By Tom Dale
“Gasping” is none too subtle but easily enjoyable satire on unbridled corporate greed, which is now coming to the end of its second run at the Rawabet Theatre in downtown Cairo. If you can catch its last night — and aren’t easily offended by repeated jokes about the genitalia of elephants — it’s a good opportunity to catch Cairo’s most prolific English language amateur dramatics outfit in full flow.
The scene is set in the offices of the giant Lockhart corporation, where the Chief is laying out a challenge for the aspirant junior executives who hang eagerly, even sycophantically, on his every word. Profits are healthy sure, and Lockhart is making a hell of a lot of money. But where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the excitement? The Chief wants more than just new ways to skim a little more off an established market. He wants, he says, a Pot Noodle.
The Chief’s point is that the Pot Noodle represents a special phenomenon in the world of business. The Pot Noodle serves no real function; it did not displace other food stuffs on the market. Instead, merely by existing, by being available, the product created a new market, a new demand for itself.
In Britain, the Pot Noodle arrived in 1978; Margaret Thatcher arrived one year later, and a decade and a half of unemployment and austerity followed. Manufacturing industry declined, and the star of the City of London — Britain’s financial district — was in the ascendant. It was in this climate that comedian Ben Elton wrote “Gasping.” Elton was perceived in Britain as leader of a new generation of comedians who moved beyond the casual (and not very funny) sexism and racism which had dominated British comedy in the ’70s, and instead set their satirical sights on the establishment — government and big business.
Eager young executive Philip comes up with an ingenious idea which impresses the Chief. He is put in charge of rolling out the idea across the United States, and does so successfully with the aid of hot-shot marketing executive, Kirsten, with whom he becomes infatuated. At first, all goes well, and Philip reaps the rewards of the corporate lifestyle he’d aspired to. But soon, competitors start flooding the market. To stay ahead, Philip finds himself under pressure to push the market in a direction which is increasingly harmful, not only to consumers, but to the world at large. An amiable loser doing his best to fit into the macho business world, Philip struggles with his conscience and, it must be said, makes an awful lot of preposterous phallus jokes.
As it plays out, Elton has no trouble laying on the political lessons thick and fast. We’re reminded that, absurd as the scenario of the play is, in moral terms, it is not very different from ordinary, run-of-the mill capitalism. As Philip starts to have doubts about the ethics of his operation, which threatens to kill large numbers of innocent people in the pursuit of profit, the Chief hits back: “You’ve always been happy to live in a world that countenances mass starvation and homelessness!” Well, quite. We could have spotted that particular moral lesson from outer space.
Nonetheless, in the midst of the economic crisis which started in 2008, it’s not surprising that there should be a renewed interest in material such as this. “It’s the right time,” says director Leila Saad, “with everything that’s going on; big business seems to be the topic.”
“Gasping” is a production of the Alumni Theatre Company, which was set up to provide an outlet for the theatrical talents of alumni of the American University in Cairo. Amongst the cast, special mention should go to Adham Zidan as Philip, whose goofy charisma and excellent comic timing are a pleasure to watch. Reem Kadry gives an enjoyable turn as Kirsten, though Elton hasn’t really written her anything close to a coherent character, so much as a series of skits.
According to the program notes, at least two of the four main cast members themselves work somewhere in the higher echelons of the corporate world. I suspect that the stereotypical, bullish atmosphere of the 1980s corporate office still finds echoes today, but also that the capitalism which Elton satirized two decades ago now finds itself in a rather different mode. There was no sign in the play of the lack of confidence which has led the Financial Times to run this year an in-depth series entitled “Capitalism in crisis.”
For the executives of Elton’s fictional Lockhart corporation, conceived in the 1980s, the challenge was simple: To tap into a vast well of potential spending power. It doesn’t feel like that now; instead business leaders fret about the fragility of consumer demand. Super profits are found in trading complex financial instruments, or the socially useless wizardry of private equity. If Lockhart’s savvy Chief was around today, he wouldn’t have his underlings invent a new market. They’d simply buy a firm for a few billion, aggressively asset-strip it, casualize the workforce, and sell it on for an inflated price. That, or short-sell Euros.
The contemporary economy sometimes feels satire proof. But no doubt, just as they did in the 1980s, someone will find a way.
“Gasping” is currently showing at Rawabet Space for Arts at 8 pm. Address: 3 Hussein El Meamar St. Off Mahmoud Basiony St., Downtown, Cairo. Tel: 0127 507 0727