To make a start
Nehad Selaiha is not too sanguine about the debuts of two new playwrights
In very few cases, and unless a writer has had some practical experience of theatre-making (as director, actor, or in any other capacity), or has been a diligent theatre-goer and voracious consumer of dramatic texts of varied provenance, early works by budding dramatists tend to be verbally saturated and come across as more literary than theatrical. It is as if they are written to be read rather than performed and would gain nothing by being staged. In her interesting typology of the dramatic dialogue, Erika Fischer-Lichte calls such works monomedial rather than multimedial; in other words, they rely almost solely in communicating their meaning on linguistic signs (usually uncommon in spoken language, such as the use of verse or classical Arabic), and fail to exploit the other languages of the stage, i.e., its paralinguistic, mimical, gestic and/or proxemic sign-systems.
Feelings, moods, thoughts and intentions are fully stated in purely linguistic terms and you lose nothing if you close your eyes and just listen to the words spoken from the stage. In such works, clear enunciation is an essential requirement while setting, movement, sound and lighting become purely decorative, or, at best, redundant parallel signs supporting the obvious, verbally expressed meaning. To conceive of the dramatic text as a performance project -- as "basically a theatrical piece that cannot be defined without regard to its staging", as dramatists like Diderot, Lessing and Brecht have insisted -- and accommodate this performative dimension in the actual writing -- in the vocabulary, construction, syntactic structure and style of the dialogue as well as in the stage-directions -- is what most new playwrights seem to need.
The truth of this observation is borne out by two recent texts by new playwrights: Mohamed Nasif's Break of Day at Nightfall, one of this year's winners of Rashida Taymour's annual playwriting awards and staged by Osama Fawzi at Al-Hanager two months ago, with Nasir Seif and Ashraf Abdel-Ghafour in the lead; 'Alaa Abdel-Aziz Suliman's Tales Never Told by Sheherazade, currently on at Al-Gomhouriya theatre, directed by Hossam El-Shazli and starring Raghda and Sami Abdel-Halim. Both plays were written in classical Arabic, with the first also in verse, and both suffer in various degrees from over-writing
Drawing on Arab history for a suitable cloak for his message, roughly that poets should steer clear of power politics and have no truck with corrupt regimes, Mohamed Nasif picks out the curious story of the Abbasid prince and poet Abul-Abbas Abdallah Ibn Al-Mu'taz (861-908) who succeeded Al-Muqtadir as caliph when the latter was dethroned, but only ruled for one day, at the end of which he was strangled to death by his predecessor's supporters.
After a conventional, lumbering, comic opening in which current Arab rulers are heavy-handedly satirised in the figure of a mentally retarded, clumsily puerile travesty of Al-Muqtadir, the action centres solely on political intrigue and the conflict between poetry and politics seems quite extraneous. It is rarely fleshed in action and mainly unfolds in verbal terms, in the form of interminable monologues delivered by Nasir Seif as Ibn Al-Mu'taz while alone on stage, and alternating with long, pompous counselling tirades declaimed by Ashraf Abdel-Ghafour, masquerading as Al-Tabari -- the famous nineth century Muslim scholar and historian and a contemporary of Ibn Al-Mu'taz -- whom the author drags in as the voice of wisdom. The internal conflict in the mind of the hero between political and poetic ambitions never spawns any deeds or decisions and does not lead anywhere. From beginning to end, Ibn Al-Mu'taz remains a puppet in the hands of both supporters and opponents.
The fabrication of a love interest, in the figure of Khuzama, Ibn Al-Mu'taz's sweetheart, and the replacement of his historical death by strangulation with the unconvincing stoning of the lovers on a trumped up charge of fornication, though they created moments of local excitement, contributed little to the central conflict, remaining firmly outside it. The same conflict (between poetry and politics) had also interested Salah Abdel-Sabour who made it the focus of his first verse drama Ma'sat Al-Hallaj (The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj, rendered in English as Death in Baghdad) in 1964. In the hands of Abdel-Sabour, however, it had been realised through flesh-and- blood characters, crucial choices and concrete, momentous deeds performed in symbolic spaces: the mystic's cell, the marketplace, the prison cell and the courtroom. And not only the settings and props were visually manipulated in the interest of the drama, constituting part of the meaning, every detail, however small, every image and line of poetry was brought to bear on the central conflict. A far cry this from Mohamed Nasif's crudely amateurish and mechanically constructed Break of Day.
Osama Fawzi's direction was predominantly static, often plunging the stage in darkness while a spotlight picked out either Ibn Al-Mu'taz or Al-Tabari as they declaimed soliloquies or speeches. These were either delivered through portable microphones or pre- recorded and played as a voice-over. The effect of this was to exacerbate the impression that one was listening to a radio play -- and a lifeless, tediously verbose one at that -- rather than watching a theatrical piece. To alleviate the verbal tedium and inject some visual liveliness into the show, Fawzi used modern costumes for everybody except Ibn Al-Mu'taz and Al-Tabari and interpolated some farcical stage business and mime sequences as well as an expressionistic dance in silhouette, performed round a chair, symbolising the seat of power, which collapses at the end. As for the acting, apart from the two main characters, it was generally stylised and artificial, strongly bordering on caricature.
I cannot pretend that Break of Day (which I forced myself to watch twice) was anything but a vexing, boring experience. Compared to it, 'Alaa Abdel-Aziz Suliman's Tales Never Told by Sheherazade, though equally loquacious and consisting mostly of narration, seems far more lively and enjoyable. Admittedly, this is partly due to the magical atmosphere of The Arabian Nights which the play invokes to frame the new tales, as well as to the irresistible charm of the character of Sheherazade which is here enhanced by the captivating beauty, bewitching voice and overwhelming stage presence of film star Raghda who plays it. As the narrator of stories invented by the author -- mostly prosaic accounts of atrocities committed by Shahrayar's henchmen against the people -- and intended to chastise Shahrayar and bring home to him a sense of the enormity of his crimes, the corruption of his regime and the terrible suffering of his people under it, Sheherazade, as a character, undergoes little change from beginning to end. She starts as a revolutionary willing to risk death to help free her people from Shahrayar's reign of terror, and ends up as one pleading with the triumphant rebels who storm the palace to spare the life of the king whose mind has finally given way under the pressure of guilty feelings, past memories, recurrent nightmares, the shame of sexual impotence and the pangs of unrequited love.
The image of Sheherazade as a political rebel who opposes Shahrayar's tyrannical rule and conspires to overthrow him is not new. It was twice projected in the 1970s, first in a musical comedy by Rashad Rushdi, then in Ezzat El-Amir's The Reign of Sheherazade, which also starred Raghda when staged 20 years later in 1994 . It surfaced once more in the 1980s, in a verse drama by Fatma Qandil, then in Abdallah El-Toukhi's The Night After the One Thousand and One Nights in October 2002. Likewise, Shahrayar's sexual impotence is not a novel theme; it was first proposed and extensively treated by Ali Ahmed Bakathir in The Secret of Sheherazade, performed at the old Opera house in 1953, with Amina Rizq in the title part. In Bakathir's hands, the heroine of The Nights not only manages to cure Shahrayar of the impotence brought on by his wife's adultery, which is also the root cause of his murderous misogyny in the play, but also manages to rid him of his obsessive sense of guilt and to save his soul.
Suliman also borrows this theme of impotence and plies it for all its dramatic worth and sensational value, making Shahrayar at once pitiful and repellent, and showing the gradual disintegration of his personality and the final collapse of his mind. Though he falls in love with his tormentor, Sheherazade, who, in turn, is made to feel some pity for him at the end, Suliman's Shahrayar cannot hope to be saved at her hands like Bakathir's hero. Here, Sheherazade is given a lover -- one of the victims of Shahrayar's infernal police machine who goes mad after failing to save his sister from being publicly dishonoured and brutally executed on a false charge. To this lover, Sheherazade intends to remain loyal and Shahrayar loves her for it. Were she to surrender to his passion, this would make her into another perfidious female, a replica of his faithless wife and this would put an end to his love.
With more experience, Suliman could have used this deadlock to invest his characters with more depth and generate a degree of dramatic tension and even a sense of the tragic. As it is, the text seemed hopelessly divided between the political and psychological interests -- between the real tales of oppression which keep flowing from Sheherazade and make up most of her part, and Shahrayar's intense mental suffering which takes the form of frenzied ravings, violent hallucinations and furious screams. Both characters and their parts remain largely separate and fail to interlock, and the impression of a split is exacerbated by the impervious literariness of the language used and the verbal overcharging of the dialogue which leaves no room for telling pauses and little space for the actors' and spectators' imagination to work and see if anything lies beneath the surface.
In performance, while the sharp contrast between the modes of acting adopted by Raghda and Sami Abdel-Halim -- the former consistently cool, confident and composed, betraying little tension despite the dangers that surround her, the latter uniformly tense, loud, convulsive and overwrought -- reflected and deepened this split, Mahmoud Hanafi's elegant set was more decorative than dramatic and seemed to visually mimic the glittering verbal opacity of the text. Though sparse, with only a four-poster bed, a table and a chair, it had a shiny floor, leading to a huge white screen at the back (both of which kept changing colour in what seemed like a lighting spree), and was hung on one side with a few transparent drapes (one of which, for no discernible reason, was kept fluttering and floating up in the air with the help of a fan throughout the show) and at the back with shiny streamers as if in preparation for a party. Everything in sight, including the gorgeous silk and satin costumes (by Hani El-Beheiri and Ahmed Abdel-Aziz), glowed and sparkled even in the scenes where the lights dimmed.
Also in line with the text's obsession with clarity (at the expense of density) and its policy of stating everything and leaving nothing for the imagination were the naïve and crudely executed video projections displayed on a screen on the side of the stage to depict the contents of Shahrayar's unconscious and subconscious mind while he sleeps -- his nightmares, nascent fears, suppressed desires, painful memories and murderous impulses. Despite Raghda's wild beauty and seductive presence and Sami Abdel-Halim's vigorous ranting and passionate outpourings, Hossam El-Shazli's production lacked life and fire and ended up having the same smooth, glacial surface and icy feel as the text.