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)
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood