Another take on 1980 and Up: A play in a can

A kitsch banner adorns the entrance. A theater attendant skeptically peeks out from the box-office. “One ticket please.”

A run-down staircase, tarnished carpeting, murky stained glass and shady people jumping at me at every corner of the Hosapeer Theater in Qolaly. “Sex,” whisper two young men as I pass them on my way to the hall. What a depressing and seedy theater, I think to myself.

Brazenly loud Egyptian pop music from the 1980s plays before the show, an unusually popular one, commences — setting the mood for a nostalgic performance re-using music, drama and fashion from the 1980s. But this turns out not to be the case.

1980 We Enta Talei (1980 and Up) begins with 13 friends taking a photograph together. They announce their ages, ranging between 24 and 35. This prologue is followed by the body of the play: a series of short scenes, mostly set in the present time (although one skit takes place in the year 2150) depicting young people’s struggles. A 90-minute show, it was written by Mahmoud Gamal and directed by Mohamed Gabr, who both also act in it.

In 2009, Qahwa Sadah (Black Coffee), directed by Cairo Creativity Center head Khaled Galal, showed at the Cairo Opera House. The 90-minute play was praised in the media and many saw it as a sarcastic scream for help.

It was a series of comedic skits that criticized and mocked the social, economic and political situation of Egypt during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. Topics such as the uneven distribution of wealth, unemployment, social alienation and the bizarre fatwa on adult breastfeeding were some of the main topics portrayed. As a theatrical performance, Black Coffee was solid, coherent and successful, though it dragged on a bit toward the end.

Definitely less artful but like its predecessor, 1980 and Up sticks faithfully to the tried and tested formula, the inherited template – delineating the vices of society and economic obstacles without delving too deep into taboo politics. This makes it redundant in my opinion and lacking as a work of art — it simply does not push the envelope further.

Such “safe-zone” productions offer the spectator a recommended dose, a social topic, a touch of economy, a dash of politics, a comedic skit, a dance, a song and everyone comes out happy. It’s like how a plate of koshari fills you instantly but may give you indigestion later. 

Although the play offers a good acting chance for multiple talents and despite the fact that energy existed between fellow actors, articulation and projection were weak. The soundtrack interrupted and actually ruined many scenes that could have been powerful without it. It felt like the director did not trust the actors’ performance and wanted to back it up with some poignant music – but this tactic totally backfired. Also, at stage left a white piece of cloth hung down, apparently for no reason, against the black background, which was visually disturbing. Most of the time either the light operator or the actors were late or early for their cues. The stage manager definitely wasn’t on top of his game.

Despite the mediocre artistic value of such productions, they serve a purpose. Like a tractor, they unearth young, potential talents and bring them up to the surface where the sun of stardom can shine on them. Many of the young actors of Black Coffee are currently rising stars in cinema and television. I don’t doubt that in a couple of years Mohamed Entaby, one of the actors, could be the star of a popular new movie, and actors Marwa al-Sabahy and Samar al-Negely may be the leading ladies in a Ramadan soap opera.

But I did not enjoy 1980 and Up. I was annoyed by the exaggerated expressions and gestures and the fake emotions on stage as much as the over-laughing from the audience. To me, everything felt loud and empty.

One scene is a reworked version of Ismail Yassin’s famous mid-century skit Al-Maganeen (The Crazy Ones). The young actors dress in white robes and sing against the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule and mimic the current president’s lovey-dovey manner in speeches. It’s kind of bold, but a joke that’s already overdone on social media. Regardless, impersonating or mocking rulers does not necessarily make one a theatrical rebel.

Saeed Saleh in Samir al-Asfouri’s play Leiba Esmaha al-Felous (A Game Called Money, 1983) sharply mocked 60 years of military rule when he said, “My mother married three times. The first fed us bad cheese, the second taught us cheating and the third is simply useless.” Saleh was jailed for six months shortly after, apparently for hash possession, but many believe the reason was the way this line mocked Nasser, Sadat and above all Mubarak. Political comedy is witty, sharp and definitely much more than mimicking individuals, which often ends up being a cheap shot.     

The play was well-advertised on social media and that may be one of the reasons why audiences have kept flowing to it. The topics depicted are current and very fresh in the minds and hearts of the young people who revolted and now stand clueless at a crossroads. The nobility and timeliness of the topic lures many, yet the execution is poor, commercial and unconvincing.

In my opinion, it is almost insulting to abuse the hopes, disappointments, successes and failures of a generation throughout four years by portraying them in a series of badly-executed, artistically poor and overplayed skits. As an audience member, I felt taken lightly. You simply cannot rate a play based on its political message solely. Theater is art and there was nothing artful about this shabby performance.

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.

Amany Ali Shawky 

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