Theatre Review: The Prophet

The Gate Theatre's staging of Hassan Abdulrazzak’s play could not be more timely.

Is it a stroke of fate that the first run of Hassan Abdulrazzak’s play The Prophet, set in Cairo on the day of Egypt’s revolution, comes as the country experiences its first presidential election since the Arab Spring, and as Hosni Mubarak teeters between life and death?

It certainly makes the theme all the more topical. Such is the aim of the Gate Theatre’s "Resist" season, which attempts to dramatise a movement of uprisings across the globe. The Prophet, for which Abdulrazzak and director Christopher Haydon travelled to Cairo and interviewed prominent activists, is the second play in the season.

The premise is interesting enough: the plot unfolds on 28 January 2011, and zooms in on the domestic issues of Layla (Sasha Behar) and Hisham (Nitzan Sharron), a married couple cocooned in their claustrophobic apartment as revolt erupts around them. Central to the play is the motif of public versus private:  Layla’s opening speech considers the pros and cons of shaving her pubic hair, somewhat tenuously linking the word “pubic” to “public”; there are references to sexual repression, hijabs and what is considered appropriate behaviour for a woman in public; the very basis of the play is the focus on a private situation within a very public one. Unfortunately, placing a personal story within a political context feels like it has been done so many times before.

That being said, the acting is superb, and Abdulrazzak’s script is laced with witticisms and colourful symmetry. While at times this feels slightly contrived, there are some clever lines, particularly in the scenes between Layla and her boss Hani (Silas Carson). Their working at Vodafone is a nod to the crucial role that technology played throughout the Arab Spring. And Hani embodies perfectly the hypocrisy of international corporations, and governments, when he says, “This is a Western company, things like freedom, democracy and equality, they come with our company like Nokia accessories” – while asking Layla to cut off the mobile network moments later.

The characterisation is somewhat ambiguous. Layla, Hisham, Hani and Suzanne each espouse a different viewpoint regarding Egypt’s rule, its revolution, its democratic potential. Layla’s attitude is particularly complex: while she hates pandering to the west, and certainly doesn’t want an Egypt built on the US model, her gut feeling is that Mubarak must go, that the system must change. She bickers constantly with Hani, who is convinced that Egypt is not ready for democracy. Meanwhile, back home, Hisham takes pride in writing about the opposition movement, yet refuses to join Layla on the streets. The mysterious Suzanne (Melanie Jessop) is half-British, half-Egyptian, but rejects her Egyptian heritage for the reason that her British passport will not look suspicious at customs. She has adopted an arrogant, imperialistic view of the Arab world, insisting that British publishers aren’t interested in literature from the region, that it is neglected because it is unstable. 

But there are just too many clichés in the play. Suzanne is a Bond villain caricature with her red plastic anorak, Bellini in hand and forced smile. The Tarantino-esque torture scenes at the end of the play are excruciating to watch and seem unnecessary and gratuitous. It feels almost as though they are put in because it is what is expected of a play about the Arab world, a needless violence built on a lazy stereotype.

The Prophet’s biggest drawback is that it seems like a wasted opportunity. In Cairo, Abdulrazzak and Haydon interviewed demonstrators, journalists, and soldiers, but their impressive research has been condensed into a personal story that focuses mainly on the experience of two individuals. In the middle of the play Layla recites a long speech about the protests in what is an incredible performance from Behar, but a static and half-hearted attempt at audience engagement. The closest we get to witnessing the uprisings is blurred video footage which appears at the back of the stage now and then. It might have been more compelling to have see the interviews of various Egyptians dramatised onstage, but the venue of the Gate wouldn’t lend itself well to this. The stage is small and the audience seating feels cramped. It isn’t built for an extravagant, mass-ensemble production, and it is likely that the claustrophobic atmosphere is a deliberate reflection of the social repression in the plot. But this is a shame, because with limited scope comes what is always at risk with art that is trying to be as topical as possible: a lack of opportunity to reflect. Despite its occasional charm, The Prophet recycles what we already know.

The Prophet is at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill until 21 July

 

Silas Carsen and Sasha Behar in "The Prophet" at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill (Photo: Simon Kane)
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism