Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 March 2008
Issue No. 888
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

The fringe takes over

Nehad Selaiha finds too much on her plate

It seems the main body of theatrical activities in Cairo has shifted this year to the fringe. While the main stream theatre (both state-run and commercial) can only serve you last year's reheated dishes, with only two new modest items added to the menu -- namely Lenin El-Ramly's not too scintillating Zaki fil Wizarah (Zaki at the Ministry), at the National, and Abdallah El-Tokhi's vapidly simplistic and pretentious Fi El-Leil Lamma Khili (In the Quiet of Night) at Al-Ghad -- Al-Hanager's exciting season of new independent productions, which opened on 18 February, is still running at Rawabet and will continue to do so for another month, and last week, ESTA (the Egyptian Society of Theatre Amateurs), launched its annual Arab Theatre Festival at Masrah Al-Fann (Galal El-Sharqawi's private venue at the back of the Arabic Music Institute in Ramses street), and the 17th Cultural Palaces Theatre Clubs opened at the Nile Floating theatre in Giza (not the Fatma Rushdie one at the tip of University bridge, but the one next to the Actors Union Nile-side club).

Click to view caption
Shebeen El-Kom's performance of Woyzeck

On the calendar, you will also find, wedged in between, another independent event which I covered in last week's issue: the Children theatre festival mounted by the Manethon theatre troupe at the Workers Association in Shubra El-Kheima and the Townhouse Factory. There was also a session of play reading by new writers at the British Council on Sunday (9 March), a public talk by guest American playwright and human rights activist, Naomi Wallace, on writing as a salutary act of transgression, at the AUC's Oriental Hall, and a performance of her Middle East Trilogy, The Fever Chart: Three Short Visions of the Middle East, directed by Frank Bradley, at the Falaki Centre today (13 March).

Are we on the road to a real civil society? Has theatre, as socio-political/cultural practice, and not just 'entertainment', or a state-manipulated propagandist organ, finally broken free of state control and branched out on its own, multiple merry ways? At this moment I am inclined to gush, a remnant of an old malaise, and stoutly declare that the march of independent theatre will go on, no matter how many fall and are left bleeding on the roadside. But age, experience, and the remains of a rigorous academic training restrain me. From outside, the picture looks brilliant; but don't get too close. If you do, you may realise that it is all too chancy, a mere flash in the pan with nothing to support it or guarantee its survival in terms of enduring fundamental structures. It seems to me as if our lives in Egypt do not flow in a regular, well- tended, predictable stream, but takes the form of sudden bursts and bounds, like underground water suddenly piercing through rubbish-clogged earth and clods of mud. Such outbursts of theatrical energy seem fortuitous -- nothing you can rely or build upon.

Or is there a secret rhythm to these ups and downs? One remembers Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream of the seven lean cows and seven fat ones. Can such mythological narratives help one to make sense of these sudden, inexplicable bursts of cultural and theatrical energy? Or may be trying to catch up on all these events, and the myriad of images they have left swirling in my mind, have made me delirious. Exhilarating as it really is, this unexpected theatrical outburst of energy on the fringe has left me quite depleted, like someone who was forced, after a long fast, to swallow more than she could handle. When the shadow of famine descends on a land, its people, uncertain of tomorrow, tend to gorge themselves on what is available and eat more than they can digest. The theatrical history of Egypt seems to follow a similar pattern: alternate spells of gorging and starvation, and this pattern, inherited from a distant past, from the unpredictable fluxes of the Nile, seems to still linger in the minds of us, Egyptians, like a faint dream-memory, and even subconsciously control all our life's policies.

So many images, texts and echoes mill around in my mind, luridly mixed and coloured, hedged round with satellite reports of massacres and vivid scenes of carnage. No wonder fragmentation, theatrically speaking, has become the order of the day, confronting you at every corner, wherever you go, informed by a strain of dark, cynically bitter and recklessly ribald comedy.

Such were the hallmarks of Abeer Ali's You're Treading on my Heart at Rawabet, the third new production in Al-Hanager season. Haphazardness was the order of the day where snatches of conversations, tail ends of situations, hanging phrases and flashing absurd shots made up the matter of the play and, indirectly, its (non) sense. Unlike in my youth, satire here, invariably witty and relentlessly sour, seemed a kind of lame/last-resort letting off of steam. In the past, in the 'golden sixties' and the heyday of the 1952 purportedly 'socialist' revolution, the largest deception I, personally, have ever been a prey to, a satirical portrayal of daily life on stage, which exposed its most poisonously detrimental forces, was supposed to alert you and drive you to stem out those sources of danger to your life and mental health. Now, however, as Ali's Treading on My Heart demonstrates, satire seems to have doubled back upon itself, as it were, and become a self- destructive mechanism. In Treading on My Heart, an ironically romantic title, the key phrase is 'switch off the light' which descends abruptly and quite arbitrarily in the course of the show to end one sequence and herald another. Light, when on, reveals a series of hallucinatory visions of reality where absurdity is the rule of the day and nothing makes sense -- a reality where common sense has become quite uncommon, where nothing is quite what it seems, and where the only route to survival is oblivion or madness.

Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, in whatever mantle it has donned over the years, has always been, for me, a keenly painful drama. That it marked the opening of the Cultural Palaces Theatre Clubs Festival seemed ominous, portending more horrendous horrors to come. Who knows what other creepy visions of reality the next ten days, the duration of the festival, will thrust upon us. Mustafa Murad's rendering of Buchner's bleak text was even bleaker, robbing it of any shred of hope. Projected totally in black and white, with a minimalist set consisting solely of a high ramp dressed in white, and a numerous, black-clad chorus manipulating lengths of white cloth and surrounding the three main actors, the army general, Woyzeck and his wife, the play unfolded like a nightmarish farce in which the general was figuratively transformed into a master puppeteer, a grotesque, little and quite vicious god in military uniform manipulating everybody.

Woyzeck was the entry from Shebeen El-Kom's theatre club. Other entries, totaling 25 in all, sport such lugubrious titles as Caligula, The Jailor and the Jailed, Edward Albee's Zoo Story (a particularly unfortunate choice since it was this same play which sparked the burning inferno at the Beni Sweif cultural palace on 5 September, 2005), the Alexandrian Rats Hole and The Execution of a Dancer ; the Cell and A Very Ordinary Kind of Madness from Menia, Suspended Dreams and The Kings of Evil from Zaqaziq, Strangers' Garden from Ismailiya, and Peter Handke's Kaspar from Port Said. Since the Theatre Clubs Movement was launched in 1990, this year's festival should have been the 18th. Last year, however, the festival was not held for lack of a theatre to host the event. The main Cairene venue of the Cultural Palaces Organization, like many other theatres, including Al-Hanager, had been declared fire-prone and a safety risk after 5 September 2005 disaster and promptly closed down.

This year, however, Ahmed Nawwar, the head of the Cultural Palaces Organisation decided to throw safety regulations to the four winds and risk locating this festival at the Nile theatre. It was wonderful except for the too many red carpets draped on the steps of that vast auditorium which made you stumble and put you at risk of breaking a limb. Fortunately, after the opening night they would be removed, together with the many unsightly pots of flowers which keep popping up at every official occasion. Hopefully and while the festival lasts, the steps will be bare and clean. One would be able to smoke in the intervals without anxious attendants harassing you for fear that you would burn a hole in the precious, miserable carpets. As I go along, I will keep you posted.

17th Theatre Clubs Festival, 8-20 March, Nile Floating Theatre, Al-Bahr Al-A'zam Street, Giza.


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