Woman on Strike: The Last Supper at the Hong Kong Arts Festival

03/06/2017 09:18 pm ET
Photo courtesy Hong Kong Arts Festival

The Last Supper, playwright’s Ahmed El Attar’s scandalous portrait of the Egyptian ruling elite, flew in to the Hong Kong Arts Festival from Cairo but it doesn’t seem to have traveled far. This stylized charade of a family dinner teeters on the edge of absurdity, though the vapid, often sexist and racist exchanges between the self-absorbed characters could have been recorded in any gold-plated dining room from Hong Kong to Mumbai, Manila, São Paulo, Capetown or Moscow – indeed, any city marked by a conspicuous class divide, whose economy is dominated by a few entrenched, inbred families.

The staging is stark and minimalist, the dining table and chairs all in glass and plexiglass, the black box stage lined with reflective panels, so there is nowhere to hide. There is nothing to eat at this family dinner, though several dead animals are trotted out ceremoniously by the servants: the head of a cow with its tongue lolling out; a couple of scrawny plucked chickens. The family members are just as unappetizing in a terrific ensemble performance of a scenario that is at once familiar and bizarre, comic and stomach-churning.

The play takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring but the revolution seems not to have taxed this family. The genial paterfamilias (Boutros Boutros-Ghali) continually marvels at the price of some commodity and extols the virtue of franchises. He expresses mild anxiety about the future, which his old chum, an influential General (Sayed Ragab), hastens to dispel, describing the nation-wide restiveness as a short-lived “phase.” The fascistic General and crony businessman embody the cozy conspiracy that inevitably shores up every corrupt system.

Daughter-in-law Fifi (Nanda Mohammad) notes distastefully that “revolutionaries don’t shower.” She frets about not being able to get decent help, though her wheeler-dealer brother-in-law Mido (Abdel Rahman Nasser) brags that he has a good source for Indonesian and Filipino maids. The petulant Fifi is none too pleased with Mido, however, for he has not followed her on Instagram.

An animated debate over the relative merits of London and Paris revolves around which city has better shopping and the more agreeable sales assistants. America is dismissed as too dirty and violent, thanks to the blacks, all of whom – with the exception of Barack Obama – are denounced by the General as criminal gang members. He does not single out African Americans, though. To him, most of the world’s less fortunate are “vermin.”

Fifi’s husband, the sullen Hassan (Ramsi Lehner), is the sole family member who is not obsessed with money. The rest of the family refer to him as “an artist”– which presumably explains why he crouches on a dining chair, and why, instead of joining the men in the Muslim prayer ritual, he hangs back and chants “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

Hassan’s baser instincts emerge as he goads his young children into assaulting the servants for sport, and as he describes his pleasure at raping female servants. Lehner gives a truly chilling performance. When the womenfolk protest Hassan’s grotesque narrative, they are silenced by the General. Hassan is not debasing women, he explains, at least not their kind of women. The General blames a shadowy influx of migrants: “Egypt is full of people who have no faith.” He sees conspiracy everywhere, in the banal schemes of used car salesmen and in the larger cabals of “America, Iran and Sweden, who all want to bring Egypt down. Using Facebook.” As he spins these delusions and manufactures a myth of Egyptian exceptionalism, it seems that all he’s missing is a red baseball cap embossed with ‘Make Egypt Great Again.’ Ragab doesn’t rise above caricature in his portrayal of the General – but then neither do most real-life demagogues.

What truly is missing from The Last Supper is the Christ-figure at the center of the proceedings. The empty place at the table belongs to Nadia, the mother of the family. Her husband periodically shouts for her to join them, and sends the beleaguered butler after her. But – like Melania Trump who refuses to move into the White House – Nadia is a no-show. Is her absence an assertion of agency in a situation where the woman has little power? Is it a mute plea to be rescued? Or a refusal to be a visible party to her husband’s corruption?

Of course El Attar wrote the play well before Mrs. Trump grappled with her private demons (and the terms of her pre-nuptial agreement.) But the parallel is striking. The playwright would similarly not have foreseen the calls for a women’s strike on March 8th , International Women’s Day, intended to spotlight the uptick in misogynist policies and administrations in many countries. Women globally will be taking a powerful cue from Nadia, the absent heroine of The Last Supper, by simply refusing to show up.

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