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)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle