Inspired by playwright Tom Coash’s time living and teaching in Egypt, Cry Havoc explores the idea of the Western “saviour” through the ill-fated love story of Mohammed (James El-Sharawy) and Nicholas (Marc Antolin). Mohammed is an Egyptian who’s just returned from several days being beaten and tortured in prison. Horrified, his British partner Nicholas instinctively wants to try and fix the situation – initially with cups of tea and first aid, and later by applying to take Mohammed home to England with him, whether he wants to go or not.
It’s no coincidence that against all logic, the play often feels more like Nicholas’ story than Mohammed’s. The Brit’s tone-deaf response to his lover’s plight places him firmly at centre stage, and consistently reveals a lack of awareness or respect for the country that’s been his home for the past six months. It never occurs to him until the play’s dramatic climax that Mohammed might not want to flee Egypt, or that he might prefer to stay and fight for a better future. Similarly, Nicholas’ slightly surreal encounters with embassy official Ms Nevers (Karren Winchester) have very little to do with the absent Mohammed, and very much to do with their own personal values and motivations.
Though he may be misguided, however, Nicholas isn’t a bad guy; his actions reveal his sense of privilege, but they’re clearly prompted by genuine affection and concern, and as a character he remains very likeable despite his faults. The relationship between the two men is believably played by James El-Sharawy and Marc Antolin, their conversations in Mohammed’s bedroom revealing the intimacy and happy memories they share. But the bruises on Mohammed’s face and the bandage on his hand – along with the recurring question: “What is your relationship with this man?” – are a constant reminder of the prejudice and brutality waiting just outside. For those of us lucky enough to live in a more tolerant society, the idea that a young man can be arrested and beaten just for being gay is difficult to accept – and in that sense, perhaps Nicholas’ reaction isn’t so unreasonable after all.
Under Pamela Schermann’s skilled direction, the play’s relatively short scenes run smoothly from one to the next through simple black-outs. Though the embassy scenes take place away from Mohammed’s flat, it’s always there in the background, with the focal point of Emily Bestow’s set a pair of bloody handprints on the wall behind the bed. These are not, as we and Nicholas first assume, a sign of violence but of religious devotion – just one more cultural misunderstanding in a play that’s full of them.
Cry Havoc is a far quieter and more contemplative play than its title suggests; with the exception of its penultimate scene there’s little drama, and the closest we get to dogs of war are the ones barking outside Mohammed’s building. That said, there is a sense of building tension throughout as the two lovers find themselves repeatedly at odds over their future, and this discord shines a new light on the well-worn subjects of immigration and asylum. It’s a thoughtful, challenging and extremely well acted play, and definitely worth a visit.