In these times of galloping Islamophobia, the Shubbak (Window) Festival, celebrating Arabic arts, is most welcome. A highly imaginative two-week extravaganza across the genres offers something pretty much for everyone, and the music looks particularly tasty. A pity, then, that the El-Alfy Theatre Company’s contribution, “The Comedy of Oedipus” is such a mess. The 1970 play, by Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, is a kind of cautionary tale about hero-worship, but is updated in this production to include mobile phones and camcorders.
The play is set in Egyptian rather than Greek Thebes. Oedipus himself is a nonentity in the crowd until he volunteers, for no very clear reason, to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and thus kill off the beast that is slowly eating its way through the intelligentsia of Thebes. Previously the great and good have passed the buck – the Professor Homohab says thinkers should stick to thought, the Police Chief is too busy torturing people, Creon the Chief of Guards says his soldiers aren’t trained against such beasts. So Oedipus’s naïve offer comes as a relief to all. He returns, saying he has succeeded, and marries the Queen. He is made Pharaoh, deified, and becomes an inventor who propels Thebes forward five thousand years with his inventions, to the enrichment of the ruling classes. But the beast returns, and when Oedipus refuses to confront it, the play shifts into a kind of Problem Play about the need for the people to overcome fear, to refuse the easy solution of relying on the charismatic leader, to cease to conspire in their own enslavement. So they confront the beast, and are slaughtered because they have not been trained to believe in themselves. The plague of fear created by the Chief of Police is too endemic. Oedipus, awakening to his part in this conspiracy of power, banishes himself, leaving Creon, last survivor of the old Pharaonic tradition, to commit suicide. At least, that’s what I thought happened, but I was told by one of the actors that he was meant to have died in a solo combat with the beast, showing that it is possible to overcome fear.
It’s difficult to comment on a play from another culture with no other experience of that culture. However, most audiences will be similarly ignorant. It’s easy to see the contemporary relevance of the themes, but extremely hard to admire any aspect of the execution. Perhaps part of the problem is the title, because for a comedy there are barely a few titters on offer, and the change of gear to the final third feels very laboured. Characters are barely sketched, the narrative is confused – see Creon’s death above - and as a play of ideas it is half-baked, veering between commonplace and inconsistency. The conceit of a time-leap of five thousand years is not followed through with any rigour.It’s not helped by an amateurish production in which most performers alternately gabble and shout. Harry Belcher as Awalih the Police Chief in particular seems to be projecting for a space five times the size. Only Tom Phillips as Creon emerges with any clarity or authority. Elliott Pritchard as Oedipus is a baby-faced charisma-free blank, although it is not clear whether this is a deliberate directorial decision or just the performance. Either way, it gives little incentive to either watch or care. Lighting is messy and ill placed, costume thrown together.
The publicity for the play is brilliant – a flyer on papyrus paper with an advert for a Ramcedes carriage. But it’s a sad comment on a play or a production when the flyer is the classiest thing about it.