When I saw Ahmed El Attar’s Mother I Want to Be a Millionaire (2004), I decided that, with the exception of Mahmoud al-Lozy and his notorious state-bashing, censor-defying plays, Attar is currently the most important playwright and director of contemporary Egyptian theater.
His best plays are riveting, carry a striking mise en scène, and valiantly tackle issues in Egyptian society in clever, humorous ways. By now, the act of Attar writing and directing a new piece has become a cause célèbre rather than merely a creative process that results in a performance for an audience congregated in a theater.
Two years since his last production, Attar has returned with many of his long-term collaborators and a scathing critique of Egypt’s upper classes: The Last Supper, which premiered at Falaki Theater last week. For this 45-minute satire, we’re invited to observe a dinner party at the residence of a quintessential elite Egyptian family.
Attar places both the audience and the action on Falaki’s stage, creating an intimate, close environment. The set, by Lebanese scenographer Hussein Baydoun, is beautifully simple and sleek: a large transparent dining table with transparent chairs, which allow us to see all of each actor at all times while not outshining them, contained by a backdrop of high heavy-duty plastic panels.
The dialogue is a series of inane conversations between a dysfunctional family of 11. Sitting between his dainty and vapid wife Mayoush (Marwa Tharwat), his self-loathing brother-in-law Hassan (Ramsi Lehner) and his money-mongering father-in-law, loquacious pink-shirted thirty-something Mido (Abdel Rahman Nasser) initiates man-to-man discussions of the latest sports car models, French cheeses and the American economy, from New Jersey’s hot dog industry to the legacy of Harley Davidson. A butler (Mohamed Hatem) and his ever-smiling subordinate (Mahmoud El Haddad) are on constant standby.
Fifi (Nanda Mohamed), Hassan’s wife, enters while chatting on her iPhone obliviously, with her two kids, their iPads and their nanny. Fifi delivers fake, over-sweet greetings before sitting down to look at her phone and constantly adjust her veil, in between bouts of admonishing her kids in French and trying in vain to be part of the conversation. Mayoush, in a short, tight dress, touches up her make-up and hair and makes unreasonable demands on the servants, while Hassan crouches on his chair, biting his nails in distress and goading his kids into tormenting the staff. The General (Sayed Ragab), a family friend, makes a grand entrance, sits at the center of the table and joins in by spewing racist, fascistic views on current events. The silent, oppressed nanny stands near Fifi, shifting under the weight of two large bags she never puts down, dressed in drab brown clothes and veil.
Intermittently, Mido calls out for the mother, who never makes an appearance on stage. At three points, when the family tensions begin to crescendo, the characters freeze in a tableau, the lights turn dark red, and the butler walks in slowly to the sound of Hassan Khan’s gently absurdist music, carrying a raw skinned head of a cow, a raw turkey or a raw chicken.
The Last Supper is balanced between a stylized, other-worldly aesthetic and all-too-familiar, lifelike dialogue and mannerisms. All the actors are constantly in action with carefully calculated movements, talking over each other at carefully calculated volumes, and so the audience’s focus perpetually moves around the cast to check on different characters.
From Mido’s first lines until the end, all that is said and done by every member of the family is a window into their superficial lives. Wealthy, devout and well-educated, they fail to engage in a meaningful debate of any sort, or be kind or courteous to one another or those who serve them. The play suggests that the modern upper-class Egyptian family is so obsessed with status that it is has become farcical how oblivious they are to the world around them. Our false sense of grandeur has turned us into beings who shy away from the challenge of evolving as a society; instead we find ourselves held hostage to endless trite interactions.
The play is a quite literal theatrical adaptation of the Ramadan iftar gatherings you dread having to attend, and a carbon copy of the delirious political exchanges you can’t help but overhear now as you pass through the tea garden area at any of Cairo’s members only sporting clubs. Attar’s chillingly relevant representation of this niche of Egyptian reality will prompt you to question the class divide and deteriorating national identity that mark the hollow lives we’re currently leading.
While Abdel Rahman Nasser’s acting is almost caricature-like, the other actors portray their characters with well-rehearsed skill. Through subtly calculated gestures and decisions, Lehner embodies the resentful and distraught artist who doesn’t exactly fit in to the family, but suffers from his own equally appalling vices. Both Mohamed and Tharwat are entirely convincing as frustrated, pampered women with limited horizons who expect to be waited on hand and foot. Ragab’s performance as the charming patriarch is equally enjoyable, his dapper appearance matching the character’s combination of dictator and smooth operator.
But while The Last Supper hits home with its shrewd and darkly comedic take on all that is wrong with Egyptian society today, the piece can be critiqued for lacking the elements that take it beyond a simple reflection of common social stereotypes. While the depictions are accurate, humorous and insightful, the realism of the characters makes them at once relatable and redundant, and you may find yourself thinking, “Well, what now?”
But perhaps it isn’t Attar’s intention to preach or lecture or offer alternatives (his characters do enough of that themselves). Perhaps we’re not meant to escape this dinner table and its endless, looped banalities. Perhaps we’re meant to reflect on our own lives and motivations as the stage lights dim on his characters, whose chatter continues regardless, creating an annoying, familiar buzz — the soundtrack to our day-to-day lives.