It is the fall of 2000, and a group of young university students, actors and a couple of stagehand personnel are lurking in the darkness of the college theater. I’m with them, as the assistant costume designer. We’re waiting for a final verdict on the future of a play, “Bay the Moon,” written and directed by Egyptian playwright Mahmoud al-Lozy.
Thirteen years later, in fall 2013, a group of young renowned and promising actors on their way to stardom are standing on the same stage in downtown Cairo’s Falaki Theater with scripts in their hands, reading another play written by Lozy. “Cancelled” depicts the events of the “Bay the Moon” saga: An AUC play shut down by the state just a few days before the opening night. They performed for a full house of former AUC students, faculty members and the cast’s families and friends. This time, though, I was present as an audience member, recalling the real events this saga and trying to make sense of it all.
Today, Lozy is an established actor, stage director, playwright and drama professor AUC. He has widely directed and acted on the stage and also appeared in films like “Heliopolis” and “Microphone.” But back at the time of “Bay the Moon,” he was a young AUC professor just starting to push the boundaries.
“Bay the Moon” tells the story of Aly, a young man who came back from the October War of 1973 — a war that left him brittle and frail. The play marks a major departure in Egyptian theatrical convention, depicting the war in a dark, negative light, tackling in particular the Thaghrat al-Deffressoir, a battle that took place towards the end of the conflict when Egyptian troops were ambushed near the Suez Canal.
“Bay the Moon” shows the ugly face of the battle. This choice proved deeply divisive at the time of the performance, ultimately resulting in the cancellation of the show, a relatively rare occurrence for a performance in a private space. Egyptian media and drama traditionally dealt with the topic of the war with pride; dozens of movies in the seventies glorified the October war, such as “Bodour,” “The Bullet is in My Pocket,” “Until the End of Time” and others. Protagonist in these movies returned home happy and victorious to their loved ones, living happily ever after.
But in “Bay the Moon,” the main character comes back haunted, traumatized by the soldiers who died in front of him. He refuses to go back to continue fighting what he thinks is a losing battle. In other words, the play represented a threat to the image the state media wanted planted in people’s minds.
“Cancelled,” though, takes a broader view of the events surrounding the production of “Bay the Moon.” The script centers around Hassan the director, a group of young college actors, Sobhi the theater technical manager, Khaled the set designer, Roshdy the administrator, Hassan’s wife, Nadia, his aristocratic mother, and finally Neamat, a family friend who is highly critical of Hassan’s personality and work.
“Cancelled” picks up where “Bay the Moon” ends — at the AUC theater. After 13 years, many faces among the cast have changed, with the exception of Ramsi Lehner, who picks up from his role as “Bay the Moon’s” Aly to play Roshdy in “Cancelled,” and Roba el-Shamy or Deana (lights operator). Many of the actors in “Cancelled” have performed in other of Lozy’s plays, and most were former students. Since then, many of them have built on their theatrical backgrounds by also starting careers in cinema and TV. And while their careers continue to grow, “Cancelled” is an inspiring reminder of each cast member’s theatrical skills and roots.
In the play, Khaled Aboul Nagga seamlessly takes on the lead role of Hassan, the director, and does a perfect and utterly hilarious impersonation of the talented, kind hearted and easily irritated director-professor who loves his students, but constantly criticize them and the entire generation to which they belong. Aboul Nagga possesses theatrical capabilities that are rarely highlighted in his work in cinema. Ramsi Lehner adds glow and humor to the blunt character of Roshdy, the admin — the baffled, mundane employee who is startled by the situation at hand. The little romance between Ahmed (Asser Yassin) and Menna (Yara Goubran) is cute and heartwarming, and both experienced actors played it nice and subtle. Samia Assad played the role of a naïve senior-year student, who is having a hard time making sense of what is happening around her. Assad is funny but rarely took her eyes off the script, which made it difficult for some audience members to connect with her character.
“Cancelled” highlights the circumstances of repression and censorship forced on the director and his cast, and how they responded to the shutting down of their production by holding a small, private show at the director’s house, attended by members the of faculty and the actors’ parents. The play also touches on the problem of Palestinians living in Egypt through the character of Ahmed, a Palestinian student who regularly gets dragged to state security for a “routine,” yet unjustified investigation. Ignorance, corruption and lack of vision are also topics that Lozy touches upon in “Cancelled.”
The identity of the person who tipped off the “Bay the Moon” plot to the censorship board was not revealed in “Cancelled,” but the characters in the play knows who that person is: “After all, this is what state awards are for,” Hassan says ironically when Nadia asks him about the culprit, who in real life won a state award a few months after the show was cancelled. Coincidence? Lozy doesn’t seem to think so.
The reading is extremely engaging and funny, despite the fact that the reading may have lacked some of the impressive effects of theater, like music and costumes. “Cancelled” commemorates the goal and soul of “Bay the Moon,” paying tribute to a play and a playwright who stood against oppression and censorship at a time when few men spoke up. Hats off to Mahmoud al-Lozy and his cast of talented actors and actresses, and I will always take pride in being a small part of “Bay the Moon,” an experience whose importance I may not have fully understood until last Friday.