
Borrowing much from the theatre of the absurd, the play is divided into 13 seemingly unrelated vignettes tied by themes of alienation, resentment, indignation and fear of the unknown.
The play ends as it begins, with a snapshot. The entire cast huddles for a picture then tell their age and the year they were born. That scene is repeated twice but each time the loss of spirit is more palpable. Reminiscent of the Myth of Sisyphus, the sketches oscillate between hope and despair in a cyclical struggle that appears to have no end.
Sombre and sarcastic, they ask questions: “Why is it that once more when we talk politics we whisper?” “Must I graduate from the military academy to become president,” one asks in a direct reference to the dominance of the military over the political space.
Thus continue the sharp, painful reflections of a generation that has witnessed more death and disappointment than it can withstand: “I’m afraid of dying.” “I feel nothing, good or bad.” “I can’t laugh.” “I’m lonely, even with friends around.”
Heart-wrenching references to the killing of football fans in two shocking incidents left the audience in tears, especially when the actors sang one of the Ahly Club fans’ most famous protest anthems: “We’ve said it before to the dictator / Freedom will prevail / I’m no longer afraid of death / Amid your terrorism I have seen the sun rising.”
But it is not all serious. Laughter rang out at the absurdity of Egypt’s post-revolution dissent-crushing protest law. A young man calls the Interior Ministry to “book” a protest in Tahrir Square, when he is told government supporters have already booked the space until 2016. “What’s your protest-crushing preference, water cannon or rubber bullets?” asks the officer.
Social critique is equally present. Tackling the generation gap, one young woman exposes the contradictory messages from her parents: She’s too young to go out late but old enough to get married. Indeed gender issues and the pressure imposed on women in a patriarchal society that judges their every move are the subject of at least four sketches, the most poignant of which is one where gender roles are reversed.
The men too are expected to adhere to the social norms associated with marriage, yet are emasculated by the lack of means to secure a roof over their heads and a sufficient income.
In the final scene a typical minimalist set shows two men on a dark and foggy road. One of them wants to scream but loses his voice.
“I wanted to portray the reality of our generation,” said Gamal, “Perhaps someone will pay attention. It is also a cathartic experience; I externalise [this generation’s] anger. I want to scream on their behalf.”
In an impassioned tirade, Gamal sums up the binaries that have ripped Egyptian society apart: “Religion v religion, colour v colour, belonging and alienation, revolution and capitulation, truth and falsification, patriot and agent. And the fog thickens in front of our eyes but we stay still until the morning; yet when the day breaks, crowds, smoke and we still can’t see our path. Let’s just go back, let’s not move forward.”
Then the rest of the cast enters the stage and they decide to continue the journey.
“Even though we lost our voice, we found each other. We took a decision to continue the revolution and pursue our dreams,” says Gamal. The Arab WeeklyBy: Rania Al Malky is an Arab Weekly contributor in Cairo.