A man has a job, he hates it. It's not that he's bad at it, in fact he's quite good. But it's not what he wants to be doing, and he's been doing it for five years. Waking up at the same time every day, the same traffic, the same desk, the same people, the same everything. The deadening routine. “And yet I still have dreams.”
Five overlapping stories and five uprooted trees make up “Ebb and Tide,” a play shown on Friday at Rawabet Theater.
In between snippets of the five narratives, a woman stands on a block placed almost amid the audience members sitting on the floor at the front. She tells us about trees uprooted by the storm, overwhelmed by the tide. The relief that comes with the ebb, a temporary relief before the next deluge.
The pace changes between the stories' raw realism and the poetic lyricism of the interludes, which return us to the allegory of storm-swept trees. The pace changes with the use of music: a woman strumming her guitar and singing, the rest of the stage in darkness, another woman telling a story to a humorous soundtrack she provides with her accordion, or a full band playing. The narratives are separate, yet form one, and the lyrics are part of the central narrative — “the ebb will end the storm, but human pain will live on,” “the sky cries,” “the storm is still wreaking havoc on the city.”
There is an intimacy that is not just the function of the place, the Rawabet Theatre, with much of the audience on the floor close to the actors. And the intimacy is not that we are directly addressed. But we are being spoken to; it is a conversation in which our narratives could easily coalesce into the narrative being presented, and the actors on stage know that. They don't tell us, but we know.
The stage is simple. A few levels, a couple of benches. All black. When the focus is on one character — if we can call them characters, for while each actor takes on a character, they are also sharing their own stories, acting themselves — each tells their story, facing us, while the other actors play the part of props and conversants in the narrative being told at that moment. The stories come from the actors' lives over the nine years since the troupe, Al-Tamy, was established in 2002. “Ebb and Tide” is the eighth production of the group that takes its name from the mud at the bottom of the Nile, the dark mud that is the source of fertility.
Trees swept by the storm, people like you and I seeking to make sense of it all: in this way the narratives move effortlessly from the fantastical to the gritty mundane of day-to-day life, to the existential and the sociopolitical. We are barely aware of the switches in levels as we go from the details of EgyptAir stewards' uniforms to a critique of Dubai as a society built on exploitation and a symbol of economic success, from the magic of brushing shoulders with someone beautiful to what it means to return home, to Egypt, knowing that you can indeed bear it, “in spite of the chaos and the harshness.”
In between all these levels, it is extremely funny. The use of humor is pervasive and sophisticated throughout the 90-minute play. One character describes her daily journey to work, her awareness that she is lucky to be in her own car rather than public transport not detracting from the frustration of being stuck in traffic, feeling she is losing hours of her life. She says when it comes to the cars and buses stretching ahead, none of them moving, that this “is the last thing she would want to see in her life,” her tone bordering on histrionic, her accordion music mimicking a melodramatic film soundtrack, and we laugh. Her ability to laugh at herself and our laughing with her doesn't take away from the severity of that frustration.
A woman is telling us about when she came to Cairo, what she studied, what she learnt and didn't learn, the building she lives in. She presents a story that has precise attention to detail while also being an allegory of class in Egypt and of the counter-revolutionary moment. The apartment block has a committee and an army general is a key figure in it. The committee dismisses the bawab who looks after the building, who is caring and attentive to those who live there. She is distraught, she draws up a petition, those who don't care either way don't want to make any effort even if it means simply signing, she changes her Facebook status. The bawab is kicked out. The building is renamed “Tahrir Tower,” the snipers walk freely and there's a new lick of paint.
Whether it's the chaos and harshness of life in Egypt, the routine of our jobs, the confusion at a time when everyone takes on the mantle of revolution, whether it's ebb or tide, the calm or the storm, we still have our dreams.
In the allegory, the moon brings the tide and the sun dries the water in a never-ending cycle. Here pessimism and optimism, hope and weariness dance together: we know it will get better, and get worse, and get better. And we will weather the storm and feel the sun on our faces.
The stories are universal and particular, particular to the five actors, to Egypt, and to this moment. Uprooted, they are seeking connections, to country, to other people, to themselves. The mood is both weary and upbeat, tired but looking forward to beyond the storm, knowing there is never a moment in which the storm will not return. The mood is appropriate to the moment, as we approach the first anniversary of the 25 January uprising, none of the demands of the revolution yet fulfilled, a long journey ahead. And if the standing ovation was anything to go by, the tone struck a chord to say the least. There is another performance on Saturday evening, but let's hope that it won't be the last. This play deserves to be seen by many more.