Review – Cry Havoc: An unsettling coincidence

2013-07-06 11:48

Last night, as the people of Egypt once more took to the streets in political protest on either side of the “Morsi” divide, Cry Havoc had its South African premiere at the National Arts Festival. An unsettling coincidence.

Written by American playwright Tom Coash, it is set in Egypt in 2003, a full decade ago, yet the title and much of the content seems eerily clairvoyant.

It is an intimate profile of a pair of lovers – one Egyptian, one English. They are on the periphery of society not only because theirs is a mixed cultural match, but because they are homosexual in a homophobic place.

Mohammed, played by Gopala Chetty, is detained and tortured for a week in police custody. He might have been a lovesick pup mooning over his lover when he was arrested, but the brutality of his experience has broken some delicate part of his soul. He sees love now as a dangerous thing, a dirty thing keeping him from being drawn into the bosom of his family and, by extension, people.

His lover, Nicholas (David Dennis), can’t grasp what has happened and responds the only way he knows how, to make plans for them to run away to England. But this course of action has too many pitfalls for Mohammed. As he poignantly says, “in Egypt I can’t be myself.

In England I can’t be Egyptian”.

The analogy of dogs alluded to in the play’s Shakespearian take-out from Julius Caesar is a recurring theme. The barking dogs in the streets of Cairo are the music of home to Mohammed, while Nicholas barks back at them, hoping to shut them up.

Mohammed yearns, he says, to be a rabid dog, rather than one that turns tail and runs as Nicholas suggests with his call to go to England where it is safe. There is perhaps a little too much melodrama in this tale. It felt a little forced and repetitive towards the climax, though it is usual for spurned lovers to rage against the inevitable.

Also, the actors were forced to break mid-stride thanks to a technical issue, which was unfortunate.

The actors, though, dealt with it well, Dennis by taking a curatively large swig of whisky out of the prop bottle of Johnnie Walker.

Brenda Radloff offers some comic relief – and sound advice – in the midst of Mohammed and Nicholas’ tussle. She is the redoubtable, ever patriotic, truth-seeking embassy official Nicholas appeals to to get Mohammed to England. It is she who flags love – and especially passion – as a revolutionary thing, a dangerous thing.

In the end, though Cry Havoc tries to extrapolate the political with the personal – it doesn’t quite pull it off. Mohammed reaches for faith and militancy to ease his pain. Playwright Coash throws in colonialism as well as a discourse on Third World and First World concepts, which throw the play a bit off course as all these issues are dealt with anyway in a less pointed way throughout.

That aside, Cry Havoc was first performed in the early days of The War on Terror and, as such, it is an attempt to understand fundamentalism and humanise it, which is far more interesting and difficult than simply demonising it.

Also, the issues of living as you like in a place where your choices are respected is always a relevant discussion in our increasingly intolerant world – whether you are Egyptian, American, British or South African.

» Cry Havoc is on at the Rhodes Box at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown today at 2pm and 6.30pm, and tomorrow at 11am and 2pm. It will come to Johannesburg as part of the Pride month calendar in October.

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