Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2008
Issue No. 891
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Playing solo

Nehad Selaiha follows the third Monodrama Festival at Al-Saqia

I cannot pretend I like monodrama. As a form, particularly when it is self-enclosed -- that is, when it strives for realistic illusionism and insists, in the writing and mode of performance, on enforcing an imaginary fourth wall, forcing the audience into the role of passive recipients, eavesdroppers-cum- peeping-Toms -- it seems to me to work against everything that theatre should be, against its essence as a collective activity and a communal event. Fortunately, few monodramas manage to achieve this ideal of pristine solipsism. Even Nihad Gad's Adila and Karam El-Naggar's Al-Husan (The Horse) -- two magnificent, tour de force, virtuoso pieces written especially for the late Na'ima Wasfi and Sanaa Gamil, respectively, and designed in such a way so as to forestall any hypothetical threat of the spectators steering the show emotionally on a different course or disrupting its ideological message -- could not contain the energies of the two unforgettable primadonnas who, quite wisely, let the drama spill into the laps of the audiences, so to speak, and turned the performance into a shared act which invites many readings and for which everyone takes responsibility.

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Very few monodramas manage to come across as virtual solo monologues. More often than not, they metamorphose into a different theatrical form: into stand-up, one-person shows intergrating the audience's presence into the very structure. One can understand the appeal of the form, originally meant as a showcase for seasoned performers, in moments of historical, existential crises, when reality seems a nightmare and human communication grows threadbare. When monodrama suddenly erupts on a theatrical scene and gains the proportions of a phenomenon, you can be sure something is terribly wrong with society. And in such cases, you can also be sure that the solo performer standing on stage in front of you is there not to enact an imaginary tale, to writhe and scream out some existential agony, but to stage a desperate, political protest.

But monodrama is also a very taxing form; and when fledgling performers take it on, it can spawn many theatrical disasters. So much can be encoded in the writing, but the raw, inexperienced performer can wreak havoc with the text, turning an agonized, fiery, rebellious statement into mawkish, sentimental outpourings. Over three nights last week, I watched 24 monodramas at Al-Saqia. The occasion was its third, annual monodrama festival. Whether Mohamed El-Sawy, the founder of this thriving cultural centre, was aware of the emotional resonance and the ideological ramifications of this event when he first installed it in 2006 is anybody's guess. He probably sensed the need for some sort of outlet for all those angry young artists around, who could not, for financial and other logistical reasons, mount full performances, and wisely judged that unless he provided one they would explode, go up in smoke, or go and do something desperate, like exploding Al-Saqia itself, the mosque next door, or the opera house, a little distance further down along the Nile Corniche. Ever since it was established, a few years ago, Al-Saqia has served as an outlet, not only for the artistic talents on the fringe, but also for anger, frustration and despair.

Of such stuff was the substance of its third monodrama festival. Sitting through the 24 shows which made up the festival felt like reading a comprehensive catalogue of grievances, injustices, and varieties of frustration and oppression. Whether it was Sherif Shalqami's Al-Muttaham (The Defendant), adapted from some of Salah Jahin's poems and performed by Amir Wagdi, Ibrahim El-Sheikh's Hikayet Aragouz (The Story of Qaraqoz), directed by Amir Wagdi and performed by Mohamed Galal, Ahmed Abdel Fattah's Hayat 'Adiyya Giddan (A Very Ordinary Kind of Life), Amr El-Amrousi's Hamada Dawaran (Hamada on the Round), Alaa Hassan's Sa Akhounu Watanti (I Shall Betray my Homeland), a clever dramatic adaptation of a number of articles by Syrian poet and playwright Mohamed El-Maghout, written between the late 1970s and the mid 1980s of the last century and performed by Mohamed Hatem, Wa'el 'Atta's Adam Al-Masri (An Egyptian Adam), directed by Samih Fawzi, Ahmed Fu'ad's Rida Al-Masri (Rida, the Egyptian), or Mustafa Hamdi's Al-Muwatin Salih (Citizen Salih), the show came across as a tale of woe, depicting a lonely, young person so deprived and oppressed that he can find no other outlet for his energy except in suicide, murder or madness. The plays were so alike in their narratives that one got them mixed up and were only distinguishable by the colour of the hero's costume -- black, white, or red -- and the degree of talent and expertise that went into the performance.

Apart from the poor-man-gets-short-shrift- however-talented kind of narrative which dominated the above-mentioned shows, three plays at least staged a vehement protest against the inhuman war- machine, casting it specifically in the role of the villain and as the primary source of oppression. In Ibrahim El-Sheikh's Al-Baydaq (The Pawn), based on an Iraqi text by Yehia Al-'Alqami and performed by Hisham Rifa'i, Yusef Sha'baan's Al-Haris (The Guard), directed by Mohamed Nurreddin and performed by Mohamed Magdi, and Walid Atef Sayed's 'Ala Al-Ganib Al-Akhar (On the Other Side), we met lonely soldiers who are doomed to die and are at a loss for an honourable cause to justify their death.

Political torture got a share of the beating in Qasim Matroud's Mugarrad Niffayt (Bits of Rubbish, Nothing More), directed and performed by Mohamed Mahrous and Midhat 'Irayn's adaptation of Victor Hugo's Diary of a Condemned Man. And so did female oppression in Rania Rif'at's 'Ilaqa (An Affair), Yasser Badawi's Imra'ah Wahidah (A Lonely Woman), directed by Kamal Azzam and performed by Iman Hassan, and Hibatallah Ali's Min Haqi 'A'eesh (It is my Right to Live). Even the poor traffic warden who only intrudes upon our consciousness when he gives us a ticket had a place in this festival. Hateful to all car-drivers as he may seem, he was revealed here as an equally oppressed person who can hardly make both ends meet and who, subsequently, is deserted by his long-suffering wife. Against a screen at the back, sporting shots of luscious Haifaa Wahbi and Nancy Agram alternately with footage of famine-ravished Darfour and clips of president Bush embracing third world presidents, John Milad told us of the homeless beggars who are only too glad when death relieves them of a child, of the varied forms of humiliation simple peasants are subjected to when they are coerced into joining the forces of the ministry of interior, and of the material and spiritual dearth that drives many of them into madness. John Milad's literal whistle was a symbolic reminder and warning alarm bell.

Curiously, Tamer El-Qadi's rendering of Alfred Farag's Lazy Bu'bu' and Abdel Hamid Zakariyya's version of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape failed to make an impression; with so much raw pain going round and so many young people screaming in agony and going mad, these two renowned classical texts came across as limp and lifeless.

The most interesting brand of frustration displayed in this festival though had to do with theatre and seemed to bear directly on the purpose behind staging this festival. Khalid El-Sawi's Al-Rawi fi Masrahiyat Al-Layla (The Narrator in Tonight's Play), directed and performed by Mohamed Ibrahim, Ahmed Qasim's Sarkhat Mumathil (The Scream of an Actor), and Samaa Ibrahim's A'ool Eih (What Should I Say) focused on the dilemma of talented young artists who want to make theatre and cannot find a loophole. While the case made by Mohamed Ibrahim and Ahmed Qasim failed to win our sympathy due to their atrocious vocal and physical delivery, Samaa Ibrahim swept us off our feet with her masterful mimicking of the late, redoubtable Amina Risq. Donning Risq's famous wig and masquerading as an aged, doddering actress, she wandered in through the auditorium, conversing with the audience about her dilemma, and eventually made her way to the stage, slipping through several characters in search of the right one which she could not remember, and ending with a topical reminder about the current shortage of bread while shouting at the lighting box, begging them not to black her out.

It was a masterful one-woman show, fresh, witty and hilariously funny. Politically relevant and smartly written, with the poetic monologue of the Palestinian woman in a Gaza camp contributed by Algerian writer Zakiyya Al-'Allal, it fully deserved the award for best monodrama. It also earned the irrepressibly energetic and amazingly resourceful and gifted Samaa the prize for best actress.

Third Monodrama Festival, El-Sawy Cultural Centre (Al-Saqia), 28-29 March, 2008.

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