The Last Supper

by Ahmed El Attar
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016: Potentialities
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

In a festival typically characterized by the experimental and avant garde, this straight, talky play, written and directed by Egyptian writer Ahmed El Attar, seems a breath of fresh air.

The title and set up - guests seated on one side of a long dining table - may have obvious biblical connotations but the parallels end there. This is a realist snapshot of contemporary Egyptian society, where members of an upper middle class family gather around a table for dinner, each preoccupied with their own problems and predilections. At the centre is the wealthy family patriarch (Boutros Boutros-Ghali) who is joined by an esteemed dinner guest, the General (Sayed Ragab).

Photo Credit: Mostafa Abdel Aly

As the banquet table grows laden with food brought in by attentive servants, the party of urban guests reveal themselves to be both spiritually and morally starved. At one end sits Mido (a motor-mouthed Abdel Rahman Nasser), who is perpetually searching for business opportunities and cannot stop name-dropping his string of powerful connections. His sexy, dolled-up wife Mayoush (Marwa Tharwat) busies herself with make-up and talk of shopping.  At the other end, the patriarch's son (Ramsi Lehner) and his wife Fifi (Nanda Mohamed) watch their children distract themselves with expensive digital toys. A harried maid hovers around.  

The Last Supper is a powerful statement about the callousness that exists amongst members of our global elite, individuals so self-absorbed and caught up in their own lives that they are simply unable to connect with people in their immediate milieu. 

Even if the play is intended to lash out at the Egyptian upper classes who baldly sat through the revolts of the Arab Spring while holding on to their wealth and power, this hardly comes across as a political work. Indeed, there is hardly any talk of local politics at all and the conversation veers from fast cars to social media to international shopping destinations, each topic as vapid as the next. It's something one could easily expect to hear at any dining table around the world.

What comes across more powerfully is the ugliness that exists within this privileged circle. A recurrent theme is the casual inhumanity the men show towards the women. Both wives seem ignored by their husbands. There is an almost shocking disregard the men show in talking about rape and sex in front of their wives. Perhaps fittingly, the matriarch herself remains absent despite being summoned repeatedly by her husband, suggesting the idea of unequal marriages goes all round.

Photo Credit: Mostafa Abdel Aly

Even more chillingly, one is disgusted by the arrogance shown towards the servants who are treated as mere commodities. In a disturbing scene, the patriarch's son encourages his young boy to torment the family butler by repeatedly pummeling him. When the poor man feebly reciprocates, the whole family denounces him as a violent ingrate and he is made to kiss the brat on the head in a gesture of subservience. More than once, the General - an arrogant, bigoted and downright racist man - describes the servant classes as nothing more than "vermin".  There is very little empathy that lurks beneath the surface and it's difficult to escape the parallels to our own society which relies so heavily on foreign workers but yet frequently denigrates them. 

While El Attar's script is fast-paced and rife with detail, it emerges somewhat unsatisfying. This feels like the prelude to a much longer play instead of a fully rounded out performance in its own right. The constant stream of chatter (and not entirely synchronized surtitling of the Arabic dialogue) also makes for fairly tedious viewing. The play is frozen in various red-hued, stylized tableaus that prove alternately humorous and poignant (the reveal of a toned stomach, a wacky family wefie, everyone turning on a servant) although it is difficult to see this as more than an artistic flourish. Nonetheless, El Attar keeps us rapt throughout the hour, perversely drawn to the dynamics of this motley crew and the ensemble cast deliver strong performances. 

Overall, The Last Supper is a canny and candid snapshot of a certain class of privileged individuals that could very well exist anywhere on the planet. As the sounds of their meaningless, overlapping conversations wash over one another in the final moments, one realizes the importance of truly engaging with one's neighbours. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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