UNESCO recognizes the 27th of March as World Theatre Day. What better way is there to celebrate the global event than by attending a show. Specifically, I went to LAPA‘s Our Deal with the Italians, which was playing at the Yarmouk Cultural Center on the 26th and the 27th of March.
Our Deal with the Italians is based on historical events. Written and directed by Fareah Al-Saqqaf, the play revolves around two sisters: Akbar Al-Saqqaf (played by Nadia Ahmad), and Dia’ (played by Sara Rashad). Akbar, an intellectual and professor of philosophy at Cairo University, had been engaged to the former King of Libya, Muhammed Idris Al-Sanusi. Her sister, Dia’, is a visual artist. The entire play takes place in the sisters’ living room in a small apartment cluttered with books and statues. It spans a day in the year 1970.
Both women are starving artists. The first writes books that cannot be published due to Egypt’s sever censorship laws, and the second carves sculptures that she ends up giving away as gifts. Their financial troubles seem endless until the phone rings and “the Italians” offer to buy the fourteen letters Al-Sanusi had written to Akbar during their engagement. The price offered by the Italians would cover the sisters’ debts and enable them to pursue their dreams (such as traveling to Paris and meeting Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoire). Akbar keeps backing out, and the Italians keep raising the price until the end.
Here’s what I liked about the play. In the beginning, the characters appear as superficial (or stereotypical) sides of the same argument: should they sell the letters or would that jeopardize their integrity? For instance, Akbar cries, “Do you know of any respected artist who is rich?” She represents the emotional/artistic side of the argument, and hence backs out of the deal repeatedly. Her sister, on the other hand, represents the pragmatic/practical angle. Dia’ reminds Akbar of their debts and the dreams that could be achieved with the cash. But as the play progresses, we see another side, not only of both characters, but also of the former King himself. I am particularly referring to selfishness and a complete disregard to human emotions.
Akbar, for example, refuses to sell the letters even though her sister makes it very clear that they are on the brink of bankruptcy. More importantly, she refuses to sell the letters even after she is reminded of selling numerous precious articles, such as jewels that belonged to their parents and other objects that they had treasured during their lifetimes. We also find out that she had received an ultimatum from Al-Sanusi: either to become his wife or to pursue her dreams. Akbar chose the latter.
Al-Sanusi himself had made a similar choice — “I am a man with a cause” — by prioritizing his country over her emotions. Finally, we find that the visual artist is disconnected from the real/human world in the same manner–while she was willing to “sacrifice” her parents’ and sister’s treasures for money, she refuses to sell her own. In a world where money means life/sustenance, both sisters prefer their idealistic visions about art/academia to each other’s well-being, just as the former king had preferred his cause to Akbar.
The play ends before the climax, the falling action and denouement. Right before Marchello (who is negotiating on behalf of the Italians) rings their doorbell, Akbar decides to burn the letters. Her sister manages to grab and conceal one. The door bell rings. The play ends.
Personally, I would have preferred to see the other parts of the narrative. What happens when Marchello finds out that there is now only 1 letter instead of 14? Will Akbar fight her sister to make sure that the final letter is burned before the the Italian enters? And most importantly, now that they have selected a life of poverty, will the sisters’ attitudes about art/academia change when they are forced out into the streets to beg? I feel as though, by robbing the audience of the remainder of the narrative, the play panders to highfalutin morals.
It’s like a play about a bank robbery which spends all its time illustrating the arguments for and against robbing the bank, but ends when the robbers approach the building. Audiences won’t get to see the ways in which specific characters react, and the aftermath of the bank robbery. Especially missing is theory’s encounter with practice. Will the most self-righteous bank robbers remain steadfast in their idealism, or will they get tested?
I think these questions are important because Akbar recalls how Al-Sanusi was unanimously crowed by his own population and how his claims to the throne were corroborated by the United Nations, but when Ghaddafi ousted him, Al-Sanusi found little to no support from anyone. When tested with real hunger, real poverty, real darkness and chaos, will Akbar regret her decision? Will she be rewarded for her authenticity? Or will she carve a dignified and artistic life with her own hands? The play raises but does not answer these questions.
The set design was amazing, and so was the acting. The costumes were out of sync with the historical period, however, and Akbar’s microphone was off or low. The play was in Arabic. An English translation appeared on two large screens. And save for a woman who sat behind me and chatted on her phone for a good 5 minutes, angering possibly her husband and son who both vacated their seats, and who continued talking even after my best friends and I asked her to stop it already, I really enjoyed the play and look forward to LAPA’s upcoming productions.
Before the play began, Rasool Al-Saghir, an Iraqi director who has been working with LAPA for the past four years, beamed with joy. He said seven graduates, two directors and five actors, have gone on to participate in Kuwait’s cultural scene; a number of LAPA students received certificates; and Abdulnaser Al-Zayer was honored for his acting.