As we’re being seated before the play starts, a young man asks his friend in anxiety: “Why did they dim the lights like that? It’s a bit like in the cinema.” This sounds like a comment from someone who’s never been to the theater before, and most of the audience reactions to the play would emphasize this newbie vibe.
There was an earlier version of 1980 We Enta Talei (1980 and Up), in 2012, and it has been altered and then shown again multiple times to large audiences. It’s considered one of Egypt’s most successful recent plays, and has managed to attract young viewers — loads of them — who are totally unfamiliar with this classic art form. It’s such an exciting thing in an age when 7-second Vines are determining the medium-length attention span. The play isn’t that disconnected from the way things are evolving, either, as social media and the new culture it has brought are so present in it.
1980 and Up presents itself as a generation-focused play. The title had me expecting something about nostalgia and the shared humor of people who grew up in the 1980s. The play obviously doesn’t want to be only about that though, and works on owning more than that. I’m not sure the outcome was impressively satisfying to me as a person craving a new inspiring theatrical experiment, but to be honest, from what I’d heard about 1980 and Up, I knew that wasn’t what it had to offer. Yet I came out of it a lot less disappointed that I thought I’d be.
Before the curtains open, and as people are being seated in the dirty, run-down theater, the speakers pump famous pop tunes chronologically arranged from the 1980s forward. The audience start clapping and whistling in delight. I’ve never seen anything like this before, an extremely relaxed atmosphere that kind of contradicts the theater’s famously solemn ambience, and it paves the way for the kind of experience ahead. I can only smile and tap my foot to the beat!
The play starts with a bunch of young people taking a group photo. Then they start saying how old they each are. After that the show cracks into a series of sketches, each representing aspects of the way this generation was formulated, as the writer, 35-year-old Mahmoud Gamal (who also acts in the play), sees it.
The dialogue is very cliched, the sort of thing you’ve heard millions of times before. The actors are tense and overacting, although they loosen up a bit later on after the audience gives them some support. A track from the French movie Amélie plays in the background between the sketches, and sometimes fails to fade out properly before the actors start speaking. The rest of the music is either borrowed from other famous movies or are generally well-known songs, and they keep being shoved into the scenes relentlessly.
There’s a repetitive pattern of scenes that start funny, then develop into very long theatrical melancholic monologues covered in sad music. At some point, people get that trick and get bored of it — I overhear some sarcastic comments and quiet giggles in the middle of some supposedly super emotional moments. Generally, the young director, Mohamed Gabr, does nothing special at all in terms of choreography or lighting or anything else.
Without fail, people laugh really hard at the jokes, which are sometimes very clever, other times quite predictable. There’s much applause in return for extremely overacted scenes full of yelling. There’s a musical part at the end where people clap their hands the whole time and even sing along. It isn’t just a usual sensational mob reaction to a cheap piece of theater: The play actually has some very important things to say, and the people get the message and ignore the shitty bits.
In a sketch in which all the characters are on stage, facing the audience, each character says a sentence commenting on their life or what’s happening in the country. The sentences are obviously structured like Tweets and Facebook statuses. The audience reacts very well, either through laughter or sometimes applause to the bold political ones. Of course it goes on forever, and could have been much shorter, and one could see it as a cheap recycled shot, but to me it’s of a great significance. It links the show very well to the social media world from which it organically sprouted.
This link provokes lots of ideas for me in relation to the way the play evolves later on. The scene makes me think of how these young people believe they had something to say, and how important this is to understanding the 2011 revolution and the future of the country. This scene — and the whole play to be honest — makes me feel very hopeful about how what people want is going to be an important factor in the way the country works in the future.
After exploring the miseries and joys of this generation with sketches about failed dreams and aborted hopes, the show develops its political tone, and points fingers sharply and clearly at who it thinks are responsible. The play attacks the Ministry of Interior and accuses it of killing protesters, it makes fun of the story of the revolution being hijacked and retold by everybody, and it makee fun of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, very boldly and bravely.
I remember few months ago when I watched the movie Al-Gezira 2 (The Island 2), when the audience in the cinema laughed at its mean jokes about the revolution. I remember how bitter and betrayed I felt. When I was watching 1980 and Up, to the contrary, I was surprised by the long and heated applause at jokes making fun of the army and the political situation.
At the end, along with most of the audience, I stand up and salute the team behind this pathetic, cheesy, tacky, poorly made piece of theater that has, like all of us, almost nothing but hope and a sense of humor.
The most 1980s thing about the play was that it truly feels like it was made back in the 1980s. It’s impossible to ignore how old-school everything in it is. It could easily be considered a natural extension to actor and director Mohamed Sobhi and scriptwriter Linen al-Rummly’s collaborations made at the time, like Weghet Nazer (Point of View, 1989). The direction it takes and its combination of comedy and a strong political message is very similar.
One of the biggest differences, though, is the absence of a star. The main figure Sobhi always structured his plays around was himself. Sobhi, once considered a rebellious, important artist and a pioneer in theater, is now rich material for comic internet memes. His boring lectures during television appearances about his hollow moralistic values alongside his disgusting alignment with authority and the state have become a mockery for lots of young people.
Sobhi’s ambitious project to glorify the role of theater and revive a love for it in the hearts of Egyptians was poisoned by his blind egocentric self-righteousness, cheap opportunism and disconnection from reality and from peoples’ pains, the main source for lots of good theater and art generally.
The lesson for the 1980s and Up team is that they might now lack the craft, and rely on honesty and innocence, but this balance isn’t going to last. They should be prepared for huge shifts, and for Ramadan soap opera acting contracts.
1980 and Up is playing at Hosapeer Theater until June 5. Box office opens at 6 pm, show starts at 8 pm, and there are two shows on Fridays, at 5 and 9 pm.
Read a contrasting take on 1980 and Up here.