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)
Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem