As the audience made its way into the half empty theatre of the French Institute in Cairo, a sea of face masks waiting to re-immerse themselves into the wonderful world of theatre, excitement and anticipation filled the air.
Knowing that the experience would be slightly different than what one was used to pre-covid19, theatre-goers seemed excited to be back in the familiar atmosphere of live theatre. As all necessary precautionary measures were taken – including getting temperatures checked on door, adequate spacing and social distancing between seats, and face masks being worn at all times – it suddenly seemed as though we were being greeted by the new ‘theatre-watching’ normal.
As soon as the lights went out however, and the show was about to begin, all matters of the new normal seemed to have vanished and there was nothing but the stage we had all missed so much.
On the stage was a simple painted backdrop of a grim, somewhat empty bedroom, accompanied by a nightstand with a phone atop of it, a chair and a tripod and camera. Our main character, John (played by French actor Damien Gabriac), makes his way onto the stage carrying a backpack. He turns the camera on, tests it, sits on the chair in front of it and begins talking to the camera.
“Salut ma, salut pa (Hello mom, hello dad),” he begins to say, and from then on he begins to address his family stating that by the time they see this, he will probably be dead. We suddenly realize that the seemingly agitated young man is recording a video for his family before his suicide.
From then on, the audience is taken through an intense journey of frustration, confrontation and resentment. As John attempts to explain to his family what has led him to decide to take his own life, we quickly realize that there are many layers and complexities to the decision and the way he feels.
He addresses his relationship with his parents – more specifically his mother who seems to be nonchalant about her son and everything he does – as well as his failed relationship with a woman named Jenny, who ultimately ended up with his brother. It is only his sister who he seems to be both apologetic and grateful towards; the only person who seemingly cares about him and the only relationship that seems to matter to him.
Ultimately it was Gabriac’s moving performance that seemed to shine light on the complex feelings and emotions of one who sees no other escape than death. There were the bursts of anger that echoed through the theatre, mixed with the quiet tear-filled realizations that seemed to long for care and attention – all of which molded together into an uneasy energy that resonated in the air.
Following the end of John’s suicide video, he leaves the stage and his sister makes her way on. John’s sister (played by French actress Julie Moreau) then goes on to address her deceased brother with an aching eagerness to bring him back and tell him all of the things she is sharing with the audience, to tell him that she is there for him and that she will help him through his pain.
Moreau’s sincere performance moved the audience to tears as the play slowly began to come to a melancholy end. Although the play is both intense and heartbreaking, it reminds us of why theatre is so important and why telling these stories is so important.
Suicide is somewhat of a taboo topic to address, yet it is very real and increasingly important to shine light on the issues that may lead to such a decision. John is a wonderful play that is able to highlight the very real and human issues we face, emotions we feel, and demons we battle.
The play was originally written by Lebanese-Canadian writer, actor, and director Wajdi Mouawad in 1977. This version of John is directed by Stanislas Nordev and produced by the National Theatre of Strasbourg. It was brought to Egypt through the partnership of The French Institute in Egypt and Orient Productions.