“Who will win in a free and fair election?”
Vinegar, Pepsi and onions. The things one learns at the theatre are many and varied but having seen The Prophet at the Gate Theatre, I now know three ways to counteract the effects of tear gas. With the fresh turmoil of the Egyptian presidential election and a military -enforced constitutional crisis, Hassan Abdulrazzak’s new play arrives with impeccable timing. Set in the middle of the Arab Spring in a Cairo bubbling with possibility of significant change and all the danger it brought with it, he uses this as a backdrop to explore the lives of people living in the middle of it.
Hisham and Layla have been married for seven years but things are going stale. He’s struggling with writer’s block but having his head turned by interest from glamorous Western literary agents; she’s an engineer, fending off her amorous boss even as she feels utterly neglected in the marital bed. Initially, the incipient revolution seems like an unwanted distraction from their comfortable liberal lives but as it awakens Layla’s nascent political activism and Hashim’s imagination flips into fevered overdrive, their own well-buried secrets threaten as seismic a change as the overthrow of the Mubarak regime.
The pulsing heart of this play, directed with searing precision by Christopher Haydon, lies in its documentary roots; its evocations of a pivotal, possibly epic moment in Egyptian society as based on extensive interviews with all levels of Egyptian society. In a simply stunning piece of writing at the mid-point, Layla describes her journey into the middle of the protests at Tahrir Square – the unexpected camaraderie with people of all classes, the terror of the police turning against their own people, the simultaneous fear and exhilaration of being in the middle of it all. Sasha Behar delivers this with an excoriating directness and fierce passion that is simply breathtaking to watch and by any rights ought to be recognised come the end of the year.
That this scene, and the others like it, resonates with such an obvious truth poses less of a problem than one might have assumed, given Abdulrazzak’s vivid construction of Hashim’s guilty conscience which offers a sound counterpoint to the brutal reality going on around him, something highlighted by the atmospheric use of video footage across Holly Pigott’s sand-hued set. The only real weakness for me came in some rather clunkily unbelievable dialogue for Layla’s boss, some modern film referencing that just fell flat.
Behar is excellent throughout and as for the rest of the cast, Nitzan Sharron exudes a deeply sexy Mark Ruffalo-esque affability as blocked writer Hisham, Melanie Jessop swishes effectively as Suzanne, the femme fatale literary agent whose agenda runs deeper and Silas Carson manfully handles the doubling of Layla’s boss Hani and Suzanne’s work-proud colleague Metwali. There’s a credibility throughout here that does the playwright proud, the sense of bitter realism never far from the surface. As Layla says, ‘you have a certain image of yourself, the things you wouldn’t do. But then life puts that image to the test and you find yourself wanting.’ Abdulrazzak wisely resists the temptation to recast the Arab Spring with a rose-tinted hue in favour of representing the reality of living through it.
The power of The Prophet is further multiplied by its prescience. As its final scenes play out with Layla and Hashim working their way to uncomfortably huge decisions, there is no sense that resolution is on the horizon, either for this couple or for Egypt itself. Deposing Mubarak’s regime is one thing but the political culture has been so stifled for so long that its potential replacements are extremely limited, hence the troubled elections we are now witnessing. A powerfully urgent piece of political theatre.