Puppets and clowns
Nehad Selaiha watches the notorious patriarch of Naguib Mahfouz's Trilogy reduced to a puppet at Al-Tali'a theatre
Ahmed Halawa is a curious mixture of super clown, moral satirist and virulent political dissenter. Born in 1949, he got his first taste of theatre as a child on the streets of Abassiya where every Thursday a market was held in the morning, on the estate of a charitable wealthy lady called Qut Al-Quloub Al-Dimirdashiya, whose father, Mustafa El-Dimirdash Pasha, had built the hospital which still stands there today and established a holy order in his name -- Al-Dimirdashiya Dervish Order -- with the help of his religious mentor, a man of God called Sidi Al-Muhammadi. In the evening, when all the worldly transactions were over, a fair was held round the shrine of Sidi Al-Muhammadi whom the Pasha had buried on the estate and the occasion was marked by the distribution of food and alms to the poor and, more significantly for the child Halawa, by the holding of a circus and the welcome invasion of puppeteers, shadow players, jugglers, dancers, acrobats and story-tellers. And since his father, Sheikh Ragab Halawa, was the business manager of the charitable Qut Al-Quloub and, therefore, acted as a kind of master of ceremonies, partly arranging and supervising the whole occasion, the child Halawa was allowed everywhere and was always in the thick of the festivities.
Halawa traces his love for theatre to this early, colourful period of his life and acknowledges those anonymous street performers as his first masters. Throughout his school years he was deeply involved in amateur theatricals, whether at school or in youth centres -- particularly Al-Gezira and Al-Wayli -- and though he was forced by the rigid laws of respectability to study engineering at university, he joined the theatre institute as soon as he got his degree (in 1969) to train in acting and directing. He spent four years there, graduating in 1973 and from that period one figure stands out in particular: a French director from the Comedie Française by the name of Alan de Fiagre who initiated Halawa in the secrets of the comic muse and coached him in the intricate techniques and devices of masterly comedians, such as Molière. Of this M de Fiagre Halawa speaks with great fondness and infinite gratitude. Predictably, Halawa distinguished himself as a student and was appointed instructor upon graduation. Teaching, however, was not foremost in Halawa's mind at the time and while doing a post- graduate diploma in directing, he pursued an intensive career in acting, performing anywhere he could, in youth centres, cultural palaces and both the state and commercial theatre.
Working with the long-established El-Rihani company, he rubbed shoulders with the best comic talents of the age, getting a thorough grounding in the conventional routines and techniques of farce, vaudeville and boulevard theatre. At the private company of Fayez Halawa and Tahiya Carioca, which specialised in topical political satire, offering a kind of living-newspaper-theatre and directly playing to the audience with little pretence at make- believe, he learnt the art of drawing out an audience and turning them into collaborators and honed his adlibbing and improvisation skills. In these two "schools" of comedy, as he calls them, he discovered that comedy was his fort and popular, political theatre his vocation.
By the end of the 1970s, Halawa had become sufficiently recognized as a gifted comedian to want to immerse himself completely in the practical side of his art. He chucked up his teaching post and got a job as a director at the National Theatre, thanks to the diploma in directing he had just obtained. Ironically, he never directed anything at the National; within a few months of his appointment, he was delegated to Al-Tali'a theatre at the request of its director then, Samir El-Asfouri. The move proved immeasurably beneficial for Halawa's development as artist, bringing out his latent potential as an all-round homme de theatre and helping him to discover the kind of theatre he wanted to make and how to go about making it. He refers to his close association with El-Asfouri at Al-Tali'a throughout the 1980s as a period of intensive exposure to a new, more inventive and open comic mode in which performance becomes a festive, communal event at once rooted in the past and firmly tied to the present.
More than any other production of that period, El-Asfouri's inspired chef-d'oeuvre, Honey and Onions, which has become a veritable classic of the modern Egyptian theatre, has been a seminal influence on Halawa's subsequent career. Indeed, traces and echoes of that production can be found in all the works Halawa masterminded afterwards. Apart from increasing his popularity and prestige tenfold, raising his price on the market and bringing in a shower of offers from television and commercial companies, it awakened his old dream of writing and directing for the stage and provided him with a tentative model for the kind theatre-maker he wanted to become and the brand of political, popular comedy he wanted to make -- a comedy which would recapture the simple joys and carnival spirit of the fairground he experienced as a child while grabbing the present by the scruff of the neck as it were and jumping down the throat of authority.
Halawa's project, however, took some years to simmer and during that time he rejoined academia as an assistant lecturer at the theatre department of Helwan University and got a scholarship to Rumania to read for a PhD in theatre directing, with a special emphasis on comedy in Egypt. Researching the Egyptian comic tradition over many decades helped Halawa clarify his ideas and bring them into sharper focus. Like many of his generation, he had come under the spell of the specious call for an "authentic" Arab theatre loudly drummed in the 1960s; the way to achieve it, it was argued, was by drawing on indigenous social and religious rituals and forms of popular entertainment. Such forms, however, as Halawa came to realise, were more or less universal and did not by themselves make for cultural authenticity. In many cases they were reduced to clichés and became merely decorative. The challenge was to recreate them into vehicles for new ideas and make them integral to the structure and meaning of the performance. To be truly popular, theatre had to make whatever popular material it used relevant to present- day reality and alive to its pressing issues and concerns, he believed; it had to regard itself as a creative, collective revolutionary endeavour which actively seeks to involve the audience by using comfortably familiar stuff in order to finally shake them out of their inherited mental habits and existential inertia and awaken them to a fresh, critical perception of their reality. El-Asfouri and a few others had managed it; but look how many had failed.
In Rumania too, a country famous for its high- quality puppet theatre, Halawa's old fascination with that art was revived and became central to his reflections on popular theatre. He began to envision a kind of theatre shared equally by puppets and humans. By the time he got his doctorate in 2001, his ideas had crystallised and he set to work, writing and directing in quick succession a trilogy of popular, political satires for puppets and actors. Al-Malik Al- 'Iryan (The Naked King) was followed by Al-Deek Lamma Yikaki (When the Cock Crows). Harit 'Amm Naguib (Uncle Naguib's Alley, which uses a familiar form of endearment in referring to Naguib Mahfouz in the title) has been playing to full houses since it opened last September at Al-Tali'a -- the same venue which aired the two earlier plays.
In all three plays humans and puppets inhabit the same world and walk or sit side by side. This creates a disorienting theatrical image of wildly distorted dimensions, vaguely reminiscent of the pictures and drawings in many printed fairy tales and children's story books. But the delightful thrill one experiences at being seduced back into the world of early childhood, where the laws and perceptions of the rational, adult world do not hold, does not last for very long and soon gives way to a kind of existential anxiety as one begins, quite involuntarily, in view of what is happening on stage, to question the meaning of being human and alive and wonder if one is not really, deep down, merely a puppet. Such disturbing intimations are bolstered by the fact that Halawa's theme is always social, political and ideological oppression, that in the struggle of right and might, humans and puppets are easily interchangeable and quite indistinguishable from each other, and that the hero, or representative of the consistently abused common people, a kind of Everyman, is invariably buffeted around and finally crushed by mighty, invisible forces, very much like a marionette controlled and manipulated by an invisible puppet-master towering above the scene. Indeed, the double, paradoxical metaphor of the human citizen as helpless puppet and of his/her oppressors as inhuman puppeteers provides the artistic rationale behind Halawa's mixing of puppets and human performers on stage.
The story-line in all the plays is quite simple and consists of an allegorical journey, physical or mental, prompted by a social, political or cultural crisis and developing through a series of trials and confrontations towards a sad end for the citizens -- puppets and humans -- involved in it. Though they resemble the mediaeval morality plays in their overriding allegorical bent, skeletal, symbolic characterisation, simplicity of structure and directness of purpose, the plays leave the audience at a dead end, holding no promise of salvation except in rebellion. Like the morality play, however, Halawa's trilogy requires a demonstrative rather that illusionary style of performance and allows the actor plenty of space for improvisation, detached ironical comment on topical matters and subversive political satire. In all three plays, a live takht (oriental band) is an essential feature of the performance, providing vivid musical and vocal support to the actors and puppets in the form of comments, rude or playful interjections, or rhythmical accompaniment.
In Uncle Naguib's Alley, Halawa cashes in on the notoriety of "Si El-Sayed", the central patriarchal figure in Mahfouz's internationally famed Trilogy, who has been popularised by Hassan El-Imam's film versions of the novels, and uses him to demonstrate both the burden of the past and its corrupting, debilitating influence on the present. The wielders of political, ideological and economic power in the present, however, are shown to have far surpassed him in tyranny so that as soon as the Everyman of the play, his grandson Abdou (which means slave), the son of the notoriously philandering Yassin in the Trilogy, is rid of his influence than he finds himself a helpless prey in the hands of blind religious preachers, drunken left-wing intellectuals and the ruthless agents of a military, dictatorial regime -- all superbly played by the inimitable, stunningly versatile Youssef Raga'i who shared the lead with Halawa in Honey and Onions. Si El-Sayed is here represented by three puppets of different sizes and kinds, hand- glove, string-controlled and stick-manipulated, and rendered vocally, off the scenes, with great competence and cunning variations, by Hossam Abdallah. The inhabitants of the present and old alley or " hara " and the runners and frequenters of its café and pleasure haunts are also all puppets. Abdou, played by Halawa, seems to inhabit a shadowy, make-believe world infested with hallucinations, faded memories, frustrated wishes and vivid illusions. Cornered and beleaguered, he is willing to embark on a journey of enlightenment guided by others. At the end of it, however, he finds himself defeated, his family life in ruins, his security torn to shreds and his grandfather, Si El-Sayed crying out to be returned to the safety of his grave. Halawa brought to the part his marvellous craftsmanship as clown and comic performer and moved and danced with the gusto and nimbleness of a satyr. Though he wore no make-up, his face seemed to be dissolving all the time into a succession of graphic masks and he created wonderful duets with Raga'i, as the blind preacher, the sloshed intellectual and diligent government spy, and with Azza Gamal as his befuddled, repeatedly victimised wife.
The character of Si El-Sayed evokes Mahfouz's Trilogy as an effective dramatic backdrop to the trials and tribulations of his imaginary grandson Abdou and his wife and generates an exciting, provocative dialogue between the past and present in which various traditional forms of popular entertainment are roped in and imaginatively exploited. The dialogue liberally indulges in repartee, sexual innuendoes, verbal sparring and hedging, pompous, nonsensical rhetoric and hilarious bouts of talking at cross purposes. In the course of the show one is also reminded of the humorous, functional exchanges between chorus and solo singers in Sayed Darwish's operettas, of Ismail Yassin's, Shukukou's and Thurayya Hilmi's 1940s and 1950s' pungent, satirical songs, or monologues, of the conventional routines of clowns and stand-up comedians and of the arts of caricature, literary parody and theatrical burlesque.
To make such an ambitious theatrical conception a reality, Halawa needed an army of artists and technicians: eight puppet masters to bring Nora Nagati's and Mahmoud El-Tobgi's puppets to life, six musicians to execute Mohamed Izzat's lively score, seven singers to render Mahmoud Gomaa's sweet- and-sour lyrics as vocal accompaniment, Fadi Foukeih to supply functional and visually pleasing sets, and Gamalat Abdou to design the costumes. The list of credits in the printed programme of Uncle Naguib's Alley corroborates Halawa's claim that popular theatre is a corporate, creative venture, a communal protest-cum-festive-event for which no single person can alone take the credit.