Back on the merry-go-round
With the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) opening this Monday, Nehad Selaiha looks at what Egypt has to offer
For 11 days, from 20 September to 1 October, Cairo will be hosting dozens of theatre artists and scholars from all over the world. Apart from the ten members of the international jury, the honourees and the participants in the central seminar (which has for a theme this year the effects of modernism and postmodernism on theatre worldwide, including Arab theatre), 68 companies from 52 different countries will present over 120 performances all across Cairo. A massive theatrical onslaught of this kind always guarantees variety; quality, however, is a different matter. If we are lucky, we may get ten or, optimistically, 20 decent shows that are really worth seeing. For the rest, you can forget about aesthetics and technical originality and console yourself with the socio-cultural aspect of theatre and whatever insights you can glean in that direction about how young people from different cultural backgrounds think and feel about the world today. The fact that most of the companies participating are young infuses the occasion with a distinct air of jeunesse, generating an atmosphere of carnival.
The number and variety of the shows on offer can be truly dizzying, as many have complained over the years, since the beginning of CIFET in 1988. But the rewards in terms of cultural interaction and dialogue, as Fawzi Fahmi, the chairman of the festival board argues, can be immense. Many friendships, intellectual bonds and artistic liaisons between theatre people have been forged over the years thanks to the festival; and this bonding, dialogic activity is an essential function of CIFET and part of its founding philosophy. Unlike Avignon or Edinburgh, CIFET, according to Fahmi, is not meant as a theatre market, a showcase for the best artistic commodities available for commercial promotion; it belongs more in the area of cultural politics and was conceived by Farouk Hosni as a forum for cultural exchange and mutual understanding.
Though the festival has altered its dates this year from 1-11 September to 20 September-1 October (presumably to avoid clashing with the Alexandria Film Festival and possibly to steer clear of the terrible memories of 11 September, 2001) and has moved its headquarters to the opera grounds, where it occupies a whole floor in the building of the Cultural Production Sector, just above the public censor's office, and though it has been established as a separate, administratively autonomous apparatus, with an independent staff and budget, little improvement management-wise seems to have accrued from the changes. Like the previous 15 rounds, this year is marked by the same last-minute frenzied hassle, confused reports and niggardly lack of information. Whatever news I have I got through other channels. That Arthur Sonnen, the head of the Amesterdam Theatre Festival will be on the jury I found out from personal correspondence with a Dutch theatre academic, and it was Ann-Marie Veltman, from the Embassy of the Netherlands, who told me that Kris Nicklson, who entranced Egyptian audiences with her zany performances three times already, would be bringing a new production called He is Speaking About Me. Through personal contacts too I learnt that Irving Wardle, the famous British theatre critic, will be honoured this year, that Harold Pinter and American playwright Naomi Wallace, who were also to be honoured, had pleaded prior engagements, promising to come next year, that Iraqi playwright, Awatef Na'im, will accompany an Iraqi production and take part in the seminar, and that the seminar will also feature among the speakers Neil van der Linden from Holland, Farhan Bulbul from Syria and Paul Sha'oul from Lebanon. A telephone call from Ginka Henle told me that she and Marta Coigne would be acting again this year as members of the international committee entrusted with the choice of which shows to take part in the competition. Since Saturday 11 September, they have been cooped up in the cinema theatre, on the second floor of the Creativity Centre, wading through scores of video tapes. There are translators at hand to help them negotiate whatever linguistic hurdles they meet, and their onerous task is likely to take them till the day before the opening.
That Ginka and her colleagues should have to cram so much theatre viewing into a little over a week may be understandable; they are all very busy people and none of them could spare more time. What utterly defies comprehension is the schedule of the Egyptian selection committee appointed by Fahmi to choose the two Egyptian entries in the contest. A month ago, you could have sworn there was nothing fit for the festival except at Al-Hanager and Khaled Galal's Studio at the Creativity Centre. Both had prepared for the occasion in advance and were ready with as many as five productions each to choose from. In the state theatre companies, which had remained inactive for most of the last two seasons, there wasn't even the ghost of an experimental play. Suddenly, however, seven new productions were announced on paper, most of them insisting they were not ready for viewing until three days before the opening. This is not surprising since for a year the state theatre head has done nothing except put everybody's back up and stir up poisonous feuds. The end-result is that the selection committee will have a hectic time watching as many as four productions an evening in the last few days before the festival.
Why the state theatre companies cannot follow the example of Al-Hanger and the Creativity Centre Studio seems to do with their insidiously bureaucratic, rigidly hierarchical, and unbendingly centralised structure. Al-Hanager and Galal's Studio have no such drawbacks. At the former, work on at least five new experimental productions started nearly six months ago. Some of them, like Amr Qabil's staging of Brecht's Mother Courage, Sameh Mahran's adaptation of Durrenmatt's The Trial about the Donkey's Shadow, and Mohamed Oma's Full Moon, based on a text by Osama Anwar Okasha, did not seem ready by the beginning of September and Huda Wasfi, not the type to rush things or offer half-baked fare, decided to leave them aside till they matured. The other two productions, Mohamed Shafiq's Echo and Ashraf Farouk's Blue Dogs were tried out in a number of dress rehearsals, open to the public, and underwent some revision at Wasfi's suggestion before they were nominated to the selection committee. I watched both during these open rehearsals and saw how anxious Wasfi was for her young artists to hone their work and give their best.
Echo was sensuously overwhelming; a stirring, original mixture of music, dance and poetry that hits you as a violent, heart-rending cry of despair and defiance. It ends on an eerily quiet note, at once poignantly, tenderly lyrical and harshly gruesome, with Aya Suleiman stretched out on a table, covered with slabs of raw meat and softly reciting a poem in English about longing to soar above the sea, among the seagulls, and melt into the blueness of the sky. The counterpointing of violently contrasting feelings and wildly clashing states of mind, rendered through vivid sounds, body language and concrete stage imagery makes up the impressively intricate script of Echo. Blue Dogs, on the other hand, was word-logged, and seemed to flounder in a morass of clichés and dead verbiage. Behind a thin symbolic veil, it was outspokenly, belligerently political.
The setting is an old, dilapidated house, infested with the ghosts of the dead members of the family who once lived there: the father, an idealistic intellectual who once acted as curator or custodian of the nation's archives and library, the mother who broke her heart over her sons and withered away in a mental home, the eldest brother who dreamt of becoming a poet but was senselessly killed in the war while acting as a human shield for his superiors, and the sister, a history teacher who was sacked for refusing to falsify history and dies a sad, old maid, dreaming of a saviour in the form of a knight in shining armour. The action is triggered by the arrival of the youngest, thoroughly Westernised son after a spell in Europe and takes the form of his gradual moral-political rehabilitation through successive encounters with the ghosts of the dead on the one hand and his remaining brother, a vulgar, materialistic piece of trash, on the other. The bone of contention is the house of course, which symbolically represents Egypt, its cultural identity and national heritage -- a hackneyed cliché if ever there was one. On a thinly metaphorical level, provided by the father's ghost, the house is supposed to be constantly under attack from a vicious pack of blue dogs who threaten to overrun it; on another, grotesquely realistic one, the blue dogs turn out to be a group of foreign investors who, with the help of the trashy brother, plan to take over the house and turn it to commercial uses against the will of the youngest, now reformed son. Farouk's many expressionistic gimmicks, including a live band with painted faces, occasionally sauntering among the actors, could not soften the bludgeoning didactic thrust of the show or endow it with any semblance of subtlety or depth. Overwriting here was a definite flaw; the total absence of humour another. The crisis of identity in the face of globalisation is a serious enough topic and very relevant today. In Blue Dogs, however, it is treated naïvely, simplistically, with lots of facile generalisations and slogan mongering. The message it puts across is disturbingly intolerant, narrow-minded, jingoistic and xenophobic. However, it is one point of view that has many adherents today and as such it has a right to be aired, particularly in a purportedly democratic event like CIFET.
At the Creativity Centre next door, Khalid Galal was quite at a loss what to nominate from a number of good shows his studio has produced over the past six months. For a whole year after the studio was opened, the group of experts contracted by Galal poured their experience into training a select bunch of young talents in the different arts of theatre, conducting a series of extended, consecutive workshops. When they felt their students were ready, they started six months ago giving public demonstrations of the results of their work. A stage- designing exhibition centring on Hamlet and featuring many inspired maquettes of possible sets for the play amply demonstrated the vast leaps Galal's young designers made in the space of a year. Two excellent concerts of old, difficult songs from the musical heritage, followed by an evening of dance, appositely called The Test, all performed by the same young people, evidenced the high level of vocal and physical competence achieved in the studio. Then all the talents of performers, designers, choreographers and directors were pooled together in a biting satire on the media, the commercialisation of art and the lucrative industry of star-making called Forced Landing. The initial image of a plane crash, with smudged bodies in tatters, lying in the debris among an odd assortment of gutted-out luggage and pathetically scattered personal effects, gives way to a series of parodic takeoffs of commercial TV programmes, with occasional hilarious dives behind the scenes to show how stars are literally manufactured“ through plastic surgery. One particularly grotesque scene shows a young singer with a marvellous voice but plain appearance literally stuffed into one end of an enormous meat-grinder and coming out the other end a voluptuous, marionette-like, hip-wiggling blonde, coquettishly piping a travesty of the Umm Kulthoum song she sang earlier. Using the formula of a variety show, Forced Landing achieved artistic coherence and relevance from the initial, all- embracing metaphor of a group of young people forced to land in a strange environment and gradually discovering its monstrous inanities, savage distortions and inhuman conduct.
Forced Landing played to full houses for two weeks in June. In August, audiences were fighting once more at the door of the Creativity Centre to watch the studio's latest curious experiment: five takes on King Lear by five different directors from the studio. In succession, Reem Higab, Islam Imam, Tareq Ragheb, Abeer Ali and Yasser El-Tobgi projected their individual readings of the play, each playing for two nights. All were laudable, but for me the most provocative was Higab's intensely personal approach, which indiscriminately sided with the three daughters, grouping them in a sympathetic trio against the blind tyranny of a selfish, vicious, senile Lear, superbly performed by Nidal El-Shaf'i. The nasty, obscene side of old age was ruthlessly bared with unbending, shocking frankness. Equally provocative in its grotesque cruelty was Ragheb's political reading which he carefully spun round Amira Raouf's inspired, multifunctional, mobile set, with its many forbidding metal spikes and clanking iron chains, with Goneril and Regan played by men in evening dress and Kent and Cordelia wearing modern school uniforms and glasses. Imam's setting of the action in a basketball pitch, with the characters in sports gear and Lear acting as coach was visually exciting but stuck on the whole to the conventional reading of the text. Abeer Ali's version got off to a good start, using parody, caricature and comic asides to underline the theatricality of the whole affair and tear its underlying assumptions to pieces, but seems to have chickened out halfway through, toeing a conventional line despite her extensive use of puppets, silhouettes and shadows cast on screens. In the last Lear variation, El-Tobgi's approach was openly farcical, burlesquing the play in the same manner as Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals" did with the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream and as a Swedish company of clowns did with Hamlet in last year's festival. Since no theatre is allowed to present more than two shows to the selection committee, Galal ended up choosing Forced Landing together with two of the Lear plays, Ragheb's and El-Tobgi's, joined together as Variations on Lear. A brilliant and quite legitimate ruse.
Barring Walid Aouni's Quicksand, the rest of the plays on the selection committee schedule are all recent fledglings, with some, one suspects, prematurely sprung from their shells. What Daily Screams, The Shore of Safety, The Song of Night and Knife, The Visit of the Old Man, Guffaws, or Please, Do Not Disturb, etc will be like, is anybody's guess. We'll just have to wait and see.