Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2009
Issue No. 932
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Pushing on

Nehad Selaiha detects signs of ageing at the French Cultural Centre's 7th Festival des Jeunes Createurs

When Latifa Fahmi, the head of the cultural activities department at the CFCC in Cairo, rang up in early January to tell me that despite the tragic events in Gaza she was going ahead with her annual Festival des Jeunes Createurs, I was delighted. It was a brave decision and thoroughly sound. Unlike the head of the state-theatre organisation who decided to postpone the Arab theatre festival that was to open on 10 January, pending a ceasefire, Fahmi, an artist herself, felt that whatever happens, the show must go on. The fact that her festival is sponsored by a foreign body made her decision doubly sensitive, as she realized, and she had every reason to expect a fierce backlash from the press; and yet, she remained undeterred. To stop theatre in times of conflict was wrong, she felt; it implied a denigration of its function and a consolidation of the philistine view of it as useless pastime and mere entertainment in times of leisure.

It is thanks to Fahmi's faith and determination that the Festival des Jeunes Createurs which she launched in 2003 has managed to go into 7 editions, making a substantial contribution to the fringe theatre scene in Cairo. Though the number and quality of the shows on offer have varied from year to year, Fahmi has always tried to pick the best theatre available on the fringe and has treated us to some truly memorable performances. For me, the 2004 and 2005 editions are the most memorable; they hosted 15 new productions each and boasted a large number of really gifted young theatre makers. I can still feel a thrill when I remember some of the shows I saw at both and wonder at the abundance of talent and vitality they displayed.

That in later years the festival seemed to be running out of steam and loosing something of its initial vigour and healthy recklessness was a source of worry. When in 2007 the number of productions plummeted to a mere 7, I was truly alarmed. Still, I tried to draw comfort from the thought that quality is what matters and that out of the 60 productions that had wanted to participate, as I was told, those were the best that dance professor Maya Selim and theatre director Isam El-Sayed (who made up the selection committee Latifa had set up) could find. But it was cold comfort; apart from Al-Samt Al-Abyad (White Silence, or, Un Moment de Pure Silence), a piece spun out of Crista Wolf's Cassandre and Jean Paul Sartre's Troyennes (his adaptation of Euripides's Trogan Women ) and choreographed, designed and performed by Katja Bosmass and Assem Rady, with music by the Elle group and the contribution of dancer Khaled El-Masry, and El-Gaw Gamil (Lovely Weather, or Beau Temps), adapted and directed by Nada Sabet, the festival was artistically depressing. I later discovered that the budget for this event had been drastically reduced that year, and rather than choose to make a little money go a long way by hosting the usual number of shows while slashing the already measly grants given to their makers by half, Latifa, who has a great respect for artists and knows how hard they struggle to finance their work, had preferred to tailor her festival according to her resources.

Unfortunately, the financial situation does not seem to have improved since 2007. In fact, it seems to have gotten worse. Compared to the 2007 edition, let alone the earlier ones, this year's Festival des Jeunes Createurs, which lasted from 18 to 24 January, seemed positively anemic. Not only was the number of shows reduced to six, thinly spread over six evenings, but out of these, only two were especially created for this event. It was really frustrating having to battle against the crazy Cairo traffic to make your way from Giza to Munira every day only to be served an old, reheated dish -- no, not quite a dish, but, rather, a snack, since all the shows had a duration of less that 55 minutes. It didn't seem worth the effort, not to say quite a waste of time.

Gone are the days when you could watch two, and sometimes three performances in an evening and spend the intervals in between sipping coffee or wine in the beautiful open air cafeteria of the CFCC and passionately arguing about the new visions and techniques presented by the hosted artists. Gone too are the stylistic variety, the rash but exciting mixing of genres, the iconoclastic boldness, and the poignant striving to defy taboos and express the inexpressible. Even when the performances were emotionally raw, technically half- baked, raucously loud, or depressingly silent, seeming to move in vicious circles, most strove to express what their makers really felt -- their frustration, confusion, impotent rage and profound hopelessness -- and the emotional authenticity of the effort and its wholeheartedness were strangely exhilarating -- something that touched you deeply and you could never forget.

Now look at what the festival had to offer this year: the opening performance was Shaklaha Bazit (It Looks a Mess), by director Do'aa Tu'ima's Al-Grab (The Knapsack) troupe. Based on 3 popular satirical books -- Captain Masr (Egypt's Captain) and Shaklaha Bazit (It Looks a Mess) by Omar Tahir, and Gazma (Shoe), by Basim Sharaf -- and cast in the form of a comic revue, it attempts to expose in a series of funny sketches the gap between the older and younger generations, denouncing the authority of the latter and subjecting all aspects of contemporary life in Egypt to a shower of satirical barbs. It was first aired at the Cultural Palaces Women Directors Festival in November 2007 and played again on the fringe of the 3rd Egyptian National Theatre Festival, on 12 and 13 July, 2008, at Al-Arayes theatre, under the umbrella of the Egyptian Society for Theatre Amateurs, and not as an independent troupe.

I saw it on both occasions; and though both times I thought it a bit facile and too uncomfortably sentimental, with nothing like the bites and stings that characterize true satire, nevertheless, I thought it was fun and had to admit that Tu'ima has plenty of theatrical talent and a real gift for directing ensemble performances. That Fadi Yusri and Shorooq, the 2 child performers she fortunately stumbled upon at the Academy of Arts conservatoire, which lies next to the theatre institute where she graduated, won certificates of merit from the jury of the 3rd National theatre festival could possibly explain to you what I mean by the lack of sting and bite. All through the show, and despite the slings and arrows the six delightful performers told us they had to suffer, one felt thoroughly relaxed and cheerful. Such slings and arrows as the performers complained of seemed like light feathers that one could easily brush.

It was not at all pleasant that on the second night I found myself, yet again, facing Khalil Tammam's stage version of Saleh Karama's Hawel Marra Ukhra (Try Again) which features a woman condemned to death for killing her adulterous husband upon discovering him in bed with her best friend. The text makes much of the fact that she spared the life of her friend in order to see her squirm under the weight of shame and guilt. I had seen the play last year at El-Sawi Cultural centre in the course of its 6th independent theatre festival and never wanted to see it again. Whereas Tu'ima's Mess had been sentimental in a light, frothy, and quite sunny vein, Karama's stodgy text carried sentimentality to an intolerably cloying and garish level. Masquerading as a feminist/ existentialist text, it proposed to discuss the meanings of guilt, ethical responsibility and the right of the individual to choose his/her own self-defining act, even if it is an act of self-annihilation.

The action consists of three confrontations punctuated by the appearance of the prison guard, which is always announced by a huge silhouette on a screen, and the sound of clanking chains and creaking doors, as in a horror movie. Two of the stormy confrontations take place between the condemned woman and her defending lawyer who covets her body and aches to enjoy it before it dangles from the hangman's noose, and the third between her and her initially unrepentant sinful friend. Quite a situation, you would say, and full of dramatic and psychological potential. Sadly, however, what you get on stage is a lot of ranting against the treachery of men, their innate perfidiousness and the fickleness of women. Acting like a crusader-cum- sadistic psychoanalyst, the condemned woman first drives the amorous lawyer into a fit of suicidal despair, after getting him to admit (after a good battering and lots of hauling around the stage which reduces him to the semblance of a rag) what a mean and real jerk he really is, and ends up whipping her friend up into a state of suicidal frenzy. What a great idea was here overthrown, as Ophelia would say.

Jeanne d'Arc, a student production from Ain Shams university, came next. I had also seen this one, and only last July. It was one of 30 fringe productions I had to sift through to decide which qualified to perform in the 3rd Egyptian National Theatre Festival and it subsequently played at Miami theatre on 10 and 11 July, 2008. The group had identified themselves then by the name of their university. On this occasion, however, perhaps in courtesy to the CFCC, they called themselves "Le Theatre sans Frontiers". Though it was another reheated dish, I did not mind seeing it again. It is a clever adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan and Jean Anouilh's L'Alouette, put together by Metwalli Hamid and imaginatively directed by Tamer Karam, with intelligent sets by Mohamed Saad, suitable music by Remon Nushi, decent costumes by Hebba Abdel-Hamid and passable choreography by Iman Mustafa. Indeed, watching it this time, after the tragic events in Gaza, particularly the scene in which the newly crowned boy-king advises the maiden of Orleans to lay down arms and make way for political bargaining and negotiations and she responds by cursing politics and damning all politicians, I felt as if Joan had suddenly transformed into a mouthpiece for Hamas. Suddenly this show which was conceived and executed months ago seemed to click into the here and now, to gain a new significance, to become urgently relevant and intensely controversial.

Al-Masrawiya troupe's rendering of Ragab Selim's El-'Imma wil 'Asayah (The Turban and the Stick) -- a grim play about a couple terrorized by an invisible thug who makes their life hell and drives them to suicide -- though powerful was too loud and obvious. As symbols of authority and oppression, the turban and the stick were visually prominent and would have sufficed to transmit the play's message as a protest against patriarchal oppression, tyrannical rule and all forms of authoritarianism. Director Khalid El-'Isawi, however, belaboured the point, opting for an expressionistic style and crowding the stage with black apparitions that kept leaping around the couple. Every detail was underlined and exaggerated to the point of vulgarity and a taint of coarseness stuck to everything.

Tankred Dorst's Die Kurve (The Bend in the Road), staged by a troupe that call themselves 'Ushshaq Al-Masrah (Theatre Lovers) and Variations on a Folk Tale by Misr (Egypt) theatre troupe where the only shows in this festival that I had not seen before. The first was a great disappointment; Dorst's text, though very serious in intent and bleak in vision, is written as a farcical parody in the tradition of Beckett, with two clown-like brothers who set a funeral business on a roadside next to a dangerous bend. In the hands of director Mohamed El-Tarouti, however, it came across as a lugubrious sermon, completely devoid of humour and thoroughly pretentious. Compared to it, Variations, though simple, indeed naïve, was like a breath of fresh air. Collectively written, it draws upon an old comic tradition that portrays the mother in law as a viper and home-wrecker and is dotted with delightful folk songs and old ditties. As the mother in law, Dalia Mohamed was absolutely delightful in a vexing way and made you want to get up and strangle her on the spot to stop her pouring her venom into the ears of her newly wed son. She amply deserved the award for best actress and up until the last minute, the show's director, Osama Magdy, was the only candidate for best director. It was Jeanne d'Arc, however, that scooped this award for its director, Tamer Karam, together with the awards for best production and best scenography. The task of the jury this year was easy: if there was any competition at all, it was between the virgin of Orleans and the comic stereotype of the Egyptian mother in law.

7eme Festival des Jeunes Creaters, 18-24 January, 2009, at the French Cultural (CFCC).

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