Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 December 2007 - 2 January 2008
Issue No. 877
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Looking back with a nod

Nehad Selaiha rounds up the Egyptian theatrical scene in 2007

Looking back on 2007, one is struck by the vast number of performances one has seen and their amazing diversity. Certain places, plays and events, however, stand out: of the first, the smaller venues proved the most hospitable; of the second, those staged on the fringe, usually by young artists, were the most exciting; and of the third, the ones mounted independently of the state were the most refreshing and rewarding.

Only last week I spoke about two excellent productions of Chekov's Swan Song and Max Frisch's The Firebugs at the two small halls of Al-Tali'a and Al-Salaam theatres, both by young directors. More impressive than either and, indeed, one of the most outstanding productions of the Egyptian theatre this year, is the TUT independent theatre troupe's recent adaptation of Al-Tahar Ben Jelloun's poignant novel, Tilka Al-Atma Al-Bahirah (This Blinding Absence of Light), which I watched on 8 December. The venue was the cold, draughty converted garage next to the Townhouse Gallery called Rawabet, and though I lay in bed with a nasty cold for a week afterwards, it was well worth it.

Based on the testimony of a soldier jailed for 20 years in the notorious Tazmamart jail for his part in a coup against king Hassan II of Morocco, the novel documents in harrowing detail the experience of a prisoner trying to survive as a human being in tiny underground cell, completely shut out from the daylight, except when he is dragged out to bury a fellow prisoner, and constantly undergoing torture and having to live with the smell of his fasces and urine the whole time.

The book reads like a hellish descent into a physical and mental inferno and meticulously describes the desperate struggle of the narrator to learn to see through the darkness of his tomb, to breathe without taking in the smells of death and decay, to overcome pain and disgust and, above all, to bar the way against hope and memory. For hope and memory, in this hell, could lead to madness, as they do in the case of many prisoners, and the narrator is alert to this danger; though he is helpless to fend off the rotting of his limbs, he fights heroically to save his mind.

When he finally reaches the outer limits of pain and hopelessness, he discovers a light within him, and it guides him on a mystical ascent to liberation. Though the description of the physical reality of life in those fiendish cells is relentlessly vivid and unsparing, and can sometimes be nauseating and almost obscene in its cruelty, the language is consistently luminous and the whole composition is imbued with poetry.

Despite a subtle streak of disconsolate lyricism which runs through the whole book, the narration, in the first person, adopts a neutral, detached tone and is amazingly free of any hint of sensationalism or emotional wallowing. In the hands of Jelloun, the horrors of incarceration, of being interred alive, and the brutalities of torture are magically transformed into a metaphor for a spiritual journey from darkness to light -- the kind of light that can never be seen on land or sea.

Adapting such a great novel for the stage is a stupendous challenge, full of risks and pitfalls. The sensational content is quite alluring and could easily entice a director to turn the work into a vehement protest against political torture in general with, possibly, a topical wink in the direction of Guantanamo. It is a credit to adaptor/director Basim Adli that he avoided this temptation and produced a treatment that distilled the essence of Jelloun's novel, focused its central metaphor and retained its poetic power.

Out of the novel's 216 pages, he chose a number of significant extracts which amount to no more than seven pages, but which span the whole experience, then strung them together in the form of a dramatic poem. Each verbal sequence marked a stage in the progress of this pilgrim/prisoner and was translated, through Charlie Astrom's simple, imaginative scenography and Adli's sensitive lighting design and economical choreography, into a haunting, evocative image.

The visual composition consisted of a thin layer of red earth on the bare, cement floor of the Rawabet garage, a white screen at the back on which shadows of the prisoner advancing or receding, or climbing up or down steps were projected from the back, a large table with a glass top which was sometimes harshly lighted from inside, reducing the person lying on it to a lump of darkness, a glass basin full of water, big enough for a person to be immersed in, as the prisoner was at one time, a single wooden chair and a rope that dangled from the ceiling and stopped just above the water basin. To this rope, the prisoner would often cling in a desperate attempt to climb out. With each extract of text, the lighting and movement changed, creating a different rhythm and mood in harmony with the spoken words.

Casting Solafa Abdel Ghaffar, a woman, as the prisoner was an intelligent decision which helped to generalize the experience of the narrator and underline its mystical rather than political connotations. Artistically, Solafa, a creative, technically well- drilled performer, more than met the challenge. As the performance progressed and the pain intensified, her body seemed to literally shrink while her voice, though it carefully observed the tone of emotional detachment adopted by the narrator in the novel, subtly suggested her emerging spiritual power. Her monologues on the rope, as she hung in midair, in a single spot of light, in a sea of darkness, communicated to us, almost physically, her grinding despair, the intensity of her quest and the arduousness of the climb.

These, and the scene in which she impersonates the prisoner who went mad dreaming of his mother, and stands still, facing two apparitions and listening to their heart-rending lullaby (superbly sung by Zahra Al-Attar and Hadeer Al Mahdawy), or the one where the lights suddenly come up to reveal her crouching inside the basin, her frail body completely immersed in water while she battles to keep her voice steady, are quite unforgettable. That "dazzling darkness" was a riveting performance, at once harrowing and uplifting, and its impact was unlike anything I have experienced in a long time.

It was at Rawabet too that a month earlier the 5th Meeting Points (MP5) arts festival, organized by the Brussels-based Young Arab Theatre Fund, chose to hold 3 film nights and stage 5 performances: Cairo ... Eating Me Inside, by the Egyptian video, installation and performance artist Amal Kenawy; While Going to a Condition and Accumulated Layout, a double bill by the Japanese choreographer/dancer/sound, image and lighting designer Hiroaki Umeda; the Tunisian Wacl (Connecting), a dance piece inspired by the mystical poems of Jalal Al-Din Rumi, choreographed and performed by Selma and Sofiane Ouissi; and How Nancy Wished that Everything Was an April Fool's Joke, a sparklingly political satire by the Lebanese writer/actor/director Rabih Mroueh (see the Weekly, 15 November, p. 5).

It was again at Rawabet that I cried my eyes out on 5 September as I watched Nora Amin's Hayat Lil Dhikra (A Life for Memory), a poetry and movement solo piece in memory of the theatre artists we lost in the Beni Sweif holocaust on 5 September, 2005. It was a stirring instance of dignified grief, powerful, profound and proudly reserved.

Earlier, in April, Rawabet had introduced me to another interesting independent troupe called Raheel (Departure), and their Araq, adapted by Yasir Badawi from Radwan El-Kashif's memorable film, Araq El-Balah (Date Wine), and directed by Kamal Azzam, the troupe's founder, captured the right atmosphere and dialect of Upper Egypt and boasted some very good female performances.

It was in tin-roofed, cement-floored Rawabet too that director Effat Yehia and her Caravan troupe took refuge for two nights, on 2nd and 3rd February, when no place else would let them perform their Dhakirat Al-Miyah. A brilliant adaptation by Yehia of Shelagh Stephenson's beautiful play The Memory of Water, the play had originally opened in Alexandria, at the Bibliotheca, for only one night the year before, then had a 3-night run at the AUC Studio theatre from 13 to 15 January 2007 before moving to Rawabet in February.

It was a great vindication when this homeless production, which had led Yehia at one point to sell her car to cover costs, and into which the cast and crew had freely poured so much time, effort and creative energy, was invited by the head of the state-theatre organization to compete in the 2nd Egyptian National Theatre Festival, of which he is also chairman. It was even a greater vindication when The Memory of Water won two top prizes: for best rising director and best actress, as well as a nomination for best supporting actress. As an added bonus, the play was allowed a 6-day run at Al-Tali'a's main stage a month later.

Scheduled on 1-12 July, right in the middle of the year, and embracing a wide variety of theatrical practices ranging from the state-run theatres, the big private companies, the small, independent troupes, the companies of the cultural palaces organization and amateur groups in universities, clubs, cultural centres and industrial corporations, this festival provides a great opportunity to form a reasonably accurate picture of the whole theatrical scene in the previous autumn, winter and spring seasons and, more importantly, to spot new, or hitherto unnoticed talents.

This year's awards brought a wonderful crop of young theatre-makers to the fore: Effat Yehia as best rising director for her Memory of Water ; Mu'tazza Abdel Sabour as best actress for her performance in Yehia's play; Haytham Mohamed and Amr Abdel Aziz who shared the best supporting actor award, the former for starring as Albert Camus' mad emperor in a student production of Caligula (by the Theatre Institute) which also won best scenography, and the latter for his part in a Youth theatre adaptation of Tawfiq El-Hakim's Anxiety Bank ; Osama Abdel-Fattah Nureddin and Rasha Abdel-Mon'im who jointly won the best rising playwright award -- Rasha for her A Boy, A Girl,.. and Other Things, a production of the Youth theatre, staged at the small hall of Al-Salaam theatre, which also won Aya Hemeida best rising actress for her part as the girl in the title, and Osama for his Laurels which scooped four more awards, including best performance, which went to Al-Tali'a theatre as the producer of the show, best director for the young and virtually unknown Shadi Sorour, best music for Tariq Mahran, and best supporting actor for Mursi Khalil, the oldest member of the whole production team, not to mention a few nominations.

Barring the prize for best playwright, which went to Yusri El-Guindi for his in Al-Qadiyya (Issue) 2007, an updated version of his 1960s' The Wandering Jew, and the one for best actor, which went jointly to veteran comedians Ahmed Halawa and Yusef Dawood, the former for playing the Jew in Al-Hanager's production of El-Guindi's Al-Qadiyya, and the latter for his performance in a Youth Theatre production of Tawfiq El-Hakim's The Death Game, all the prizes, including the top ones for choreography and costumes and the special jury awards, went to young people. Some of theses young artists are still students, like the production team of Laurels and the Sparrow by Ain Shams university, or the young cast in Galal El-Sharqawi's production of The Merchant of Venice ; some others have been practicing as independent artists for years and are slowly making their mark, while a third group are already professional artists, but working mostly in small halls or with avant- garde companies like Al-Tali'a, Al-Ghad, and the Youth Theatre.

That the young were in, and in strength, was quite obvious in this festival and, indeed, since the beginning of January when the 5eme Festival des Jeunes Createurs opened at the French Cultural Centre.

The festival ran from 11 to 18 January, and though most of the shows dwelt on such negative feelings as alienation and impotence, there were at least three shows worth remembering: Salah Abdel Sabour's Musafir Leil (Night Traveller, or, Voyageur Nocturne), adapted, designed and directed by Khaled Hassanein, and performed by his Karakeeb (Junk) troupe; El-Gaw Gamil (Lovely Weather, or Beau Temps), a cheeky, theatrical prank, adapted and directed by Nada Sabet who took television commercials both as structural model and material; and the highly poetic Al-Samt Al-Abyad (White Silence), an adaptation of Crista Wolf's Cassandre and Jean Paul Sartre's Troyennes conceived, choreographed, designed and performed by Katja Bosmass and Assem Rady, with music by the Elle group and the contribution of dancer Khaled El-Masry.

On 1 February, the 4th round of the Creative Forum for Independent Theatre Groups opened at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, bringing together young artists from Europe and the Arab world for 10 days. 12 performances were hosted by the festival, and out of these, 8 chose to perform in the small, intimate gallery theatre.

There, I watched the stunning German/Iranian Return to Sender -- Letters from Tentland, about the plight of women in repressive, religious societies, conceived and directed by Helena Waldmann and performed by 6 exiled Iranian women who live in Berlin; the Polish Basic Needs, a semi- nude show about women's biological traumas and sexual fantasies, projected in lurid, quasi sadistic images which used the poetics of black theatre, by the Theatre A PART; and Sgorbypark, a reworking of Beckett't Waiting for Godot, using the arts of clowning, by the Fabbrico del Vento.

Besides the usual workshops, roundtables and publications which are a valuable part of the event, a new 9-day, 45-hour, free educational programme for beginners in theatre, entitled "International Classroom for Theatre Students: Dialogues," jointly sponsored by the Bibliotheca, the Swedish Institute and the International Association for Creation and Training (I-act), an Egyptian NGO based in Upper Egypt, was introduced this year.

Back in Cairo, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that another independent theatre festival, this time for children, had been added to the list. The 1st Cairo International Forum of Theatre for Children & Young People -- a nongovernmental, 6-day event organised by Mohamed Karim's Manethon independent theatre company which specializes in the arts of performing for children -- including puppet shows and shadow-plays -- was launched at Al-Arayes (Puppet) theatre on 21 February. Though small-scale, with only five companies from five countries, including Egypt, and a total of 7 productions, this event was a truly ground- breaking venture which, hopefully, will develop into a full-fledged festival in future years.

Come March and it was time for the 3rd United Drama Teams festival sponsored by the Catholic Cultural Centre and hosted at its Nile Hall. It lasted for a week, from 22 to 28 March, and boasted 13 performances by 13 different groups from all over Cairo. Of these, the most ambitious were the Mar Murqus (St. Mark) Church Team's Al-Rahaya (Mill Stone), an adaptation of Youssef Wahbi's famous mid-twenties classic Kursi Al-'Itiraf (Seat of Confession), and the Angels Team's adaptation of Tawfiq El-Hakim's Nahwa Hayat-en Afdal (Towards a Better Life). Another El-Hakim play, Li'bat Al-Mawt (The Death Game) was already running at the small hall of Al-Salaam theatre under the more cheerful title El-Haya Hilwa (Life is Beautiful). But these two plays were only the beginning. 5 more El-Hakim plays were to follow in April, all directed by Amr Qabil and performed by Al-Sharqiyya national theatre company in Zaqaziq; an adaptation of El-Hakim's Anxiety Bank was staged by the Youth theatre in July and, a month later, a musical based on his two books Awdat Al-Rooh and Awdat Al-Wa'i (The Return of the Soul and The Return of Consciousness) surfaced at Al-Salaam theatre's main stage, starring popular singer Ali Al-Haggar.

Though April, May and June were festival-free, there was a lot of theatre going on. At the National, Saad Ardash's watered down version of Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony, which had opened in February was followed by Osama Anwar Okasha's preachy and rather melodramatic Wilad El-Lazinah (Crafty Devils) at Miami theatre, then, in May, Lenin El-Ramli's triple bill, Off with the Masks, The Lecture, and We Deserve a Photo opened at Al-Zamalek theatre. Only The Lecture, a monologue for one actor modelled on Chekov's On the Harmfulness of Tobacco was new; The Masks had premiered the year before in the garden of Al-Gezira Arts Centre as an independent production, funded and directed by El-Ramli himself, and the Photo had been staged at Al-Hanager more than 3 years ago. In both cases, the change of venue affected the plays negatively and, despite El-Ramli' great popularity, the attendance on most nights was dismally poor.

Months later, when Khalid Galal directed Yusri El-Guindi's Al-Eskafi Malikan (The Shoemaker as King) as a musical and it still failed to attract a decent audience, the National decided to revive its 5- year old King Lear which is currently playing at Miami theatre.

In respect of audiences and critical reception, Al-Tali'a fared much better. Though Iman El-Sirafi's Kan Gada' (He Was Quite A Guy), a tribute to Naguib Sorour on the diamond anniversary of his birth, was a miserable failure, Nadia El-Banhawi's Ru'a (Visions), directed by Amr Qabil was well attended and critically acclaimed, Shadi Sorour's Laurels was an instant hit and, as I mentioned earlier, won five awards at the National festival, and Mustafa Saad's intriguing 3-1 -- a further experiment in his 'Theatre of Enquiry' artistic project as a writer/director -- proved quite popular.

The Youth theatre too did very well this year, staging 6 successful productions, including a dramatisation of Taha Hussein's novel, Do'a Al-Karawan (The Curlew's Cry), and winning 3 awards at the National Festival. Al-Ghad, on the other hand, produced only two plays this year, Keid El-Nisaa (Female Intrigues) and an Arabic version of Nazim Hikmet's classic, Legend of Love, directed by Hani Metaweh. Both were successful and drew large audiences.

But the real box-office hits this year were the Comedy theatre's Rawayeh, starring belly-dancer Fifi Abdou, and Al-Nimr (The Tiger), starring popular comedian Mohamed Nijm. Though many critics were outraged by the appearance of commercial entertainers in state-funded productions, the general public were delighted and flocked to both shows.

Between July and September, when the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre began, two more independent theatre festivals took place: Al-Saqia's 3rd Annual Mime Festival (6-7 July) which hosted 15 new ventures by budding mime artists, and its 5th Annual Theatre Festival for Independent Groups (12-20 August) which listed 22 participants. With so many young artists aching for a chance to perform, is it not a positive crime to keep Al-Hanager Centre, the original home of the independent theatre movement, closed for so long?

When the CIFET arrived, every one missed the presence of Al-Hanager Centre as a warm, hospitable space and its distinguished artistic contribution. For me the CIFET was not the same without it, and it was only at the end, when Kalam Fi Sirri (Unspoken Thoughts), a small Cultural Palaces production from Alexandria by 3 young women, won the award for best ensemble performance that I found some comfort. But working with the Cultural Palaces organisation is a hazardous business, as I explained in my review of its Women Directors Festival on 22 November. A lot of the independent artists who used to work at Al-Hanager feel quite homeless without it, and even some established artists miss it.

It was to Al-Hanager that Lenin El-Ramli usually went when he wanted to try something new; now that it is closed, he uses the garden of Al-Gezira Arts Centre which is hardly equipped for this purpose. This year, after the fiasco of his triple-bill at the National, he wanted to go independent again and take part in the CIFET with his new, experimental play, Ahlam Mamnou'a (Forbidden Dreams). But, with Al-Hanager shut, he had no alternative but to go back to that garden in Zamalek and the play suffered in consequence. We need Al-Hanager back, and a 100 similar centres, and a hundred more spaces like Rawabet, and dozens of small halls like the ones at Al-Tali'a and Al-Salaam: this is the moral of the story.

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