Q&A with Joie Rizk: Acting in Ali Salem’s ‘Comedy Of Oedipus’

As part of London’s 2013 Shubbak Festival, the El-Alfy Theatre Company has produced a version of Egyptian playwright Ali Salem’s Comedy of Oedipustrans. Pierre Cachia and Demond O’Grady and directed by Ahmed El-Alfy. Actor Joie Rizk answered a few questions about the production, which runs until July 13:
Risk as Aton with Oedipus.
Risk as Aton with Oedipus.

ArabLit: What part are you playing?

Joie Rizk: I am playing the part of Aton, a female resident of Thebes whose life has been completely transformed by Oedipus becoming King of Thebes and advancing Thebes’ evolution by 5,000 years with the introduction of technology. She, along with the other inhabitants of Thebes benefit from the introduction of telephones, television etc. Aton becomes to close to Oedipus after he becomes King and is invited to serve him in his Royal Hall.
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AL: What got you interested in this production?
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JR: As a second generation Egyptian actress, I am extremely passionate about translating, performing and showcasing Middle Eastern literature and stories with the West. There is such a rich body of music, theatre and literature which we offer the world and only a small portion of this I feel has been exposed in the past (as opposed to the more extensive representation of Indian/Hispanic cultures on screen and in Theatre in the UK and the US). As an actress, I particularly look forward to continuing to perform on screen and in the theatre in productions which offer audiences a more in-depth insight into Middle Eastern culture.
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I am also a huge fan of Ali Salem’s work, notably his famous, hilarious play Madraset el-Moshaghbeen which I used to watch with my family as a young girl.  When I heard that director Ahmed El-Alfy (also an Egyptian-London based director) was debuting this play in the UK, I was thrilled and had to be involved!
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AL: Salem’s Comedy of Oedipus has recently been staged and taught in the US as well . What, for you, makes it resonate with contemporary audiences?
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JR: Ironically, even though this play was written in 1970 with reference to President Nasser, its message is as relevant as it was then as it is today. Not just in relation to Egyptian contemporary society but in relation to the world as a whole.
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For me personally, one of the most important messages of the play is that fear (of all things, but in particular fear of our own power) is a “common ill” amongst people which destructs the hopes and dreams of individuals, communities and nations.  In order to thrive, we must learn to overcome fear in ourselves and help others to do so also.
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AL: Does it primarily offer a view on Egypt, or on human nature in general? What does a British audience gain from seeing/experiencing it?
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JR: The play offers a view on Egypt, the Middle East in light of the Arab Spring and many lessons on human nature in general.
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Ultimately, the play poses many questions and we would like our audiences to decide for themselves whether for example, people in Egypt or in other parts of the world are ready to take responsibility for their own futures and stop overly relying on our leaders to do this for us.
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Also, whether the lack of freedom and existence in security/police system in Egypt was a necessary evil or not — in light of the recent issues in Egypt post-revolution, this is a worthwhile question to ask ourselves.
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AL: How does the play navigate the space between exoticizing/domesticizing Egypt? How does this staging acknowledge/deal with the audience’s stereotypes of Egypt?
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JR: The nature of this play is very much fantastical. Forget all Egyptian stereotypes! The play deliberately moves away from all sterotypes (exotic or otherwise) in order to stay true to the message of the play.
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There is very much a multicultural Egypt which is portrayed through the casting of the play. Without giving too much away, there are many audio-visual surprises which highlight the evolution of Thebes into the future with some British/American pop culture references.
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AL: Ali Salem is a controversial playwright, primarily because of his work on normalization with Israel. Has that been an issue at all?  
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JR: It is interesting to note that the role of Senefru, the playwright in The Comedy of Oedipus, is in fact based on the voice of Ali Salem himself.  Whilst controversial in Egypt, his views pose questions which are important to be asked.
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Ali Salem is a brilliant playwright and the way in which he has adapted the story of Oedipus and managed to keep the strong messages he intended to is pure genius.
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Ahmed El Alfy (director), the cast and myself are honoured to have the opportunity to perform this work and to be the first to bring this play to open-minded British audiences. The show runs until 13th July at the Lion & the Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town.
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