This is not the most effective staging of spousal abuse

Christine Fawaz portraying one of the 13 victims of domestic violence in Abyad's "This is not an Egyptian Film." (Photo by Sami Haddad, courtesy of the LAU)

BEIRUT: “This is Not an Egyptian Film” aspires to documentary truth. The latest production of prolific playwright and director Lina Abyad is based on testimonies she collected from abused women around the world, including Lebanon, Ukraine, Paris, England and Pakistan.

Now on stage at Lebanese American University’s Gulbenkian Theater, the play features a metaphoric set design. At the center of this stylized household sits a gargantuan dining table littered with shards of broken porcelain. The sheer size of the prop seems designed to represent the size of the problem under discussion.

Less subtle is the upstage television room, which is separated from the downstage dining area by vertical rods suggestive of prison bars.

From behind these bars comes the soundtrack of the titular Egyptian movie that the actors are watching. The juxtaposition of the filmic melodrama with the characters’ domestic horror stories is interesting enough, but it too seems somewhat forced.

To recount its stories of violence against women, the play deploys an ensemble cast of 21 actors (15 women and 6 men).

As the action begins, a man and two women approach the stage from the left and the right and stand rigid. It’s from these positions that they tell their parents’ stories, particularly of how their father threatened and abused their mother.

A tall man in a beige suit (Rami Saidi) enters from stage left and stalks the floor, a coil of rope in hand. At the end of this leash is attached a bank, a metallic headpiece and a woman. This less-than-subtle symbol of control and abuse roams the stage, the embodiment of what the female narrators have undergone.

Over the over-long 60-minute performance, each of the female figures relates her fairy tale-like story of a woman who suffered from domestic abuse. Each of the recountings follows a similar pattern.

To circumvent suspicion, the man first makes the woman cut contact with her friends and family. Then he attacks her self-esteem and self-confidence. The guilty husband eventually reverts to loving and caring behavior. If the woman tries to flee, he threatens to hurt her or himself.

The female actors – especially Nazha Harab, Dima Matta, May Ogdon Smith and Sima Ghaddar – relate their characters’ horrifying experiences faithfully, attempting to render some tonal and facial variety along the way.

Faced with these depictions of their characters’ absurd situations, the audience only laughs nervously.

Aside from Saidi’s beige-suited sadist, the male actors do little justice to the complexity of their abusive characters. Their monstrosity is best related via the female actors’ detailed descriptions of their torture – as when one woman describes how her character’s husband cut up and hid her cigarettes.

Obviously, the issues this play takes up are timely and pressing. Yet Abyad has not yet told these stories with the craft needed to make them work on stage.

“This is Not an Egyptian film” runs until May 4 at LAU’s Gulbenkian theatre. Curtain goes up at 8.30 pm. For reservations, please call 01-786-464 or 03-791-314 ext. 1172

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 01, 2014, on page 16.




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