On a July evening in Cairo, Hussein Omar and I walked into “The place” or “Makan” as it is known to Egyptians. Outside, through the tiny window in the office of the director,policemen march up and down the street chatting loudly. The air is heavy and warm. It is here that we hear the Zar, an ancient female exorcism ritual still considered superstitious by many. A huge woman variously called Fatma, Azza or one of her other names, tells a story about love, backed by seven drummers and a tamboura (a kind of harp) player. Her job is to banish bad spirits through music, dance and song.When we saw this, we knew that we had found something rare, an art-form that speaks to the audience regardless of whether they understand what is said. I’ve always hoped that it is possible to be touched deeply by something in an act of theatre, regardless of the language one speaks, the culture one is embeddedin, and the politics one holds. We set off to Egypt, without a great deal of money, but with Mike Lesslie’s adaptationof Caldéron de la Barca’s The Constant Prince and an idea: to make a piece of theatre that would be a positive collaboration with Eegyptian musicians, and to present our work to an audience we had no knowledge of. I cast dancers, singers, actors and musicians all in the same piece in an attempt to broaden what we were offering, who we could speak to, to open up possibilities, and to try and forget what kind of thing we should be doing with a play, not least because we had no idea what to expect. I had originally hoped to devise a piece without set, lights or music, reliant on simply creating a space where we happenedto be. It soon became clear that this wasn’t to be. Instead, we created a show that was adaptable, but that clearly belonged on a stage. Lighting became a necessity, especially when we met with Saad Samir, a young Eegyptian lighting designer. He lit the show with a dance piece in mind, leaving only the musicians in a small flood the whole way through. They became witnesses to what the actors were doing, occasional participants, always commentators, accompanying the action throughout. This is a model of performance in some way borrowed from the Zar, in which the musicians get up and dance with their drums, joining the narrator, who has been standing throughout. The idea, presented in the show, of a stage needing “feeding” also grew out of our experiences in Eegypt: at the beginning of the piece, the musicians walk on and start playing to the empty space. Ragab Sadek, one of our musicians, explained that this prepares it for the story to take place.The tour was exhausting in many ways. Producing theatre in is a fraught business, and Avery Willis, in a superhuman feat, made the whole thing possible. We played in Cairo and Alexandria, always using independent venues, partly to avoid censorship, but also to make the play more accessible and to ensure that tickets were either free or cost next to nothing. The problemwith this was that some venues considered four hours to be ample get-in time, and whole diplomatic missions had to be undertaken to change this.The most grueling experience was perhaps our trip to Eel Minia. Ddescribed by Lonely Planet as the most dangerousplace in Egypt, we were required to have an escort, though this turned out to be not so much a motorcade as the local policeman. Run by a wonderful group of people, the theatre is the only cultural space in a town of one million, though this didn’t seem intimidating at all. On our way back we looked at our scant water supply and listened to our driver swearing on his mobile, and began to worry. Though in the end the play wasn’t allowed to travel to Minia, one day I hope to return, to meet the audience that packs out the tiny theatre in the desert every time a show comes to town.The company perform in London, 21-27th November. www.arcolatheatre.comARCHIVE: 5th week MT 2005