Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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What country, friends, is this?

By Nehad Selaiha

Nehad Selaiha

What Shakespeare's Illyria looks like is anybody's guess: it can have as many images as Twelfth Night has readers, and these can range from the soberly realistic to the highly fanciful. I have seen different projections of it on stage and television, including one set in Regency England, another in a vaguely oriental atmosphere, and one in a circus-tent-cum-marionette-show. In Paul T Mitri's imagination, however, as he mentions in his director's note in the programme of the recent Twelfth Night production at the Wallace, Illyria "always seemed...a place as glitzy and fascinating as a 1940's movie musical, but just as shallow and superficial beneath the surface."

This metaphoric updating of Illyria in terms of an enormously popular musical form and plebeian culture is symptomatic of the director's general approach to the classics, particularly Shakespeare, which, without trivialising the play or sacrificing its substance, unabashedly aims for accessibility, entertainment, and strives at all costs to avoid what Mitri calls "extreme hallowness". It is also eminently suited to a play which begins and ends in music, is saturated with it, and where "old and antique" songs are pointedly contrasted with "light airs and recollected terms/ Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times." Indeed, with five songs "among the most beautiful Shakespeare wrote," according to Auden, and so much emphasis on music as the food of love, languor, or mirth, or as pure pleasure, as it is for Feste, the play seems virtually an invitation to wallow in music as much as Orsino does in sentiment.

Besides, as an elaborate, sumptuous fabrication, the romantic musical comedy evolved by American show biz, with its tinsel world and tenuous hold on reality, seems an ideal theatrical vehicle for a play where most of the principal characters indulge in protective or compensatory fantasies and the whole action springs from, and is propelled by, the artifice of disguise. Also in favour of Mitri's novel conception is the vaudeville-like construction of the play which constantly shifts between plots and locations, creating a sense of fragmentariness which draws away the interest of the audience from the development of the narrative line and focuses it squarely on each individual scene. In fact, of all Shakespeare's comedies, Twelfth Night strikes me as the closest in structure to a variety show consisting of conventional comic sketches, slapstick acts, and song-and-dance routines. What makes it come across as something more and gives it a kind of unity and coherence is Shakespeare's power to make his mood and poetry override his fable and the comic convention in which it is set.

Critics have repeatedly noted the play's wistfulness, "the silvery undertone of sadness" (in Middleton Murry's beautiful phrase) which runs through it; and Feste, alone at the end, singing of the wind and the rain, was seen as lamenting 'the passing of innocence, the passing of all things,' and compared to old Firs who is forgotten and left behind at the end of Chekov's Cherry Orchard, and sits alone, in the deserted, locked-up house, with nothing breaking the silence except (as the stage directions mention) 'a distant sound...like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away' and 'the sound of an axe striking a tree in the orchard far away.' Any decent production is bound to communicate this wistful mood in some degree. In Mitri's case, however, the challenge was to make it come across through an artistic convention inherently inimical to it, indeed, to make the combination of glamour and superficiality which mark that convention instrumental in generating it.

He managed this by placing his 1940's movie musical elements -- the costumes (by Joseph Anderson), the dance routines he himself choreographed, the delightful funny and nostalgic soundtrack (which he designed with Mohammed El-Sawi and Melissa Daw) -- in a curious set by Timaree McCormick (who also designed the light) in collaboration with John Small and the director. At once faintly realistic, suggesting an elegant drawing room of a person in high society, and also highly formal and artificial, it consisted of a stage painted blue all round, including the sides, and hung at the top with looped-up gauze in the shape of tufts of white clouds, touched purple at the edges by the light. A few steps at the back led to an imposing large wall of dark mirrors which we soon discovered consisted of doors. When these opened, they revealed behind them nothing but an extension of the same blueness in front. The impression was of a pale, watery world where sky and sea melted into each other and were only artificially divided by a fragile sheet of glass reflecting dim, fleeting shadows. The only stable points in this disturbingly fluid world were a pale blue chaise longue which seemed to melt into the surrounding blueness of the fictional sea, occasionally suggesting a raft bobbing up on the waves; a white side-bar topped with a variety of alcoholic drinks to which the characters in Orsino's and Olivia's households frequently and liberally helped themselves, becoming progressively inebriated and enveloped in an almost palpable alcoholic haze; and a bluish-white gramophone playing a medley of songs and tunes which violently clashed with Shakespeare's language and the historical period it evokes, effecting startling temporal leaps. Thus the impression of spatial fluidity created by the set was matched and complemented by a vivid sense of temporal fluidity created by sound, compounding the sense of unreality.

All the characters, including the servants and attendants, and even the rescued Sebastian, wore full evening dress throughout or most of the time, suggesting that the whole action took place in one night during a party, or, rather, that the world of Illyria was but one continuous party -- an eternal round of dancing, boozing, masquerading and revelry. On a few occasions, the four clever dancers (Nora Abu Steit, Salima Barakat, Hani Eskander, and Luke Lehner), who efficiently doubled in all the minor parts, briefly changed their appearance to suit the occasion; but the only significant costume changes were Viola's, at the beginning, when she exchanged her simple grey dress for tails; Maria's, halfway through, when she replaced her austere secretary's suit with a gaudy party dress; Malvolio's, for his appearance cross-gartered; Feste's disguise as Sir Topas the curate; and Olivia's golden yellow gown after her marriage to Sebastian. Equally intriguing in the updated visual makeup of this production was the transformation of Antonio, the sea captain and Sebastian's friend (Nelly Ali), into a cartoon image of a movie female gangster, dressed in furs, a peaked hat, and a red wrap-over skirt, and complete with hoarse voice and thick drawl.

But weirdly or elegantly dressed, in black, red, or gold, the actors stood out vividly against the pervasive pale blue of the set. At the same time, however, their reflections in the imposing dark mirror at the back made them pale out into shadow. Despite their colourful, boisterous presence, they seemed to me like phantoms, conjured up out of the sea to float on its waves for a while then melt away. At every minute, the stage-image was a visual paradox speaking at once of impermanence and endless recurrence, of the life and light on the surface of the sea, and the death lurking in the dark depths. The most powerful moment, however, was when the large mirror-doors were flung wide open to hurl Viola in, and the blank, pale blue behind them recalled the blank white sheets which covered the whole stage, like a shroud, at the beginning before Feste (Hala Said), in tails and top hat, ceremoniously removed them to herald the beginning of the show; he was there at the end too, along, still in black: Charlie Chaplin? or undertaker? He sang his wistful song, danced up the steps towards the dark mirror to finally disappear behind (or is it into?) it. In Shakespeare's play, Viola is thrust by the sea onto the shores of Illyria; in Mitri's production, she literally comes out of the blue into a world of glittering splintered glass.

For some dark reason I have yet to fathom, the sight of Viola stepping on the blue painted floor of the stage for the first timer reminded me of the queen of Sheba's arrival in the magical court of King Solomon where 'a stalwart of the jinn' had transferred her throng on Solomon's orders. I recalled a verse from the Quran I thought I had forgotten: 'It was said unto her: Enter the hall. And when she saw it she deemed it a pool and bared her legs. (Solomon) said: Lo! it is a hall, made smooth, of glass. She said: My Lord! Lo! I have wronged myself.'

In this captivatingly glamorous and painfully unreal trap of a world that Mitri and his brilliant artistic crew created, the actors performances were fittingly orchestrated according to their type and degree of studied artificiality. Some of the cast I had already seen and admired in Mitri's previous production of Moliere's L'Avare (his first in Cairo) a few months ago. It was an exciting and memorable production, vibrant, fast-paced, highly imaginative and devastatingly funny -- the best of the play I have seen in Egypt or anywhere in the Arab world. In it, Karim Bishay took the lead as Harpagon, managing with finesse and dexterity the complex and intricately detailed physical and vocal patterns Mitri devised for him. As Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, he was again a constant source of joy, playing the character as a kind of domesticated Falstaff, but younger and spry, with a sense of style. Nadine Khidr who presented in L'Avare a feline, predatory, seductive and garishly made-up Frosine, and was every inch a woman, albeit in a strip cartoon kind of way, presented here a credible Viola. Her height, deep voice and strong features were an asset and helped her to cope with her difficult trans-sexual part without appearing in the slightest degree butch. Indeed, at several points in the play, including some of the most hilarious scenes, particularly the duel with Sir Andrew, she managed to communicate, quite poignantly, her feeling of panic, confusion, helplessness and deep insecurity. Her joy at meeting her brother was touchingly genuine, and her secret love for the Duke had the moving ring of truth. Mariam Abu Oaf, too was a surprise. Her elegant, confident, sophisticated, and stylishly effete Olivia was the complete opposite of her timid, shy, and breathlessly romantic Marianne in Moliere's play. As Malvolio, Karim El-Fouly was fittingly pompous, haughty, sardonically disdainful, and, when cross-gartered, openly farcical. Equally delightful were Ratko Ivekovic as Orsino, Sherif Guoneim as Sebastian, Mohamed Ali as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (looking endeeringly befuddled all the time), and, of course, Nelly Ali as Antonia. But one cannot mention the actors without giving credit to their coach, Eric Grischkat. Without his guidance, I doubt the actors could have made their way through the mazes of Illyria and come out safe.

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