Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
7 -13 December 2000
Issue No.511
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Surplus ministrations

By Youssef Rakha


For years a condition of absence has impinged on good theatre. However many productions are advertised, they belong to one of two categories: the commercial or else the government-supported. The former is all too often a vapid and overpriced offshoot of the popular 1950s tradition of farce while the latter, increasingly promoted as experimental, aspires frequently towards nothing more than the boring or the too obscure. Emerging since the 1980s under the sign of the Independent, the so-called free troupes exist like loopholes in the system -- unacknowledged, unexposed, unsupported. And evidently the better their fare, the more absent they tend to be.

Last Saturday and Sunday a group of young theatre people demonstrated how conceptual work can be relevant, amusing and disorienting. It would take more than a cramped two-day run in one tiny section of the Townhouse Gallery to bring the Yaaru Theatre Company to the foreground of the Independent scene (alongside, for example, El Warsha, El Tanboura and Georges Kazazian). In Egyptian theatre, the audience is frequently an excuse for mediocrity. Yet the admittedly pro-Independent audience was, against all odds, engrossed in Yaaru's hour-long open rehearsal. While attendants audibly argued with late-comers on the landing, some ten metres away in the flat Maya El-Qaliouby (the director), Yasmine Qandil, Omar Kamel, Amr Waked, Salah Fahmy, Dina El-Saleh, Sari El-Naggar and Noha Farouk presided over what looked like a performance held inside one of Cairo's innumerable unfinished concrete jobs, derelict apartment buildings that simply go on being built. In nondescript black outfits, accompanied by a few essential props, they practiced their improvisational techniques. And though apparently devoid of content, this was bringing about a radical shift in perspective. Yaaru (some mythic spirit of performance, perhaps?) was unmistakably present.

For close on a decade, El-Qaliouby explains, the group has existed within larger frameworks and under many names. The patronage of actor Mahmoud Hemeida, and now an invitation to perform in the Townhouse, are among the few occasions on which an active interest has been taken. This is partly due to the fact that, in its present form, the troupe started only a year ago. After assisting director Jean Michel Bruyère undertake an actor training course in collaboration with the Hanager Theatre -- an experience that proved abortive, according to El-Qalioubi, due to the Hanager administration -- it was necessary to reconstruct the parts that had been cut short: "I looked at all the texts, starting with Stanislavski. First I had to try the method on myself and to put it together." Peter Brook had already come up with the theory, but he never managed to put it to practice. Bruyère developed an applied method that he has been trying out with young actors all over the world.
Za'faran Palace

The Actor and his (tor)mentor

Like Cairo's unfinished apartment buildings -- promising shelter and private space, they nonetheless remain bereft of life -- Bruyère's method would have remained in limbo following his departure. Fortunately El-Qaliouby's research in actor-training theory yielded objective and practicable guidelines: "The method begins with shedding all possible preconceptions about acting and being an actor. After you reach a certain point -- the course seldom lasts more than two years -- you can use that skill with anything and apply it to anything and any text."

The actor's object is immediacy: "to communicate something real, something happening now, while you act it. Eventually a character is chosen, and it has to operate in an impossible context. Because the identification is actually impossible, the correct way to make this character real now is to search for it from a situation of freedom, unhampered by preconceptions. The character is ultimately a puppet in the actor's hands." A sense of where you're going is all you need. When this sense is free of constraints, the result will be a more immediate reality that will hit you with the force of theatre. The stories, the themes, are utterly unimportant: "only the actor matters -- the face, the body, the voice. Each of these media is trained separately, then they might be put together but only in certain ways. The process, though controlled, is incremental."

For the present -- all that the Yaaru champions seem to care about, anyway -- the object is to complete the course. It is saddening that even so modest a target is proving so hard to hit. "I am doing something about it, we are doing something about it. Right now we are doing all we can so that the course will continue, at least." And however farfetched they might appear, the process does not exclude end-results. "You might end up doing Shakespeare, if you wanted to." Narration and description are evidently worth ignoring in favour of a more tangibly riveting moment. The journey may be hazardous and the destination inhospitable, it is true. But here is genuine potential for change.

Yaaru's Web site address is

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