Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 July 2009
Issue No. 956
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Classically yours

Nehad Selaiha is surprised at the number of classical texts at the festival

It seems that our young directors are getting a bit timid. Whereas in the former editions of the Egyptian National theatre festival, started in 2006, many of them went for adventurous, unconventional works by budding playwrights, or ones collectively written, or fiddled imaginatively, with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, with the classics, in this year's festival, the 4th, which started on 1 July, out of the 36 productions it featured, there were 25 stagings of well-known vintage pieces from world drama and the Egyptian repertoire. Shakespeare alone boasted 6 productions: two of Hamlet (by the Creativity Centre in Cairo and the Society of the Champions of Acting troupe), two of King Lear (a student one from Ain Shams University and the other a Cultural Palaces production from the provinces), one of Julius Caesar (by the Youth theatre), and one of Titus Andronicus (from the University of Alexandria).

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Apart from Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson (stunningly acted by Emad Ismael and Doaa Khalil, as the homicidal professor and his student respectively, directed by Ahmed Hussein Amin and sponsored by Studio Emad Eddin), Max Frisch's The Fire-raisers (directed by Mohamed Mursi) and Gamal Yaqoot's convincing staging of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, both from cultural palaces in Alexandria), Nazim Hikmet's The Legend of Love, also a provincial Cultural Palaces production, Tankred Dorst's Grosse Schmahrede an der Stadtmauer ("The Great Diatribe (or Great Vituperation) at the City Wall, done directly from the original German text by Abdel-Ghaffar Mekkawi) from Cairo University, there were two productions of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit (from the Suez Canal University and the Cultural Society of the Free Theatre), an adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables from Al-Munufiyya University, as well as an adaptation of Harlod Pinter's Old Times, rechristened Christmas Eve, by the Youth theatre. In this adaptation, director/dramaturge Ayman Mustafa planted a graveyard at the back of the living room where the action takes place and provided a lugubrious gravedigger, complete with spade, who silently prowls on the edge of the scene, to suggest that the three characters are all already dead and doomed to relive their tragic last meeting as a sort of nightmare in an eternal hell. Not a bad idea really and it worked well.

Quite a varied fare you must admit, and all solidly based on texts of high literary value. The chosen Egyptian plays too sported the same power and variety. On two nights, the Angels Team performed Alfred Farag's intriguing one-act play Al-Gharib (The Stranger), directed by Michel Maher, which they had first aired in April, in the course of the United Drama Groups festival at the Nile Hall (see my review in the Weekly on 4 April, 2009, Issue No. 941), and another masterpiece of his, Two in a Basket (the colloquial Arabic version of his Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi which he himself penned) was presented by a Cultural Palaces troupe from the Delta. Both productions, though modest in budget, were thrilling and highly enjoyable. The same cannot be said of the state Modern Theatre Company's version of Tawfiq El-Hakim's chef d'oeuvre The Sultan'fs Dilemma. Not only was the acting pallid and weak, but director Asim Nagaty's efforts to update the text, make it more humorous than it already is, and give it topical relevance by inserting phrases and sentences that reflected on current affairs, while encouraging the actors to adlib at will, were clumsy and forced and dulled the scintillating wit of the original. Worse still, he further diluted the impressive tautness of the dialogue with a substantial dose of boring songs and dances.

Other Egyptian classics from the 1960s were Bahig Ismail's Joseph's Dream (very popular in the provinces and frequently acted there), this time presented by the troupe of the Kum-Umbo Sugar Company in Upper Egypt, and Mahmoud Diab's intense historical tragedy of love and revenge, A Land Where Flowers Cannot Grow. Bahig Ismail's more recent Al-Ghoula (The ogress), written in response to the rising tide of fundamentalist ideas that seek to oppress women in the name of religion and tradition, and which premiered at Al-Ghad theatre last March also competed in this festival (see my Weekly review on 30 April, 2009, Issue No. 945).

I would have liked very much to see what the students of the Theatre Institute made of Naguib Mahfouz's 1980s short story Love on the Plateau of the Pyramids and how far their dramatization was influenced by the film version directed by the late, great Atif El-Tayeb. However, I found ample compensation in 3 of the productions on offer, which to my mind rate among the best in this festival. Shadi Sorour's production of Diab's A Land Where Flowers Cannot Grow for Al-Tali'a (avant-garde) theatre, Samih Basyouni's Julius Caesar for the Youth theatre and Hani Afifi's version of Hamlet for the Creativity Centre all brilliantly handled the classical texts they worked with, intelligently compressing them to fit the time limit for performances set by the festival without betraying their message or point of view, or detracting from their power and impact.

Using Mohamed Enany's elegant, faithful and lucid translation of Julius Caesar, the same translation that was used in an earlier, memorable production at Al-Tali'a several years ago, Basyouni, a young and talented director who shies away from gimmicks and wild inventions, and who two years ago gave us the best Fire-raisers I have seen on an Egyptian stage, roped in playwright and dramaturge Sayed Imam to make judicial cuts in the text (which unfortunately included the mobbing of Senna the poet, a deliciously sarcastic and cynical scene that could easily fit into a modern absurd play, and one of my favourites) and to build up the part of Caesar by increasing his ghostly visits to Brutus and providing him with a final harangue which mocks the rebels slogans and tips the balance of sympathy squarely in his favour.

This perspective is not alien to the play, is indeed embedded in it though Shakespeare does not spell it out. There, it is constantly pitted, in a cunning dialectical balance, against the arguments voiced by the rebels, particularly Cassius, leaving the audience to make up their minds and draw their own conclusions. In theatre, however, as some professionals would tell you, it is sometimes advisable to make a clear-cut case so as not to confuse or puzzle the audience, or diminish the play's total impact. I may not go along with this view, but I must admit that in this production it helped the actors master the characters they took on and give admirable, well-controlled and carefully detailed performances: Ahmed Yehia as Caesar was a charming, worldly-wise, benevolent dictator, perhaps the only kind of ruler that could govern the unruly, fickle people of Rome; Mohamed El-Amrousi as Brutus was suitably gullible and politically naive; and Rami El-Tambari's Cassius often conjured up the image of Iago. But while Amr Hassan's set and Ibrahim El-Forn's lighting were simple, functional and unobtrusive, and the language used in the added bits was made of the same timber as the language of Enany's translation and followed its rhythms so that anyone not familiar with the original play would not realize what was added, quite a feat on the part of Sayed Imam, Mustafa Selim's lyrics, set to weak and colourless music by Karim Arafa, were a painful and distracting intrusion and were made quite intolerable by the tawdry, lackluster dances choreographed by Atif Awad in the military marches and battle scenes. I think the production would gain immensely by shedding off both the musical soundtrack and Awad's ridiculous dances.

Fortunately, Land Where Flowers Cannot Grow, Mahmoud Diab's last play and only historical tragedy, was not burdened with bad verses and sloppy dances and, consequently, was crisper, with nothing to obstruct its fast flowing rhythm. Based on the legend spun by the Arabs round queen Xenubia who ruled the ancient kingdom of Tadmur (Palmyra), in present day Syria, in the 3rd Century A.D, and her deadly feud with the ruler of Yemen, Khuzayma, and his heir, Amr bin Adiyy, the play posits love versus revenge and follows the complex passions of the characters, their raging inner conflicts and their desperate struggle to escape their destinies, to shake off the oppressive legacy of hatred and bloodshed, and ends with the queen's final, dignified embracing of death. Published in 1979, in the Theatre Magazine, its reflections on the possibility of peace between two conflicting nations, with a long and bloody history between them (like the Israelis and Arabs), had relevance then, after the Camp David accord, and still do now.

Here, too, the text was compressed, but no additions were made, and director Shadi Sorour further contracted the performance time by interlacing many of the scenes rather than playing them in succession, constantly cross cutting from the queen's palace to that of her foe and back. This was made easy by using the same set for both palaces - a primitive throne sculpted out of a rock, bordered by four huge pillars in the shape of repulsively grotesque and menacing beasts and reptiles. The originally composed musical track was highly dramatic, underscoring and framing the feelings of the characters and their shifting moods. It is a great pity that no printed programme was available when I watched it so I could give you the names of Sorour's wonderful technical crew. But, at least, I know the names of the three main characters and can shower on them the well-earned praise they richly deserve. Thanks to a good, supporting cast and intensive rehearsals, Iman Imam as Xenubia, Sorour, the director, as Amr bin Adiyy, her lover and lethal foe, and Khalid El-Nagdi, as his crafty, cunning minister Qaseer, who enables him to steal into her palace, gave powerful, gripping performances, alternately laced with humour and tragic pathos.

The same mixture of humour and tragedy informed Hani Afifi's I Am Hamlet in which an impecunious young man, whom we see at the beginning of the show lying on a ruffled bed at the far back, while a screen on top shows him in video projections wandering through slummy areas and dirty street, comes across a secondhand copy of Hamlet. He becomes obsessed with the play, identifying with the prince and projecting the other characters onto his friends and the people he meets in the crowded carriages of the underground. The vast comic potential of the idea is quite obvious, and Afifi exploited it to the full, setting some scenes in modern cafes, or in the underground, and replacing the "emousetrap" play-within-the-play with a rap performance. Though the dialogue was a mixture of classical and colloquial Arabic, with many typically local and topical references, thus triggering a lot of hilarity, whole stretches of the original text (drawn from 4 different translations) were performed almost in toto and in a straight manner, with all the necessary sound and fury. Although the actors managed the shifts between Hamlet's world and ours, and from comedy to tragedy with admirable swiftness and dexterity, I could not truly see the point of the whole exercise and sometimes the two sides of the show, the old and modern failed to cohere or gel. To compare the Prince of Denmark to a modern, frustrated, Egyptian young man and show him hopping between two worlds without developing the idea or taking it further is not enough. Apart from the laughs, the show seemed intended to showcase the talents of its gifted, young cast - Mohamed Fahim as Hamlet, Ayaat Magdi as his mother, Naglaa Yunis as Ophelia, Tamer Diae as Claudius, Bayoumi Fuad as Polonius and Mohamed Habib as Laertes. Though it ends with Fortinbras, walking in to view the corpses, dressed in a modern expensive suit and mimicking the language of W. Bush, while the screen at the back shows the actual ex president of the USA on television addressing the world, as if to say that today's politicians are no different from those of yesterday, the show had little else to offer. One enjoyed it while it lasted, but, at the end, the message did not see worth the effort. Still, Hani Afifi is a very promising director with plenty of imagination and a style of his own and I do look forward to his next show.

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