Despite an awkward space, the Thousand Tongues Theater Company captures the character of Khaled El-Khamisi’s novel
By Yasmine Nazmy
Khaled El-Khamisi’s award-winning novel Taxi, hailed as one of the most important books in contemporary Egyptian writing, does not naturally lend itself to dramatization. The book, which is a series of conversations between the author and taxi drivers, touches on socio-economic issues that affect the everyday Egyptian and captures the casual insights unique to taxi drivers. From political bullying and cronyism to sexual suppression and double standards to international relations and foreign policy, the text is a vibrant portrait of the issues that Egyptians talk about every day. And while El-Khamisi gave the company his blessings to adapt the text, he only saw the performance once it was completed.
The Thousand Tongues Theater Company’s adaptation of El-Khamisi’s book includes select passages, ordered in a way that allows for fluid transitions from one topic to the next. The performance is staged as an installation at Vent Cultural Space in Downtown Cairo, enabling actors move freely among the audience and within the space as they shift from scene to scene. Transitions are marked by electro-shaabi tunes blaring through the speakers, with actors dancing as they transition within the minimalistic set. Three primary locations are used in the performance, including a large stage and a small, primitive stall; a few scenes are also performed in the middle of the space, allowing actors to play off of the audience. The play has been adapted in both Arabic and English, with separate performance nights scheduled for each.
Co-directed by Brian Farish and Rewan ElGhaba, the stage adaptation of Taxi is an interesting experiment in Installation Theater and presents an ambitious vision of the text. In staging the stories and giving many of otherwise silent characters a voice, the book’s intimate conversations are naturally lost. On the upside, the stage adaptation allows the conversations to be represented through a larger variety of characters, especially women. The adaptation is comical and upbeat, with swift transitions and clever dramaturgy. By giving the author multiple faces and staging the play so that it rotates around the audience, the directors’ interpretation delivers on El Khamisi’s message without taking it too literally.
One of the strongest elements of the show is the performance delivered by actors Ahmed Achrafi, Omar Madkour, Abdelrahman Nasser, Ahmed Radwan and Hend El Shimy. They bring their full energy to the performance, and their convincing portrayal of the characters grips the audience throughout the show. Rather than limiting the characters to just taxi drivers, the actors play other roles including a preacher, a street-sweeper, a barman and a hairdresser. All of the actors are bi-lingual and perform the play in English and Arabic. According to one of the actors, working in both languages challenged them to express themselves in both languages and maintain ‘an Egyptian flavor’ in both performances.
“I deeply believe in the gifts of these performers,” says Farish about the actors.
On the downside, the choice of venue makes it difficult for audiences to sit and watch the performance, and pillars and walls obstruct many of the scenes, forcing viewers to move around frequently to keep up with the action on stage. And while the choices made by the directors in adapting the stories are dramatically viable, the performance does not always manage to capture the full attention of the audience.
The theater company is looking to take the show on the road in the future. “We are trying to work very closely with [El-Khamisi’s cultural foundation] Doum and two other organizations to coordinate our appearances in the cultural palaces outside of Cairo,” says Farish.
The group has also been invited to perform in Kraków, Poland by the Polish government.
At the preview of Taxi, El-Khamisi pledged his full support to the theater troupe and expressed that he would help them find venues to perform at.
“I am very happy about the idea of going outside of Cairo and I think this is something that needs to be seriously considered,” says El-Khamisi. “If you are able to do this, it will be very good.” et
The next performance of Taxi in Arabic is scheduled for February 9 at VENT, 6 Kasr El Nil Street, Downtown. For more information, visit http://www.thethousandtongues.com or https://www.facebook.com/thethousandtongues
Contact VENT at (02) 2574-7898 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/vent.cairo