Nehad Selaiha celebrates the reopening of Al-Hanager and hails an outstanding performance by Tayseer Fahmi
In the aftermath of the Beni Sweif disaster, many theatres and performance spaces were put out of action pending having them secured against fire hazards. Al-Hanager, one of the most active and exciting venues in Egypt, was one of them, and for close on three months it was sorely missed by the young artists who have come to regard it as their natural home and imaginative playground, as well as by the many theatre lovers who have become addicted to its fresh, stimulating fare. Its current production of Tankred Dorst's Grosse Schmahrede an der Stadtmauer ("The Great Diatribe [or Great Vituperation] at the City Wall"), the first since it reopened, is a good reminder of the wise artistic policy of its director, Hoda Wasfi, who has striven over the years to bridge the gap between different theatrical generations and traditions, forge ties between mainstream and fringe theatre artists and bring together seasoned, popular performers and young, adventurous directors. It is also a good reminder of the status and value of the place as cultural window, experimental venue and incubator for new talent.
Dorst was first introduced in Egypt in the mid- 1980s when the English version of one of his early plays, the 1960 Die Kurve (The Bend in the Road), was done into Arabic by Ibrahim Hamada and published in the arts magazine Funuun. In November 1992, the monthly Theatre Magazine published a translation of another play of his, The Great Diatribe, under the title of Al-Idana, done directly from the original German text by Abdel-Ghaffar Mekkawi. Dorst, however, though he visited Cairo in the late 1990s at the invitation of the Goethe Institute, did not reach the Egyptian stage until 2003, when director Sami Abdel-Halim presented Hamada's Arabic version of The Bend in the Road at the small (Salah Abdel-Sabour) hall of Al-Tali'a Theatre. Three years earlier, however, an abridged version of Mekkawi's translation of The Great Diatribe had surfaced at the Theatre Institute as an acting graduation project presented by Liqaa Swidaan; and though it was only a student performance, it revealed the play's wonderful potential as a vehicle for an actress keen on displaying her versatility. Of the numberless projects I have watched over the years at the Theatre Institute, Swidaan's "vituperation" stands out in my memory with amazing clarity and I do not doubt that this aspect of the play, which forcefully comes across in Mikkawi's smooth and highly actable translation, was what challenged Tayseer Fahmi, an actress fond of complex parts, to star in the current Al-Hanager production and treat us to a remarkable and equally unforgettable performance.
Unlike The Bend in the Road, a gruesome farce in the tradition of the Absurd, particularly Beckett's, in which two clown-like brothers living at the side of a dangerous road make a living out of finishing off the victims of car accidents and murder an official who comes to investigate the matter, The Great Diatribe is more openly political and committed, and more formally complex, posing as a parable play in the manner of Brecht while ironically drawing on the traditions of illusionary theatre and the art of puppetry. Like Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, it is vaguely set in China and features a tug-of-war between two parties, unequal in strength, over a human being. But while Dorst's heroine, the nameless fisherman's wife, resembles Brecht's kitchen maid Grusha in having no legal claim to the person she is fighting to possess as her human right -- in the case of the former, a man, in the latter, a child -- the conflict in Dorst's play engages the whole action and the playacting it generates is controlled from inside, by one of the parties involved in the conflict, and presented as a game of life and death.
Though the technique of the play-within-the-play is the dominant mode in both plays, Brecht clearly separates the inner masked play, which tells an old Chinese legend, from the outer frame-play which features a contemporary conflict between two peasant communities over a valley. The story of the "Chalk Circle," dramatised and performed by "the singer Arkadi Cheidze", with the help of his musicians and the members of both communities, presents Grusha's trials, which occupy most of the text, quite dispassionately, as an edifying parable which ends, in scene six, with a "trial concerning the child of the Governor Abashvili/ To establish the true mother/ By the famous test of the Chalk Circle." Unlike Grusha, Dorst's heroine gets no justice, and when the playacting is over, she does not take off a mask, for she wears none. At the end, her performance does not change the oppressive reality presented at the beginning of the play; rather, it leaves the heroine and the audience with an enhanced awareness of its horrors. While Brecht's play works as an invitation to detached reflection, Dorst's comes across as a passionate cry for justice.
The Great Diatribe begins with the arrival of a poor but mettlesome fisherman's wife at the gates of the great wall encircling the imperial city to ask the emperor to let go of her husband who has been forcibly conscripted in the army and assigned to his defence. She loudly protests that as her bedmate and provider, he is more valuable to her than to the emperor who commands thousands like him. When the emperor's officers, a stereotypical duet physically reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy but more sinister and ruthless in deed, fail to silence her with threats, the emperor appears at his celestial, invisible window and the game begins. Though visually absent, he orders his officers to parade all the sentries of the castle before her and allow the one she identifies as her husband to go with her. There is a catch, however: before the guard she picks out is allowed to leave with her, both have to convince the emperor that he is the man she claims he is by reenacting scenes from their past life. The woman accepts the challenge, and though the man she randomly pointed out is a complete stranger to her, and has only gone along with her claim to escape the rigours of a soldier's life, she is determined to keep him. Her logic in this is simple and earthy: a woman needs a man as the earth needs the sky; and since the emperor has taken away her legitimate spouse, it is only fair that he should compensate her with another.
The farcical, pathetic playacting scenes which follow are improvised on the spot according to the dictates of the invisible emperor. In them the woman takes on the roles of script-writer, prompter, stage director and leading actress, and her clandestine coaching of her partner into his new character and clever covering up for his slips generate a lot of comedy and suspense. The emperor's two officers, on the other hand, though they are occasionally persuaded to help with the play, act primarily as a suspicious, cantankerous, obstreperous audience who demands strict verisimilitude and keeps interrupting the actors with querulous queries and incredulous objections. The woman is forced to pit her wits against theirs and stakes her life on the stranger's ability to enter into his part and achieve what Coleridge called "a willing suspension of disbelief". Contrary to Brecht, who deliberately broke the dramatic illusion to prevent the audience from getting emotionally involved in the play, Dorst, who belongs to the generation after Brecht and was as much influenced by the theatre of the Absurd and puppet theatre (where he started his career) as by the epic theatre, uses the same device to achieve the opposite effect and draw our sympathies towards his heroine and her acting partner. By making the resolution of the conflict hang on their acting ability, their power to sustain an illusion and convince a sceptical audience, Dorst turns every breaking of this illusion into a suspenseful moment fraught with dramatic tension and anxiety over the actors' fate. In other words, the art of acting itself, the power to stage a convincing dramatic illusion, becomes the focus and crux of the drama.
At the end of the play-within-the-play, however, the woman gets no grades for her exquisite performance, and is not even thought worth punishing. All along, she had taken the game in dead earnest, acting for her life, as it were; for the emperor and his men, however, it had been nothing but mere sport -- an evening's entertainment to dispel the tedium of office. In an ironical theatrical move, calculated to make the audience catch their breath, we suddenly discover that the emperor and his officers knew all along that the woman was lying. And to intensify the irony of this revelation, the guard who played her husband, and was throughout the game torn between his fear of punishment and desire for freedom, is made to suddenly disappear behind the wall at the moment the woman reenacts his capture, then reenters at the end, wearing a mask, not dissimilar to the ones worn by the two officers, to order her to leave quietly.
In its condemnation of war, its exposition of the ruthless exploitation of the common people and the heartless disregard of their needs and modest sources of happiness, Dorst's Great Diatribe contrasts two attitudes to performance: as cathartic, pastime entertainment, on the one hand, and as a means of survival and a way to recover a little of one's legitimate rights, on the other. That the woman, when the game is up and she is presented with her dead husband's blood-soiled garments and the amulet inscribed with her name which he carried round his neck, manages to hide her sorrow and still persists in her theatrical pretence that the soldier she picked is her real husband, is a proof of her desperate need to have reality recreated in the shape of her imaginative performance. A great vindication of the claim that theatre offers an alternative reality.
The current production offers an interesting case of subtle adaptation rarely met on the Egyptian stage. Sticking to the verbal text, except for some excisions, Hani El-Banna performs a cunning act of transposition, rearranging crucial sections of the dialogue in the latter half of the play to make the end more pathetic. By moving the shattering scene where the woman is cynically presented with tangible, irrefutable proofs of her real husband's death to just before her final, vituperative outburst, he brought the character in line with the traditional moral expectations of an ordinary Egyptian audience; according to these expectations, no woman faced with the news of her husband's certain death can go on acting to win a male substitute. This would brand her, in Egyptian, middle-class eyes, as an irredeemably lustful, insatiable whore worthy of no sympathy. One wonders how this would emotionally ring in rural societies.
El-Banna also omitted the final appearance of the soldier and instructed Tayseer Fahmi to charge the discovery scene with heightened emotions. As she silently, slowly crumbles into a heap, she becomes an emblematic figure of human misery everywhere in the world. The character of the soldier who masquerades as the dead fisherman also undergoes a discernible change in El-Banna's interpretation. Farid El-Noqrashi, a vastly talented budding actor, renders the part realistically, investing it with profound emotions, and with the help of El-Banna's transpositions and omissions of parts of the text, manages to make sense of the character's erratic vacillations between fiction and reality. But El-Banna's most obvious diversion from Dorst's text was amalgamating the duet of officers into one character, zestfully performed by Ali Hassanein, who takes on all the parts, and assigning the least significant parts of their original dialogue to two clownish guards who act both as chorus and marginal assistants in the game.
The massive, daunting set, designed by Mohamed Saad, who also designed the costumes, consisted of two formidable beige and grayish brown towers surrounded by a wall engraved with scenes of mutilation and blood-shed; it also featured a towering black mediaeval armoured figure on one side of the set, complete with helmet and sword, and a grotesque clock-like circle at the top of one tower which, when lighted, suggested the emperor's face encased in his window. The costumes reflected the same colour scheme as the set, consisting mostly of various shades of beige and brown, and their design placed them ambiguously in place and time. With no particular historical reference in sight, the visual aspect of the performance sought to expand the theme of oppression and stress its topicality and immediate relevance, regardless of geographical denominations. Abu Bakr El-Sherif's lighting helped in this respect, sticking to a simple plan of neutral yellow for the playacting scenes and smoky grey for the monologues and asides. Mohamed Bahgat's lyrics and Tareq Mahran's incidental music and melodies equally hovered between factual representation and general symbolic intent.
Though El-Banna did away with the masks, he kept the straw-stuffed doll which is initially thrown to the woman as a mockery of her husband. The whole performance staked its success or failure on the performances of its three major actors and it has gloriously passed the test. Tayseer Fahmi gave a vivid, stunning performance as the long suffering rebellious woman, and her mounting fury was cleverly camouflaged by an outward show of abject servility which she used as a shield to protect her from the ravages of authority. Throughout the play, her obsequious docility and humbleness came across as a carefully painted mask: the mask of humbleness donned by the poor and downtrodden to conceal their profound, smirking contempt of their oppressors.