My favourite tiger
The location and aspect of the Puppet Theatre in Ataba may be a sufficient disincentive in themselves, but they haven't managed to put children off. And at LE10 a ticket, Ferkesh lamma yekesh (Frinks when he shrinks), written and directed by Shawki Hegab, was proof enough of the venue's popularity. Hegab, a prolific children's book and song writer, had the mainly little audience clapping along to Farouk El-Sharnouby's beautiful tunes. And by the end Ferkesh had been established as a popular, indeed almost cult character like Bokloz, Bakkar and others. Almost 75 minutes long, the show is about a lazy tiger, the butt of the animals jokes because of his laziness and fear; he won't even chase a prey. This is why, in the course of the show, he starts to shrink, turning first into a zebra, then a dog, then - most appropriately - a household cat, a cat so weak and spineless even the rats are not scared of it. And it is the transformation rather than any other possible theme - the pecking order of the jungle, the status of the big cats, the relations between animals - that the play focuses on. According to Hegab, indeed, "In a children's drama it should be possible to communicate the moral of the story in a single, clear statement. But in this case, with the transformation involving so many different sizes of animal, such a statement was very difficult to formulate." Evidently this didn't prevent the child audience from enjoying every last minute of Ferkesh, though.
Aria, six, says, "The play was good - I had fun watching. But it wasn't funny." A meaningful statement: not one scene in the show makes for laughter; the nearest thing to a comic climax was when Ferkesh stepped down and began to shake hands with the audience. This occurs at what would also be the climax of the play as a morality tale. Ferkesh has shrunk into a dog, a reasonably strong one - compared to stray dogs in Cairo, and he is employed by the jungle police, who don't recognise him, to help find Ferkesh the tiger - the subject seeking an image of himself: a somewhat too complex concept for the children - and they encourage him to sniff out the audience for the lost tiger. But it is the bees disrupting the sleep of an even smaller and less significant Ferkesh - the cat - who instil in him values of work, order and health - he should eat healthy, for example - so that, by learning his lesson, he eventually manages to gain himself back. And he is reborn a tiger, not only with the size of a tiger but - more importantly for the moral of the story - with the spirit of a tiger - courageous, energetic and responsible. And the show had other plus points too. The fact that it combined dressed- up actors with puppets and marionettes added visual richness and a feeling of joy. Nahla Yassin, the female lead, plays multiple roles: a friend of the disappearing tiger who never gives up hope of finding him; a doctor who treats the sick zebra - a role in which she did not fit so well with her short white dress, and should have been played by someone younger and more cheerful... The director's wife, she also plays the lead in Lala the Gazelle, another children's show of Hegab's. And the puppets, made by Ayat Khalifa, were magnificent.
Its popularity notwithstanding, the Puppet Theatre is still insufficiently supported, as Hegab points out, even despite its being an excellent venue for family gatherings. The building is old and gloomy, many of the seats are broken - none are designed for children, and shows are infused with the odour of decay. Hegab wrote two puppet plays in the early 1980s: The Land of Love and Friendship and Sahsah, Active Boy. "The same old problems pertaining to this specific departure of culture," he says, "persist to this day; and foremost among them is the limited budget." Last year Arosty (Guessing Game),written by Mohammed Bahgat, was one of very few Puppet Theatre productions, while the late Salah Jahine's classic El-Laila El-Kebira (Anniversary Night) is the only item of repertoire. The question is why such good work is never produced outside the Puppet Theatre's limited realm? "Presenting our shows on another state stage is very difficult," Hegab explains matter-of-factly. "Though the fact that the puppet masters have very low pays - with LE200 per month being the highest, the rule is that each stage has its own exclusive group and programme." The one redeeming thing is that the Puppet Theatre troupe gets to participate in international festivals. After it stops showing her at the start of September, this show will move to Croatia, then Morocco.