Before the Revolution at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: intense minimalist experience
When we walk into Before the Revolution, we’re immediately confronted by the stares of two performers. They’re standing on a bed of nails (obviously with room for them to stand without injuring themselves), looking out unmoving into the audience.
Ahmed El Atter’s play aims to understand the moment before the Egyptian Revolution – the atmosphere in the country and the events which catalysed it. The performers (Ramsi Lehner and Nanda Mohammad) stand stationary for the duration of the performance and read the script whilst making eye-contact with the audience. The piece lasts only around 30-40 minutes.
For me, this was a really enlightening experience – I didn’t know about many of the scandals and events that had occurred in the last 20 or so years in Egyptian politics, so to see them relayed at such speed and ferocity really helped contextualise the bubble of discontent that had been growing until 2011. These historical details are combined with the plots of several pre-revolution TV shows which mainly focus on couples cheating on each other and falling out. The love affair, it seems, is over.
Hassan Khan’s soundtrack is key to the show’s impression of tension and inevitability. Half-way between Brian Eno and minimal techno – or maybe just an ever-building series of moog clicks, it’s hard to say. It’s an ever-present sonic heartbeat that tells us how to feel and makes us feel it without even understanding why. Likewise, the lighting design of the play flickers and changes in time with the political developments, bringing us to the brink of revolutionary violence time and time again before we actually reach 2011. It’s an intensity that is, perhaps, artificially constructed, but it’s intensity nonetheless.
Lehner and Mohammad give absolutely brilliant, committed performances in their roles. They’re required to stand absolutely still for the duration of the show, upright and with great posture, and deliver a huge amount of lines in machine-gun fashion without ever faltering for a second. Not just that, but they do it with conviction and genuine emotion – their expressiveness and dramatic range are incredibly impressive.
Because all the dialogue is in Arabic, and because I don’t understand Arabic, there’s a projection of translation onto the back wall. Unfortunately, due to a combination of what could have been poor tech work and also the differences in rhythm between Arabic and English, this means a lot of the text whizzes by too fast to be read and often doesn’t feel in rhythm with what the actors on stage are saying. It also means that we spend the piece predominantly listening to the performer’s voices and reading the back wall, occasionally stealing a glance at the cast to see what they’re doing. This is a show that would work better if all our energy and attention was focused on the actors delivering the monologue – so it feels like a little something has been lost in this performance for English speakers.
Ultimately, then, I enjoyed the experiment, but its parameters prevent me from giving this show a higher score. How can we convey a moment in time, where the individual becomes swept up in the tide of history? László Nemes’ masterly Sunset demonstrated, earlier in the year, what it might have been like to wander the Austro-Hungarian empire in the weeks before its violent downfall.
Before the Revolution is, however, not a sumptuous period piece with all the attention to detail and camera trickery that a film would allow. Instead, it trusts in the intensity of spoken word and eye-to-eye contact, combined with a pulsating score and beautifully simple lighting to bring us to the same breaking point. Unfortunately, our focus on the back wall, combined with the incredibly minimalistic set up of the show, leave it feeling slightly like a promise unfulfilled.