Visit to Egypt

Visit to Egypt

An edited version of this appeared in Total Theatre

It is the middle of the night, and we are on the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria, a journey of about 250 kilometres.  We are travelling in an old Peugeot estate driven by Tony, an Egyptian,  a talkative and genial man of about 60, who is also an authority on this particular part of North Africa (as we gradually discover).  He speaks fluent French, is a Christian (one of the five percent in Egypt) and he has sprained his wrist earlier in the day.  This is now a major problem since we have a puncture.  Terry Tiernan is a film maker, and with us on tour as he was in Poland last November and Germany just three  weeks ago, takes his camera out for the first time, filming the actors struggling to change the front tyre in pitch darkness.

A few hours later and we are on our way to Damanhur to get our first glimpse of the outdoor arena where we are to give our performance.  As we leave Alexandria’s city boundary we pass through an army check point.  We want to take thousands of photographs but it seems inappropriate.  Terry films nervously from inside the car.

Suddenly we are in the rural landscape of the Delta.  The town is about an hour’s drive away from Alexandria, well off the tourist track  (though these have all but disappeared).  Water buffalo plod through the fields, a camel is snoozing, a man cajoles a herd of sheep over a small bridge, scenes with a history of thousands of years.  It is clear to all of us that we have left Europe behind, and that we are now in Africa.

We are to learn later that this whole region has been altered irrevocably by the building of the Aswan dam.  Now, instead of flooding annually, leaving behind a nutritious silt , the fields have to be given artificial fertiliser.   Crops that were once plentiful now have difficulty in growing.  A small worm, once flushed into the sea by the flooding river waters, now remains behind in the river.  It burrows into human skin and launches its eggs into various parts of the body.

We pass a group of women washing their clothes in the river.  Tony our driver shrugs his shoulders and observes that unless the Israelis blow the dam up first (which would put the whole of Cairo under six feet of water)  the Russian built edifice  is crumbling away and will collapse anyway in about ten years time.


The space at Damanhur is large, very large.  In the centre is an empty swimming pool. We discuss technical details.  What depth of water in the pool ?  We decide on 12 cm.  Enough to walk in, but deep enough to immerse half the body if lying or rolling.   The seating arrangements begin to sound daunting.  The Sports Centre President wants us to give him a plan for 600 seats.  We oblige, but there is consternation because an Egyptian traditional dance company will follow us on the night and they want all the seats facing the same way.  It is Egypt, but  just for a moment it could be any theatre space anywhere.  We hold out, but compromise a little.  I am beginning to realise just how significant this event in Damanhur is.  Arrangements are confirmed over cups of Turkish coffee (my third in the space of two hours).  There is no bar in sight,  people are drinking tea, coffee or fruit drinks.

Later that evening in Alexandria we are guests at a reception given by the Alexandria British Community Group.  It is  my first experience of such a tight knit expatriate community.  Almost unable to control his excitement is Gordon Entwhistle, a water engineer who has put up the money and done most of the organising for our visit.  He has worked in Damanhur for several years and an international event of this kind is something he has dreamed about.  He is a genuine romantic, but also very down to earth.  We will want to make this work for him.

A group of young TEFL teachers includes Geoffrey Smith, a tireless collaborator  during the  development phase of this work.  When Gordon Entwhistle talked of his dream, Geoff knew just the company that could do it.

Two elderly sisters talk to us. They have lived in Alexandria all their lives.  The town was once a thriving  centre, with a large international presence, Swiss, French, British and German in particular.  The architecture is evidence of this cosmopolitan past.  Now though this is all over and the international presence is minimal.

Many of the European style buildings are crumbling away, most have squatter housing built on to the roofs and into any nooks and crannies that are available.    The trams are old and seem Eastern European, as do the taxis, evidence of President Sadat’s courting of the Soviets.

On the day of the first performance, Friday, we arrive at Damanhur early.  Seating is already being put out according to our plan.  The pool is filled with water (to 12 cm depth in the shallow end).  But more is happening that was not on the plan.  Four large strips of pastel coloured fabric now hang down the centre of the main building.  Flags are going up all around the space.  Large coloured flowers are being nailed to walls, and pride of place is given to a poster with the face of President Mubarek inside a flower, and on either side the title of our event.  The English title reads: Welcome at Home.  I wonder what the Arabic says.

Concern rises when around twenty five very posh looking seats are brought out, upholstered in red.  These are placed at the far end of the pool and are clearly for the dignitaries in the audience.  We start to set up technically, and to rehearse the possibilities in the space itself.  By 2pm we have to stop, the temperature is around 110 degrees F.  Jerry, one of the actors has been rehearsing bare from the waist up and he is now very red.  We are all concerned that he will be suffering from sunstroke before the performance has even started.

Now we can only hang around, and wait, and worry.  Failure here would be unthinkable.  We learn that the Provincial Deputy Governor is coming, and that as a result the British Consul General will also attend.  More chairs are being put out constantly.  The actors are beginning to get very nervous.

The event is scheduled to begin at 6.30 pm.  By 5pm the space is half full with spectators.  Whole families are present, children are running everywhere.  Fifty balloons, neatly tied together, have mysteriously arrived in the swimming pool.

I go through the starting sequence: Simon Edgoose the drummer will be given the go, and will walk out and start the whole thing off with a percussion solo.  I remark that this is how Peter Brook started his performance of the Mahabarata, and that the drums have tremendous power to concentrate the moment and the spectators’ attention. The actors will enter the space in those fragile but  precious few moments that follow the sound of the drums.

At 6.30 daylight is beginning to fade.  Before we can begin there has to be an introductory speech from the Sports Centre President, Said Feratem.   I have helped to write the English version and listen as the PA distorts and booms his words over the thousand or so people that have now arrived.  He finishes.  Simon walks out.  I hold my breath, standing well back, next to Terry who has set up a permanent camera mid way down the space.  He is surrounded by excited and very curious spectators.  The actors walk out onto the green carpet that now surrounds the whole pool.  I admire their courage, their skill.  At moments such as these I know why I am a director and they are performers.  Despite the numbers the space is quiet, all attention on the English performers.

After a few minutes their initial sequence brings them to a halt, and they stand very still, very visible.  At that point the whole audience erupted into applause, and I was stunned.  I realised very quickly that they were seeing the performance in a way that sequenced it via the held moments of stillness.  At each subsequent held moment there would be applause, cheers, whistles.

I knew that soon the performers would break away from the stage area at the far end of the pool and start to work the whole length of the space, running directly in front of and towards the spectators.  It was the going to be a dangerous moment, a gamble.  Would they be able to hold the whole event together from then on?  As I was thinking this I heard hoots and whistles, cheers and yelps of delight and astonishment.  One of the actors had broken away and was running the length of the pool.  I look round for Terry but he was gone.  I caught sight of him, running, camera in hand, towards a crowd of spectators that had surrounded the lone actor.  From then on the event seethed with interaction and bursts of clapping and whistling.  The noise was constant.  Young men were climbing the lighting posts to see better, to see the English woman who was by then climbing out of the swimming pool soaked from head to toe.  Simon the drummer was no longer by his amplified set, but had run round to more drums, this time acoustic, placed in the middle of a group of spectators.  I couldn’t see him, I could just hear the sound drifting over the water.

What I could see was heads and bodies gravitating towards a point, and moving rhythmically, smiling and laughing.

Suddenly I notice that heads are turning, there is a different buzz in the air, something must be happening, what, where?  I look to see where people are looking, and follow their gazes upwards, towards the flat roof of the Sports Centre Building.  There, standing in the middle and right on the edge, overlooking the whole event from twenty or more feet up is Jerry.  More and more of the spectators notice him.  Is there no end to the madness of the English performers ?    A whoop goes up from the other end, Alison is lying on the floor  right in front of the young men up the lamp post.

I decided to glance at the Consul and the Governor.  Relief, they seemed alright, smiling even, as they sipped tea from the elegant tables in front of them.

I was aware that I was the focus of attention as a group of young students gathered round me,  eager to know what was happening, who were we, why were we here ?

It was intriguing and great fun to hold a discussion on the performance while it was actually taking place.  Like spectators at a sporting event we would all stop and look around whenever a cheer or applause happened, then we would resume the debate.  One student in particular was beside himself: ‘I am happy.  Why am I happy?’

The two actors Jerry and Patrick were standing still, together.  Alison was in the pool taking the balloons apart and giving them one by one to the children who by now were thronging the pool side.  Surely  some must fall in.

They don’t.  The last balloon is carried away into the audience.  She gets out.  The men have gone.  She walks towards the  doorway that leads into the building, turns and walks back out towards the spectators.  They cannot take their eyes off her.  Suddenly she breaks out into a fast and determined run, people backing away as she flies past, she goes through the door, and she is gone.  The whole space is empty.  The performance is over.  It had lasted just over one hour.

The Egyptian performance follows.  Traditional dance, beautifully costumed.  The dancers are amateurs, local people from Damanhur.  The  musicians are accomplished, and all male.  A singer, a viola player, a keyboard player , a traditional flute and a string instrument looking rather like a mandolin.  All amplified to distortion levels.

As they perform I reflect on the uniqueness of the event, and on the chance circumstances that led up to it.  The whole evening is a one-off, unclassifiable and utterly memorable.  Who knows what its consequences may be, or why fate determined that it should happen.

A coach is laid on to take us back to Alexandria.  As it is a new Mercedes with obvious tourist connections, we have a military and police escort.  The atmosphere is tense, since the escort is good in one way, but with its flashing blue light is also making us just about as conspicuous as we could be.  We all decide that Terry must film the escort from the coach.  It is too good an opportunity to miss.

Who knows when we will next have a military presence accompanying us on tour?  Minutes into filming the coach stops.  What’s going on?  Someone whispers to Terry that it is forbidden to film the army.   Panic.  If they confiscate the tape then the whole of the evening’s performance is lost.  Terry unloads the camera fast, passes the tape to me, I put it in my bag.  Tension rises.  We wait.  Nothing happens, suddenly we are on our way again.  Relief, despite the lack of explanation.

On the Sunday we are to give an evening performance in the theatre of the Schutz American School in Alexandria.  Tony is to take us again, and we do the rounds collecting members of the company.  Alison is staying at the British Consulate.  When we arrive she is waiting outside, the centre of attention for the young soldiers, all armed with Russian machine guns and smiling broadly.

At the School we lay out the space quickly and efficiently.  We know that this performance must not be an anti-climax after Damanhur.  The British Consul is making a return visit, and bringing his family.  Our approach to setting up a space is simple: everything that can be removed is removed, so that the theatre is as bare and empty as possible.  This may sound straightforward but rarely is.  In this instance it is not so difficult.  As we take down or roll up the stage curtains we discover three sinks, a toilet and three taps on the back wall.  Finally revealed after years of being hidden ‘back-stage’ we comment on how some companies spend huge amounts of time (and money) to make sets that could never look better than our black wall, three sinks and single brass taps.

Similarly we explore the potential for use of the outside of the theatre.  All doors leading anywhere and everywhere around the space are opened and reconnoitred for the pathways they open up for the performers.  The lighting is minimal and is all pointing onto the stage. This is the only real headache.  I manage to turn some of them round to light up the whole area.

At 1.15 we meet the senior drama class of the school and their American teacher.  I talk briefly about our work and decide on a practical demonstration with them participating.  We only have twenty minutes.  They are very responsive, only one  of them is American, the others are Egyptian.  It is a weird mix and I don’t even begin to try to make sense of the cultural interaction going on here.

After 45 minutes in total a bell rings – it is time for them to go.  They seem to have got a lot out of it, the teacher is intrigued, trying to grasp the implications of what we have been doing for performance.

Her husband arrives carrying a six month old baby.  They are all coming to the performance that evening.

The acoustics are excellent.  Simon is eager to play, this time completely acoustic.  Around seventy have turned up, some school kids, families, members of the international community, Tony our driver and a friend, the Consul and his family.

The actors start moving into the space, exploring the line on the width of the theatre, passing spectators, heading towards others.  I notice a movement to my right.  One of the drama students from the school has got up and is walking with the actors.  It must have been a pre-determined decision.  He looks concentrated, alarmed, taut.  The drama teacher has her head in her hands.  Within minutes there are four people moving in the space with the performers.  Clearly they are a determined bunch.

The man with the baby is about to leave as the baby is becoming vocal.  I ask him to stay, and not to worry what sounds the baby makes.  There are in any case children of all ages in the audience, some of whom are now standing up to get a better look of that is happening.  The man puts the baby down on the floor of the stage area.  It immediately crawls off, Alison begins to follow.  She returns holding the baby, and stops on the edge of the stage area, just next to the two actors.  Jerry is standing close behind Pat and holding his outstretched hands in his own.  All are looking straight ahead.

Woman, baby, men: it is suddenly an action, an utterly unpredictable image of extraordinary power.  Afterwards, but only afterwards, I try to imagine the action without the iconography of Christianity.  A member of the audience said it brought to mind Abraham and his son.

I can’t even remember how the action and image dissolved.  By now the event was moving all over the space.  Jerry was outside.  Others had followed him.  I turned to catch sight of him on a wall, being looked at by a group of spectators.  Pat is now lying on his back in the middle of the space.  The taps have been turned on and water is everywhere.  A spectator puts his head under the running tap and comes to Pat and drenches his face by shaking his wet head and hair over him.  He repeats the action.

Some late comers are trying to make an unnoticed entrance through one of the doors.  Two girls.  Alison is running towards them and clearly is not going to stop.  I turn to look at the girls.  Their faces have expressions of utter bewilderment, close to terror.  They run off and watch from a distance, creeping closer as their curiosity increases.

The performers sense it is time to leave.  They form a line, experienced and professional they begin to walk out. They’ve gone.  One young spectator remains, aware that he has a once in a lifetime opportunity.   He stands in front of the seated spectators, breathing quickly.  We all watch him, knowing that we are in his hands, as he is in ours.  We let him do what he wants to do, unknowing, innocent, preposterous.  He sits on the floor finally.  The performers have all returned, changed and are seated.  Everyone begins to clap, and then begins to talk, and talk. The baby’s father explains excitedly that he saw the event as a performance simulation of life, moving dynamically all over the space, organising suddenly into patterns here, dissolving and settling somewhere else, always changing, never still.

As always we listen, careful not to offer our own explanation, letting them and ourselves down gently as the event turns into memory.

Before we leave for home Tony wants so show us the tourist sights of Alexandria.  At the Roman Catacombs there are only six people: us and one lone Japanese tourist.  Otherwise it is deserted apart from soldiers and security police.

At 5 the next morning we have made the return journey on the desert road and are near Cairo Airport.  We  ask Tony to take us to the Pyramids.  Disappointment.   We are met by police who tell us we can go no further.  Tony starts to turn the car around, it is getting light, dawn arrives.

Out of the back window of the car a huge shape is suddenly visible in a faint hazy light.  It is a Pyramid, massive, looming, silent.  We stop the car and look, amazed, surprised by this sudden appearance. Still looking we head for the airport.



© Barry Edwards