6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Having spent the best part of 30 years on stage, he has become an institution of sorts. Like Shakespeare (and Youssef Wahbi), he believes the sum of life is to be found on the bare boards, from backstage to the curtain call
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The world, the stageProfile by Niveen Wahish
Show Mohamed Sobhi's picture on a billboard to any child and he will give a shout of excited recognition: "Wanis!" That is how Sobhi has become known in recent years. Wanis, in case you didn't know, is the character Sobhi plays in a five-part TV series entitled Yawmiyat Wanis (Wanis's Diaries). The series portrays the daily life of a five-member family. Through it, Sobhi tries to instill "correct values." Wanis is only one of the many characters embodied by Sobhi who have left a lasting impact on his audience. To him, however, acting is not just about presenting characters; it is about delivering a message. The real-life Sobhi is very much like Wanis. He dresses simply. His voice is deep and distinctive, if a little hoarse from the long nights of performing. The daily effort also shows on his face, but the strain disappears as soon as he warms up to the conversation and begins to talk about what he loves best -- the theatre. He does not consider acting a profession. He likes to think of it as "a duty and a role. It builds the individual's personality."
Sobhi is one of those men who become handsomer as they grow older. You would think he is in his mid-forties, but he was actually born in 1948. He has kept fit by playing various sports, including fencing, which has also given him the elasticity of movement needed on stage. He tried his hand at other sports, including weight lifting, football and even boxing. Today, he limits himself to a few limbering and strengthening exercises, "the most suited to my age." They also repair the damage wrought by his agitated movements on stage.
The Lesson's Over, Silly
Theatre for All is a project he has been working on for two years now without a break. He has been performing his own version of three classics. The title of the project is based on the fact that Sobhi has made tickets to his plays available for prices as low as LE10. "Theatre should be accessible to everyone, regardless of his or her education or income," he says passionately. Sobhi means to make audiences aware of their right to see good theatre. With ticket prices as high as they usually are for the most popular private-sector productions, he insists, theatre defeats the purpose it was created for: "Educating the public." He strongly believes that the theatre is the source of all the arts. "No technology can ever replace the theatre, because nothing can replace the live encounter between spectator and actor."
Sobhi's enthusiasm for the theatre also translates into the extraordinary effort he puts into his work. He writes, directs and acts, his quest for perfection driving him to do everything himself. "He worships his work," says the mother of the little girl who played his youngest daughter in the Wanis series. "He is very meticulous about every detail." She remembers that, although her daughter was only four when she began to act with Sobhi, she had to take part in all the daily rehearsals in order to understand the concept of the series. Punctuality was also sacred. Even though her daughter did not have to put on makeup or do her hair, she had to be there on time, like everyone else. This perfectionism has borne fruit, reflecting positively on his troupe. In fact, it is always said that he transforms those working with him into different individuals. His long experience teaching at the Institute of Theatrical Arts, as well as his talent, have enabled him to tutor his troupe. He actually gives classes to the members, who are required to read Shakespeare and classical Greek drama, undergo vocal training and learn how to carry themselves on stage. Besides this essential grounding in the fundamentals of theatre, they have forged a bond that only actors working together so closely can establish -- a bond that shows in their work.
Point of View
Sobhi graduated from the Institute of Drama in 1970 and continued to teach until 1984, when he decided that the late hours were exacting too great a toll. He formed his own troupe, and became intent upon teaching them that theatre is about more than just getting up on stage to speak words someone else has written. "I am happiest as a teacher, then a director, then an actor," he explains. In recent years, with the exception of the Wanis series, Sobhi has limited himself to the theatre. He acted in 18 movies, then stopped in 1991 and has not been in a film since. Although he insists "I love the cinema," he believes that the present state of the industry is wretched. "I do not intend to contribute negatively and take people's minds backwards," he says firmly. This fits in well with Sobhi's objective of contributing positively to society.
With his target in mind, he tries to do strictly what he believes in -- as he puts it, "what my mind and the mind of my audience will respect." This has left him with no regrets. "When I found that I was going to do movies that could be held against me, or might not be beneficial to the viewers, I stayed away and did not fall into the trap." He is confident that his steps are very well calculated. It is not a matter of arrogance, but rather respect for the audience. "I cannot come out and say that this piece was a mistake. If I did that I would be like the doctor who forgets a scalpel inside the patient's stomach." Such serious words may sound strange coming from a man known for his many humorous roles. Sobhi does not consider himself a comic entertainer, however; simply an actor. In fact, most of his works are black comedies in which a situation, however tragic, triggers the laughter. If the spectators laugh in spite of themselves, and if they feel uncomfortable doing so, all the better; Sobhi the pedagogue will be pleased that he has made them think. He tends to present very serious issues in comic wrapping. His works are often critical of the political situation in Egypt, other Arab countries and the rest of the world. "I cannot separate myself from my surroundings."
Ali Bek and the Forty Thiefs
The She-Devil who Loved Me
The Trip of the Million
This does not mean he owes everything to a mentor; Sobhi does not believe that his works have been affected by any single personality. "I am against the expression 'affected by,' because it has become synonymous with the idea of imitation." He prefers to think of himself as a product of his circumstances: "I was not born on an island, nor did I invent this art. I am the product of this world and everything and everyone I have seen, admired or disliked." He has learnt from his predecessors, however, while attempting to avoid their shortcomings and enhance their strengths.
He was exposed to the theatre at a very early age. He used to watch Youssef Wahbi as a child. He would go backstage with his father, then the manager of the Ramses Troupe, owned by Youssef Wahbi, and watch the play from the wings. As he grew older, he went to movie theatres, studied diligently and watched foreign plays when he travelled abroad. An issue that dominates most of Sobhi's works is the conflict between the individual and the changes surrounding him. He believes that the individual should never loose sight of his roots, but hold onto them and take them as fuel for development. This belief shows in Sobhi's own ambitions. He believes that the individual has no limits and can therefore reach anything he aspires to. His own life has been a series of challenges, which he posed himself and worked toward assiduously.
First he became an actor, despite his father's insistence that he should not. He then took up the violin, an instrument he had excelled at playing during secondary school, but had abandoned when he turned to acting. As soon as he started making a little money from acting, he bought his first violin and got himself a tutor. He learned to fence, so well that he later taught the sport. He even wanted to become a ballet dancer, but he became an actor instead. These different abilities, alongside his avid appetite for learning, have made him a well-rounded personality, moving on insatiably from one challenge to the next. He likes to read, although he does not have much time. He uses his reading to enrich his art. For example he is currently reading Asian history and mythology in preparation for his new play, The King of Siam, an adaptation of the famous 1950s Broadway musical The King and I.
The Road to Safety
Sobhi is realistic about his ambitions. "If my ambitions far outstrip my capabilities I will not achieve anything, but if I aim too low, then I will not achieve anything either." Still, his ambitions are always a step ahead. Despite 30 years of experience, he does not think that he has reached a turning point in his career yet. He does believe that turning point is just around the corner, though.
He is building a culture city on a 60-feddan plot along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which he feels "will crown the efforts of the past 30 years." He has put everything he earned into it because he believes that what one earns from one's profession must be used to develop that profession. The city as Sobhi describes it is utopian. It will include a school for talented homeless children, who will receive 12 years of artistic training. With them, Sobhi intends to set up a theatre troupe, a ballet and an orchestra. "I believe that in our streets dwell geniuses who are neglected." The project will also feature studios, an open-air theatre and an opera house, as well as a museum to document Egyptian arts. Sobhi himself will move to the new city to live there with his family and other members of his troupe -- his "second family" and circle of intimate friends. His dedication to his work has left him little time to make friends outside his troupe. In addition, he is by nature a distant person who mingles very little, be it with other actors or even neighbours. "I lived in Heliopolis for 18 years and I do not know my neighbours."
He is a very dedicated family man. His wife Nevine is a trainer with the Reda Troupe. He met her at the Institute of Theatrical Arts, where she was his student for two years before becoming his wife. They have two children: Karim, an AUC computer science graduate and Mariam, in her final year at Cairo University's Faculty of Commerce. During the little time he spends with them, they have very Wanis-like traditions. "Breakfast and lunch together are sacred on week-ends," for instance. Sobhi says that he based many scenes in the Wanis series on his experience with his children. "I even like to mess around the kitchen," he says, evoking the famous scene in which Wanis, intent upon making pizza, fills the whole kitchen with dough. "Eighty per cent of Wanis was taken from my own experience in raising my children." In fact, even his children could spot the situations he drew from their lives. While making the series, Sobhi discovered that although parents think they are bringing up their children, they themselves need to be educated. "We make the same mistakes that we try to keep them from making," he says. A seven-year-old once told Sobhi that he enjoyed the series because the kids were not always in the wrong. "He believed me, because I presented the right formula, showing that both parents and children could be mistaken."
Photo: Mohamed Wassim