Piso staggers on, bleeding, and encounters H against the backdrop of a city in the throes of violence. H has run away from Retly and pleads with Piso, who he has met before at Retly’s place, to take him in.
H rambles, contradicting himself, describing himself as an “imprisoned prince,” though he can’t say for sure what he’s prince of. He keeps falling over. He was desperate to break out, he says, he might even have murdered Retly. But he is confused, not sure if he has actually killed him.
Piso is having none of it and beats him ferociously. In the end, Retly, who we do not see until the final scene, is not dead, but we are unsure if H has survived. Retly and Piso walk off stage chatting.
Piso is played by actor Boutros Raouf Boutros-Ghali, who goes by the name of Piso, while both H and Retly are played by Hassan al-Geretly.
H, the clown, represents the internal character, desperately trying to live. He is imprisoned, prevented from realizing himself, by the external character, Retly. He is essentially seeking to swap Retly for another external character, who will protect him without imprisoning him, someone through whom he can live and realize himself.
Written and directed by François Cervantes, “Le Prince Séquestré” is the product of a collaboration between Cervantes’ French theater company L’entreprise, and Geretly’s Egyptian El Warsha troupe. The play premiered in Marseilles in 2013 and was performed in Cairo’s D-CAF festival the same year in French, though the plan had been to present in both French and Arabic. Geretly explains that though it is a deceptively simple play, he and Piso were unable to understand it sufficiently to translate it until they had performed it. So the Arabic version was only ready for this year’s D-CAF, as part of which it was performed twice at El Warsha theater on downtown Cairo’s Sherif Street.
The whole play takes place at the spot at which the two characters meet. The burning city gives the encounter urgency, but more movement from the actors may have made the play more dynamic, as at moments it is a little plodding. The two actors are seated on a bench in front of a dark screen that protects but also cuts them off from the city behind.
Piso wears a suit and H wears a woolly hat with hair poking out and a robe over his pajamas, and he drags a large sack. Though the two wear large white noses, the clown reference is more strongly pronounced in Geretly’s character than Piso’s. This is partly due to the play’s genesis.
Sitting on the balcony of Piso’s villa where the two rehearse, Geretly relates how a couple of years ago he told Cervantes, a friend of his for over 10 years, that he thought there was “a clown lurking” within him. This was the start of their first collaboration.
For Geretly the clown is like a child, the quickly changing emotions, the presence in each unique moment, the spontaneity, “their availability to things.”
“The clown was for me what Francois calls the ‘personage interieur’ that is hampered from coming to life,” he says.
For the director of El Warsha, the oldest independent contemporary theater troupe in Egypt, working with Cervantes was challenging.
“I would kind of feel I had stopped evolving so I would start doing things, like noticing my shadow or singing a song, and he would say, ‘Please, please, I know you’re clever, I know you have ideas. This is not what I want. Please don’t do things.’”
The two then met Piso for lunch and talked about his relationship with Geretly. It was after the work with Geretly and such conversations with Piso that Cervantes wrote the script. Piso had several discussions — and crises — with Cervantes through which the play developed.
“We discussed what the hell this interior means,” Piso says.
Piso’s resistance to recognizing H reflects and refracts a dynamic that exists outside the play. For Piso the actor, it is almost nonsensical to speak of the relationship with the self, as there is only one self. Piso’s different understanding of internal conflict shapes the play’s tension.
The conversation on Piso’s balcony appears to be part of a conversation of which the play is also a part, out of which the play was formed.
“For me, there is no difference between out and in — that’s why I am happy with myself,” Piso explains.
Later, when he says, “I would love not to have internal conflict,” Geretly cuts in: “But you don’t experience it as crisis..?”
“No, I don’t,” he answers.
Explaining why the Piso of the play beats H up, Piso says, “I get fed up of this person, of his nagging, of him wanting to go out and being afraid of going out, of him needing a supporting hand that I cannot give.”
“Piso is a person who does not want problems and for him, H is a potential problem,” he says.
Piso explains the difference in performing the play in French and colloquial Arabic in terms of placing things in his mind.
“I order things. I am a very meticulous kind of guy,” he says. “I put things in places where I know where they are and when I need them I can reach them.”
This kind of person would be particularly aggravated by encountering an enigmatic figure who is demanding, and confused and muddled in his story.
Geretly’s explanation of why H gets beaten up is somewhat different from Piso’s. He takes on the internal/external framework of the play.
“Because Piso doesn’t want to recognize the internal character, he gets really violent towards H who is provoking this idea,” he says.
“Maybe Piso is not as Cartesian as he would have us believe,” he adds. It’s unclear if it’s his friend or the character he is referring to.
“Do you feel that H can weaken you internally, and so you are refusing him because he can destabilize you in some way?” Geretly asks Piso.
“No,” says Piso without hesitation.
On one thing the two agree: Cervantes is a demanding director who pushes them relentlessly out of their comfort zones.
“He sees where you are really comfortable and says this is not what I want, this is not your character. So he gets you out of what you know about who this character/person is,” Piso says.
Geretly remembers Cervantes pushing Piso over several days. “I was sitting there feeling I was safe. Then it was my turn.” As soon as Cervantes felt he was acting a character he knew, Cervantes would destabilize it.
At one point in the play, H is scared, and refers to the violence “downtown.” But this nod to “downtown” in a play performed a few hundred yards from where many of the fatal clashes have occurred over the past three years is in some ways a red herring.
“At the beginning we were thinking in social terms,” Geretly explains, “We’re in the habit of thinking like this. But very quickly we realized we were dealing with two complementary sides to one character. There is tension and antagonism but no hate. It is not a Brechtian play, but is about ourselves and the aspects that we do not allow to exist.”
After H is beaten up offstage, Retly appears. He and Piso look at the clown and then walk off together, not bothered to know whether he is alive or dead. In a sense the violence is ferocious, a severe beating accompanied by indifference. Along with the violent city as backdrop and the reference to downtown — a kind of signifier of revolutionary conflict — the play seems to suggest that though the violence we commit against each other may differ in form from that we commit against ourselves, they are perhaps equal in brutality.
Freud famously posited that the repression of certain aggressive and primitive human instincts is necessary for civilization to function, and this repression takes the form of taboos and laws. But in “Le Prince Séquestré,” the clown figure points to other repressed instincts, the playful, childlike, the ability to be in the moment, what Geretly calls availability.
While Freud thought that repression helps minimize conflict, the play’s violent backdrop points to a different relationship between internal and external violence. Its ideas about the relationship between the self and the disciplinary mechanisms of society appear closer to those of the Frankfurt School, who argued that much repression is unnecessary and saw the horrors of the Second World War not as a descent into barbarism — which for Freud opposes civilization — but as a direct result of civilization.
Though the play is apparently without a message, the suggestion appears to be that the violence we commit against ourselves isn’t worth it.