Nehad Selaiha toasts Al-Hourriya, a new independent theatre troupe, at El-Sawy Cultural Centre
The independent theatre movement, launched in 1990, continues to prove its viability as a valuable alternative to mainstream theatre, spawning new troupes and exciting productions all the time. While the state theatre companies waste time and energy in bitter, acrimonious wrangling with Osama Abu Taleb, the latest and so far most fustily bureaucratic head of the organisation -- a sorry situation that has delayed the beginning of the summer season and caused all state theatres to close their doors -- venues which cater for independent troupes are swarming with young artists and bustling with activity. At Al-Hanager, the oldest of such venues, 10 new productions are currently being rehearsed in preparation for the Experimental Theatre Festival in September and will open successively starting 20 July, and at El-Sawy Cultural Centre, the most recent, the programme for July alone features six shows by independent groups.
Last Friday it was the turn of Al- Hourriya (Liberty), a new arrival on the independent theatre scene, to be hosted at El- Sawy and publicly launched. The troupe was founded in 2002 by Mohamed Abdel-Hamid and Sahar Mansour. They met for the first time at the Academy of Arts where both were reading for a two-year diploma in artistic appreciation at the postgraduate Arts Criticism Institute. Abdel-Hamid had studied law at university and had been active in student theatre before he joined the Cinema Institute, graduating some 15 years ago. Like many young people then, he was driven to the Gulf by financial pressures and spent 10 years there doing video work and commercials. He was shamelessly exploited, he claims, and came back as broke as when he left. Though he studied cinema he had always loved theatre and not losing any more time he set about forming his own group.
Sahar Mansour, a talented, devoted budding actress with a degree in physical education and some professional experience in theatre, albeit in tiny, marginal parts, struck him as an ideal partner. When they consulted me about texts (I was teaching the drama part of their course) and said they were looking for a one-woman show, I suggested Nehad Gad's Adila and provided them with a copy. It has a good story -- always an asset in a first theatrical venture, I thought. Adila, a poor, grumpy housewife is suddenly told on the telephone one morning that her husband, whom she had always despised for failing to provide adequately for his family, has been appointed to a top government position on account of the political articles she had long resented and nagged him about. For the next half hour she fantasises about the future, indulging in dreams of fame, wealth and luxury. When she goes to wake up the sleeping husband, however, she discovers he is dead.
For two years Mohamed Abdel-Hamid and Sahar Mansour worked on the project, rehearsing in several cultural clubs, in Maadi and elsewhere -- spaces invariably secured by the resourceful and persuasive Mansour -- and roping in new members and supporters: Mohamed Karara, Mostafa Abdel-Fattah, Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, Hani Fawzi and Tamer Yehia. They helped Abdel-Hamid with all the technical and management aspects of the production, stage-managing, handling the budget and executing the set and lighting-plan he designed, while Hind Abdel-Hamid looked after the costumes and Mursi El-Hatab put together a suitable track of incidental music and sound-effects.
By the beginning of April 2004 the production was ready and they offered to present it free at a gala celebration of former graduates and deans proposed by the Institute later that month. After a preview of the performance, held in a lecture room in broad daylight and attended by a number of staff members, the offer was gratefully accepted. On 19 April, Adila 2004 was performed at Sayed Darwish Hall and though the stage there is vast and quite ill- suited to this type of performance, it was unanimously cheered. For the group it was like an open dress-rehearsal and a test. The enthusiastic reception told they had a good show and set them looking for other venues and exploring further performance opportunities. They had paid for everything out of their own pockets and were prepared to play anywhere. The set, though realistic, featuring the dingy hall of the flat of an impoverished, lower- middle-class family, with a make-shift bed on one side, a desk and some bookshelves on the other, a small balcony with some clothes lines up front and a corridor leading to the rest of the flat at the back, with a window overlooking the well of the building, is light and can be easily carried and quickly set up anywhere. Armed with strong recommendations from Samir Sarhan and myself, they approached Osama Abu Taleb for the use of one of the two idle halls at Al-Talia Theatre but, predictably, after a lot of frustrating shilly- shallying, they got nowhere with him. The show would have cost him nothing and kept at least one theatre open but it seems Abu Taleb is allergic to open theatres. There is always Al- Hanager but with 10 shows in rehearsal there was simply no space. Finally they turned to El-Sawy Cultural Centre and it was there that I watched Adila 2004 for the second time last Friday.
Adila was originally written as a short story called Al-Ragul Alladhi Lam Yusbih (a punning title which could mean at once "the man who did not live to see the morning" and "the man who did not make it"). The authoress, the late Nehad Gad, had written short stories and children's strip-cartoons in the 1960s, the latter in collaboration with painter Ihab Shakir, while working for the weekly magazine Sabah El-Kheir, which she joined while still an undergraduate at the English department of Cairo University. After she married her former drama teacher, Samir Sarhan, in the States, while reading for a Master's degree in drama at the University of Indiana, she found herself more drawn to the theatre and thought of trying her hand at playwriting on a modest scale. Her husband suggested she use a short story she had recently published in Sabah El-Kheir which he thought had good dramatic potential. Al-Ragul was re-made into a one-woman show -- a vehicle for a virtuoso performance for a seasoned, versatile actress.
The stage version of Al-Ragul took the form of a long dramatic monologue by the disgruntled, frustrated wife of al-ragul (the man) who never makes it to the top, with occasional asides to the audience and bits of one-sided dialogue addressed to the sleeping husband or the imaginary characters she conjures up. Though al-ragul, or husband, remains the focal point of the play -- the presence that mediates between the wife's memories and present lived experience and future hope and the lynch-pin which links her regrets, longings, daydreams and fantasies to her reality -- it was deemed necessary to change the title to Adila, the name of the wife: all the actresses approached for the part had objected to starring in a one-woman show that referred in its title to the male dummy in the play rather than to the sole, speaking character. As a newcomer to the stage, though a well-known journalist and familiar face in theatrical circles, Nehad Gad had a difficult time with actresses and directors. Everyone wanted to mess around with the text, cut bits and introduce others; "it wouldn't be the same play," she bitterly complained. Finally, she stumbled on Zeinab Shumees, a new female director anxious to make her debut in a field traditionally monopolised by men, and together they were able to convince the veteran actress, Naima Wasfi, to take on the part without extensive changes. It was to be the first all-women show in the history of Egyptian theatre.
Adila opened at Al-Talia Theatre, in the Small (Salah Abdel-Sabour) Hall in the autumn of 1981 (the space where Al-Hourriya group vainly begged to stage its revival). The play was a roaring success with the public and the critics raved about Wasfi's performance, praising the play's tautness and cunning structure and generally congratulating Gad on her crafts(wo)manship. Ideologically, however, the play was controversial. Some voices, mostly female, took Gad to task over her portrait of her heroine. By presenting Adila as an ignorant, petty- minded, materialistic, vain and self-absorbed middle-class housewife -- a thorough philistine who fails to understand, let alone sympathise with her husband's revolutionary political views and articles, regarding them as a silly waste of time ---- Gad was fostering the traditional images and roles of women and betraying her sex, they claimed. To such criticism, Nehad usually retorted that she wrote about life as she saw and knew it. Adila, she insisted, was an obstacle to progress and a millstone round her husband's neck because society and its dominant, orthodox culture had meant her to be that way -- literally a dead weight. She was a victim of the ideology she was born into and made to imbibe by family, friends, neighbours, the media and society at large, Gad argued. Ignorant, economically and politically powerless, no wonder she takes refuge in a world of fantasy and desperately pins all her hopes on her husband to improve her lot in life. "What is wrong with women's writing," Gad repeatedly said, "is that they tend to write themselves into their texts and idealise a bit. The result is that their heroines are mostly intelligent, sensitive, positive and rebellious. If our patriarchal culture can produce such fine specimens, why challenge it then?" she wondered. Telling the truth about women, she believed, was the only way to empower them and bring about their liberation.
In Adila 2004 Abdel-Hamid and Mansour made sure to foreground Gad's conception of her heroine as victim; the new version of the play takes Adila, visually and verbally, a couple of rungs down the socio-economic ladder, underlining the misery and sordidness of her existence and her pitiful struggle to make ends meet, while pointing out to the audience, with a cynical smirk, the futility and sheer romanticism of her husband's utopian dreams. Gad's satirical quips and topical, barbed allusions were updated and the general impact of Adila as a deeply-flawed, deeply sympathetic character was something similar to that of the eponymous heroine of Brecht's Mother Courage.
In a cheap, printed cotton galabiya, hitched up round the hips and worn over a rolled up pair of worn-out, male pajama-trousers (husband's tattered cast-offs) with a dark, wine-red scarf tightly wound round her head, Sahar Mansour was every inch the Adila Gad had wanted. Taking on such a character was an audacious decision on Mansour's part and it has revealed both her strong and weak points. She needs vocal training to master the rhythmic modulation that makes for comic punch-lines. Her beautiful, unmade-up face, however, sensitively mirrored the varied moods of the character and her sharp swings from crass vulgarity to gentle pathos. She is also so light and graceful on stage it makes you furious she is so shabbily attired and hopelessly beleaguered. But this is exactly the point this new version of Adila wants to make: why are so many of God's beautiful children condemned to such miserably grotesque existences?