Egyptian writer and director Ahmed El Attar’s The Last Supper skewers the vapidity of his country’s elites on the eve of the Arab Spring, and its message has resonated worldwide
There is a moment around halfway into Ahmed El Attar’s The Last Supper that the audience stops trying to follow the subtitles that struggle to keep up with the cast’s overlapping conversations about used cars, political connections and the rudeness of Parisians, and instead leans back to watch the corners of the stage, where Egypt’s social dislocations play out in small, subtle tableaux.
“I specifically wrote a lot of text, because I feel a lot of text kills the text. At one point, you realise that it’s not important. [The characters] are not saying anything,” El Attar says, wreathed in the smoke from a cigar that he waves and jabs to emphasise his points.
Set at an upscale dinner party being held against the distant backdrop of the Egyptian state’s disintegration, the play satirises the vanity and hypocrisy of Egypt’s moneyed class, who decried the instability and disruption of the Arab Spring, but refused to acknowledge their own role in creating the conditions that led to it.
“I’m saying: these are the people that are [responsible]. Not the peasants. Not the 40 per cent illiterate. Not the poor. It is the elite, the members of this elite, who are unable to give anything, who are empty, who don’t use their wealth and power and knowledge, if they have knowledge, to benefit anyone but themselves,” El Attar says.
It’s that relationship that changes the entire contemporary history of the Arab world, and it’s that relationship that was at the core of the revolution
It is, he believes, a refreshing proposition for Egyptian audiences, five years on from a revolution that ousted the then-president, Hosni Mubarak, which was in part a rejection of decades of rule by the self-same elites. The play toured festivals around the world this year, but returned to its residency in Cairo in September. In December, it will be staged in Beirut – the first time it has been hosted in an Arab country outside of Egypt.
The Last Supper’s set is laid out like the Leonardo Da Vinci painting of the same name, with the family’s father in Christ’s seat in the centre. The rest of the characters spend the play jockeying – often childishly – for their father’s favours; an allegory for the patriarchal society that El Attar believes is at the core of the region’s schisms.
“It’s that relationship that changes the entire contemporary history of the Arab world, and it’s that relationship that was at the core of the revolution,” he says. “They didn’t go to the streets against Mubarak. They went to the streets against that male figure that is a God representative on Earth. The conflict today is not a conflict between the Brotherhood and the military or religious or non-religious. It’s a generational conflict between old and young, father and son.
“It exposed the rigid mentality of an older generation that doesn’t want to change, that is willing to sacrifice its freedom for another sense of security, and another generation, or other generations, that are just full of life, and are willing to take risks.”
The fall of Mubarak in 2011 was a seismic moment in Egypt, but it has been followed by years of turmoil. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood mobilised their followers to win an election, but their president was swiftly deposed in a military coup. The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, elected in 2014, is the former head of the armed forces and was Mubarak’s director of military intelligence.
The elites in Egypt are still deeply entrenched – hence The Last Supper does not conclude, it just ends – but El Attar says that the revolution has set in motion a generational change in the country, finally tearing the veil of patriarchal reverence.