Notes on a festival
Nehad Selaiha detects recurrent motifs in this year's CIFET
With everybody back from their holidays, the incessant influx of moneyed Iraqis into Egypt (which has sent property prices, among other things, soaring sky high), a substantial number of Arab Gulf tourists still lingering on in Cairo, eking out the last drops of an unbridled 'do- as-you-like' break from a repressive, restrictive Gulf existence, the beginning of the school year, and the Ramadan mad shopping rush, the poor old city is creaking and groaning under an unprecedented weight of human flesh, noise and rubbish. That Cairo has been for years trafically congested -- a place where the speediest means of transportation is walking on your own two feet, risking the hazards of pot-holed streets and surrealistically high pavements, presumably designed for supernatural giants and not the ordinary, skinny, famished and spindle- legged common Egyptian -- seems to have escaped the notice of the CIFET organisers. This year's performances programme has been pure fantasy, as if thought up by aliens from outer space. Or could it be that they were doubtful about the quality of shows this year and therefore thought it an act of mercy to restrain the audiences from watching more than two a day?
Since most performances are scheduled to start at 8, 9 and 10 pm, with an occasional one at 7, and hosed at far flung venues -- the downtown theatres (Al-Qawmi, Al-Tali'a, Al-Arayes, Metropol and Al-Gomhoriya) -- and the Opera ground theatre complex (including the big and small halls, the open air space and the Creativity centre), and given that most performances last for over an hour, most people had to arrange their viewing programme according to locale rather than preference. I need not tell you how much frustration this has caused. More often than not people ended up watching the tail end of a show or leaving it half way through and rushing across town to watch another. Such 'flicking' through shows only allows skimming the surface and permits neither pleasure nor reflection. It creates a detrimental reception context and offends both the performer and the viewer.
One look at the festival programme and I knew what it was going to be like this year. So, I decided to take it easy, watching whatever easily came my way and not fretting too much about missing others I would have liked to see. I even took a day off from the festival to attend Nora Amin's Hayat Lil Dhikra (A Life for Memory) at Rawabet on 5 September commemorating the victims of the 2005 Beni Sweif tragedy. I would have liked to go farther, to Fayyoum, where two new halls were opened on that day and named after two of the victims of that horrible fire. But that evening I wanted to be with Nora who is like a daughter to me and has lost her husband and the father of her only child, poet, actor, playwright and director Saleh Saad, in the holocaust. I will tell you about this performance when it plays again at the forthcoming women directors festival. For the moment, let me concentrate on the CIFET.
One of the most interesting features of this year's festival has been the surfacing of a new type of performance which is direct, personal and quasi autobiographical -- what you could call a 'confessional' kind of form in which the author/director is very thinly disguised or not disguised at all. Lenin El-Ramli's Ahlam Mamnou'a (Forbidden Dreams), which he directed himself, used a mixture of live acting and voice-over narration to dramatise the writer's painful childhood memories, fears, obsessions and frustrations. We see him, or rather his persona, flitting through the dreams like a lost soul, shadowed by a doppelganger who keeps him under constant, close watch, hounded by ghosts and demons, and occasionally bumping into historical figures (Galileo, Socrates, Einstein and president Sadat). But despite the nightmarish atmosphere, the disconsolate air that permeates the whole piece and the pressing sense of alienation, which weighs down the hero, Dreams has plenty of black humour and deliciously pungent political and social satire. This derives partly from the witty dialogue, the subtle strain of self-mockery that runs through the work and the sudden, grotesque merging and splitting of the characters and their sex transformations. Dreams, however, owes most of its impact to the strip-cartoon form Lenin opted for, with each of the dreams/sketches lasting less than two minutes and ending with a strong punch line. Using one simple, neutral set and minimal props, El-Ramli relied heavily on the natural assets of the charming garden of Al-Gezira Arts Centre where the play was staged and this allowed him to keep up the galloping rhythm of the show and an uninterrupted flow of images.
Equally confessional, though in a more passionate vein, was the Tunisian Hawa Watani (an ironically punning title which could translate as 'The Love of', or 'The fall of' my Homeland). Written, directed and acted by the great Tunisian femme de theatre, Rajaa Bin Ammar, the founder and director of the prestigious Fo theatre in Tunis, Hawa Watani unfolds as a series of dramatic monologues, interspersed with brief parodies of news reporters on Arab channels and the political jargon of Arab leaders, as well as short narratives -- real and imaginary stories that seem to float up to the surface of the speaker's consciousness as if by free association. Unlike El-Ramli, Bin Ammar does not wear a mask or use a persona. She speaks as Ragaa, the person, artist and human being, and shares with us the feelings of rage, impotence, shame and frustration she has been suffering since the invasion of Iraq. While the initial part seems like a day-by-day diary which carefully documents the emotional impact of the horrors of the war on her and her disgust and anger at the reactions of Arab leaders and the Arab media, the following scenes focus on the negative aspects of male-centered Arab culture and its dominant ethos of coercion and fear, intimidation and obedience. It is what makes cowards of us all, Bin Ammar argues. In the final part of the performance she cites from memory examples of oppression and exploitation practiced against a close female friend and winds up with a parabolic fairytale about a woman who has lost her identity.
The third essay in this confessional vein came from Mohamed Abul Su'oud. His Feekom Tenso Watankom (Would You Forget Your Homeland), which he wrote and directed and was performed at Al-Ghad hall, is a highly personal statement of his innermost thoughts and musings about life and death, art and sex, morality, religion and familial relations. Good and evil are redefined from a purely personal perspective and seen to interlock while God and the Devil form the two lips with which the poet speaks. Though his 8 nameless characters are constantly seen together on stage, sitting in a bar, waiting at some departure port, or crossing paths in some street at night, they seem barricaded from each other, never communicating, and only speak in long monologues addressed to the audience. As they stand, sit or mill around and pour out the author's thoughts, they seem like ghosts floating on the edge of existence. This impression is enhanced by the dim lighting, the curious deployment of the actors round the hall, the frugal, geometrical set, which consists of white flats, irregularly placed round the hall, on which images of the city constantly flicker. Apart from two tables with chairs and a trunk, which soon give way to two long white boxes and a rocking chair at the latter part, there is nothing. The purely monologic form, denoting the artist's extreme isolation, is further stressed at the end when the characters set about performing an oedipal family drama where the actress, who formerly posed as the eternal prostitute, plays the mother, and which ends in the ritual destruction of all the members, excepting the son. Though announced as a drama, it too consists of monologues directed at the audience.
Now if you knew Abul Su'oud -- his family history, his relation to his father and longing for the mother he lost as a baby, his attachment to his grandmother, many love affairs, study of philosophy and bohemian way of life -- you would detect the autobiographical material embroidered in the monologues and the play would make sense to you. You would even feel a stab of pain as the son describes how he missed his mother in the first five years of his life or fondly, nostalgically, repeats the stories and proverbs of his grandmother, his voice alternately fading into hers. To be understood and appreciated, this violent outcry against all forms and symbols of authority and all repressive institutions would have to be read with a biography of the author/director close at hand. No wonder that even those critics who sensed its force, intensity and great potential were left baffled and frustrated at the end.
Another recurrent theme in this festival was female oppression in patriarchal societies. Jordan's two contributions, Al-Qinaa (The Mask), by the modern theatre, written and directed by Majd Al-Qasas, and Al-Aseerat (The Captives), a ministry of culture production, Egypt's Kalam fi Sirri (Unspoken Words Inside Me), a production of Al-Anfoushi theatre club in Alexandria, written by Ezz Darwish and directed by Riham Abdel-Raziq (who also performed with Yasmin Sa'id and Rania Zakariya), the Croatian The Woman Who Talks Too Much, by the Studio Contemporary Dance Company in Zagreb, directed and choreographed by Mirjana Preis, all focused on this subject, mostly using a mixture of movement, dance, music, verbal text and eloquent scenography. Another play about women, though not about their oppression but rather their attempt to understand the true meaning of love, was Between Heaven and Earth by the Crimean Tatar Academic Music and Drama Theatre, directed by Bilayl Bilaylov; and here, since both the adapter and director were men, one was not surprised that the play (though performed by three women, like the Egyptian Kalam ) preached at the end that women should sacrifice themselves on the altars of their lovers.
The plays and myths of ancient Greece too kept up cropping in this festival, providing both material and inspiration for at least five productions. These were: Euripides's Trojan Women, by the Larissa-Thessalian theatre in Greece, collectively adapted by the group and directed by poppy Peltekopoulou (quite lackluster and monotonous despite the modern military suits of the soldiers and modern war sound effects); Oedipus 2+2, an experimental version of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, also from Greece, by the Miscellanea Theatre Company, adapted and directed by Dimitris Vergados, and performed by only 4 actors (2 males and two females) with the aid of video projections; a South Korean treatment of Euripides's Medea in which the eponymous heroine is split into two characters, one representing the vengeful, masculine side of the human being, the other the merciful, forgiving feminine one. It was translated, adapted and directed by Hyoung-Taek Limb and gracefully performed by four beautifully costumed actors, playing different roles, with one singer who also provided live musical accompaniment on traditional instruments. And while Psyche's Sisters from Belarus, an attempt on the part of director Sergey Kovalchik to dramatise the old Greek myth was a modest affair indeed, Homer's Odyssey, rendered by the Ukrainian Brama II company under the direction of Alexander Bilozub as a ritualistic dance, with ancient Greek religious hymns, lots of sand and some metal buckets, captured the imagination of the audience with its imaginative, surreal imagery.
There are other performances I would like to tell you about, particularly Serbia's visually and aurally haunting Bread and Plays which was pure enchantment and almost hypnotized me; but I think I have gone on far too long already and this had better wait.