“I’ve only been thinking about this in the last week,” says Christopher Haydon, “but I mean 15% turn out!?” This is the artistic director of Gate Theatre on news of Egyptian elections. “You have to compare that with 80% in November,” he continues. “That’s a catastrophic drop. The disillusionment in Egypt is huge.”
Addressing the revolutionary events in January 2011, Christopher’s latest production, The Prophet, written by Hassan Abdulrazzak makes a lot of the experience of those events. The script, inspired by interviews conducted with people in Cairo, follows young engineer Layla. Struggling in a stagnant marriage and frustrated by slow political progress, she places herself in the thick of Tahrir square and is invigorated by it.
With the election stats on his mind, Christopher taps into what creates the changes now symbolised in Tahrir Square. “I hope that people who looked at Egypt in January last year and thought ‘Oh well, of course Egypt’s going to go to shit’, will watch this play and come to think that nothing is inevitable and nothing is irreversible. That energy, that excitement that was felt in those 18 days, that has to be re-found.”
I don’t this is meant as political as it sounds., he’s not looking to create an activist piece of theatre. He’s talking about people, our fallibility and our humanity, the great things we’re capable of and the piss poor state of affairs we allow to continue “It’s about reminding people of where something came from, creating a consciousness that things don’t have to keep going the way they are. It’s not an event, it’s a process.”
But that’s a tall order for an hour and forty minute-show, the programming of which says a lot about Christopher and his vision for The Gate: ‘London’s International Theatre’. Taking over the 70-seater fringe venue in Notting Hill has had Christopher readdressing that tagline. “For The Gate, its internationalism should interrogate what it means to be international. It should look at those processes that shape the world, that drive globalisation, it should look at those forces, those ideas, that engine behind change that gives someone this international perspective. ”
Perspective is what must set The Prophet apart. If it provides a new perspective, it can avoid that overused generic label: topical! To engage with its subject matter and reflect the universal, human capabilities that Christopher is so impressed by, The Prophet has to present a new angle on something familiar. For him, this is the individual and the detail.
“The news coverage is about tens of thousands of people in Tahrir square,” he explains, “it’s about Mubarak stepping down, it’s about the big things. But what you can do in a theatre is take a magnifying glass and find an individual within that and say what was it like for this person? By fictionalising it, you can have more fun as well. For an audience of outsiders like us, it’s about creating something that gives a different way of accessing what happened and the aim of The Prophet was to explore that nexus between those large scale events and the personal ones.”
For Layla and her writer husband Hisham, however, their own independent personal events aren’t just connected to the larger ones, they’re engulfed by them. Ahead of his brutally romantic play Tender Napalm last year, Philip Ridley told me “none of the relationships we have are just about that relationship. They’re always about where we are at that stage in our lives, and how the world is at that stage in our lives.” It seems especially fitting for these two characters within the grey shades of the secular left. Disunited, disconnected “they find their scruples challenged” as Christopher puts it.
“You do have political arguments between characters in the play. Layla’s boss is an old Mubarakite, his argument is look, I’m a Coptic Christian. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes into power then I’m going to be victimised, of course I don’t want them to win, of course I want Mubarak to stay, that’s safer. And Layla, this young radical, can’t stand that her boss is conservative.”
“For me” he says “those conversations aren’t the most interesting.The most interesting thing is when characters crash into themselves and can’t resolve something.”
I’m not sure the two are so different. To me, the former leads to the latter. These specific political arguments are what makes a play stand out. They enable writers to pull the political through the domestic and more often than not, they tap into ideas beyond the specific time and place of their setting. They reveal how a character thinks. Take Chicken Soup with Barley which you can boil down to its family-focused essentials, or read for clues to the decline of socialism in the UK or both. Either way, in Wesker’s play the initial scene that sees a family stare out of a window onto a fascist march in east London is what spurs discussions of beliefs, values, ambitions, priorities and relationships. And these discussion are what cause the characters to crash into themselves.
“In a way,” he reconsiders, “the 15% is brilliant because it shows people aren’t being suckered by what’s happening. Yes, the fact that there is disillusionment with the process could be really bad because it could be a sign that people are retreating into their shells and saying we knew it wasn’t gong to work, we’re screwed. But it could also be a sign that there’s more to come.”