From the sublime to the ridiculous
Nehad Selaiha records some of the highlights of this year's CIFET
Of the CIFET's cultural events this year, indeed in more years than I care to remember, the most exciting has been Richard Schechner's lecture-demonstration at the Supreme Council for culture on Wednesday 14. I did not think I would live to see the day when his 1968 groundbreaking staging of Euripides's The Bacchae, rechristened Dionysus, would be shown in Cairo, albeit in the form of recorded excerpts from the original production -- mainly the birth ritual of that pagan, Greek God and the frenzied killing of king Pentheus by the Bacchants, led by his mother Agave. For those who have only read about it and were never lucky enough to get the chance to see it, or any of his other daring works for that matter, it was the best illustration of his particular brand of environmental theatre and his almost unique approach to theatre -- an approach which, as he forthrightly explained, rested on some basic principles, including: a firm partiality to untraditional spaces, whether found or constructed; an anti- Wagnerian/pro-Brechtian view of all the elements of a theatrical performance as autonomous and independent of the rest; a careful attention to, and cultivation of details, however minor (reality consists in a conglomerate of small details, I think he said); an ever hopeful, strenuous striving for audience participation; and, though this may not apply in the case of Dionysus, or the other 2 productions of which 20-minute excerpts were shown to the audience -- namely Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime and the 2007 Jocasta, which Schechner himself co-authored with a Rumanian writer -- a belief that theatre does not necessarily have to start off with a dramatic text, but could germinate in an idea, an image, or some improvisational games during rehearsals; .
Indefatigably lively and alert, dangerously uninhibited and honestly shocking, Schechner took off on a confidential note, warning his audience at the outset that, as a person, and though he had a great respect for religion in general as cultural practice and material, he was an atheist, and that the work he was about to show his audience may dismay some and offend many. Those who were too squeamish to accept his own visions of the truth about humanity as encoded in his (often relentlessly cruel) images could leave at any time and he would not be offended in the least, he said. As it turned out, those images had a sadistically haunting kind of breathtaking beauty that led Egyptian director Hanaa Abdel Fattah, nursed in the lap of avantgarde Polish theatre, to describe him as a poet of blood and violence. In the same disarmingly confiding tone, Schechner went on to tell his audience how, when he was having a major surgery, 'to repair his heart', as he put it, that is, when he was lying under the shadow of death, he felt no regrets, thinking that he had done all he had ever wanted to do, and that, though he did not believe in an after life, what a wonderful surprise it would be if there ever was one, provided, of course, that he did not find himself on the wrong side, landing in that vastly unpleasant mythical place called hell.
People in this country are not used to this kind of unreservedly open, unashamedly sincere and intimately confidential mode of public speaking; through it, Schechner, like a magician, as Abdel-Fattah described him, likening him to a 'shaman', or a kind of tribal 'witch doctor', suddenly seemed to cut across cultural barriers and fly over vast geographical spaces to embrace his nationally diversified audience and land them into his artistic lap, so to speak. As he rightly said, he was not there to deliver a 'formal lecture' (he pronounced the phrase in a tone that bespoke his utter abhorrence of such activities); he was there as an individual, a human being saddled with all the tragedies and sadnesses of the world to share with us his pain and irking dilemmas. Unbeknown to him, perhaps, his use of Greek tragedy, particularly his Oedipus, to comment on the atrocities the USA army was committing in Vietnam, touched a deep chord in the minds of his audience, leading them, perhaps unconsciously, to superimpose his stunning images on the atrocities committed by the Israeli army in Gaza in more recent times.
Violent and bloody though those images were, some of them, particularly that of the red clad body of Jocasta in the Oedipus production, sprawled on an earth-covered stage floor, a sword driven right through her womb, with the bloody handle sticking out, had a weird and haunting kind of beauty that burnt itself into the memory. Schechner's 'lecture' was scheduled for 90 minutes, but it went on for more than 3 hours, and I guess it could have gone much longer if it were not for the rules and regulations of officialdom, which, in this case, were stretched beyond the limits of all known precedents, and were it not, also, for the limited capacity of humans to endure all at once so much ecstasy, beauty and pain.
Beauty and poignancy were also experienced in extreme degrees at the Polish Façade. The other Polish contribution to the festival, Krzysztof Prus' Don Quixote, by the New Theatre in Zabrzu Company, was a bit of a disappointment and quite the wrong choice for an occasion like the opening. On such festive, plebian occasions, the audience usually expects something more spectacular and relatively accessible. Prus's Don Quixote was neither. Cast in the form of a play within a play, Prus showed us a company of actors, led by a crazy, dictatorial director, rehearsing a puppet performance of a part of the epic narrative of Cervantes's legendary anti-hero, and used this as a vehicle to reflect, through the eyes (and inordinately lengthy monologues) of a stage hand who falls a prey to the legend and identifies with its hero, on the relation between theatrical illusion and reality. Though the stick puppets handled by the performers were cute and colourful, and the actors and their director were suitably strange and funny, the set was depressingly gray and drab, and the performance demanded that the audience, if they were to make any sense of the show, keep their eyes for the most part of the performance glued to a screen on the side, bearing a translation of the verbal ruminations of that bewitched mock-Don Quixote's. No spectacle on stage was at hand to help them construe the meaning of the verbal avalanche they were bombarded with, or even help them forgo the sense in favour of the imagery. In another, more intimate space than the Big Hall of the opera house, and with a more sophisticated audience, the Polish Don Quixote could have possibly worked.
Façade, a 2007 co-production by the Polish Bialostocki Teatr Lalek and the Dutch Laswerk theatre, conceived and directed by Eduardo de Pavia Souza, co-directed and stage-designed by Paul Selwyn Norton, with a musical arrangement by Marek Kolikowski, was altogether a different kettle of fish and fared much better; indeed, it proved so popular that, on the strength of public demand, it had to give an extra, 3rd performance over and above the 2 normally scheduled for all productions in the festival. Using a simple metal construction, representing a skeletal 2-storey apartment building consisting of two rooms on top of each other, with invisible doors and windows, and both hand-glove and human-size puppets, at once amazingly lifelike and eerily grotesque -- puppets that are smoothly and masterfully manipulated by performers who are at once wizardly puppeteers, charming actors, skilful dancers and enchanting singers -- and in the sweet presence of three musicians who provided live musical accompaniment, the show unfolded like a grim fairy tale cum black comedy, at once mysteriously hypnotic, intriguingly beautiful, subtly reflective and profoundly unsettling.
In a series of short, quick scenes, seemingly quite familiar, but here wondrously defamiliarised, like visions in a dream, and often absolutely hilarious (a frail, old puppet-woman on a bench in the park, feeding monstrous birds with ugly human faces and coughing up lengths of red thread that are eventually knitted by a prim human-lady into a long scarf; a bedraggled, drunken tramp, lying on the road side, molesting passing females who ends up comforting the vicious, old puppet-woman then bundling her into a basket and sending her to the grave; a bunch of street musicians constantly hassled by their audience, and especially by a randy, middle-aged and out-of-work maestro who imposes himself upon them and, in between rehearsing them, chases after every female in sight, be she young or old, pretty or ugly; a young maid at a boarding house going through her dusting routine, illicitly taking time off to smoke a cigarette, and ending up, like her replacement, being murdered by the old, puppet woman; a wrangling married couple with their little boy watching on in fear and sorrow, etc.), Façade spoke to us about loneliness, longing, human sympathy, love, betrayal, joy, servitude, violence, loss and death.
The wonder of this show was that though we could always see the performers manipulating the puppets, this did not for one second affect the feeling of verisimilitude or detract from the powerful illusionism of the show. As I surrendered to the magic of Façade, which I saw twice, and would have willingly watched a hundred times simply to experience that titillating sense of delving into the illogical world of dreams while wide awake, I kept thinking that if Brecht had watched performances of this kind, he would have definitely rethought his whole theory of epic theatre and its corner stone: the alienation effect. Here was a show where open 'theatricality' and the emphasis on its being contrived 'play' -- elements that, according to Brecht, should dispel illusionism and prod you to rational, critical thinking -- worked paradoxically, casting a spell on the audience, captivating their imagination, creeping under their skin and emotionally possessing them.
Façade is a show I shall always remember and one that will keep surfacing in my dreams. There, perhaps, I shall be able to solve its many riddles. For it is only in the surreal realm of dreams and according to its special logic that one can hope to understand why the old, puppet woman, who looked so frail and pathetic at the beginning, actually reminding me of my mother, kept killing all the maids in her employ at the small pension she kept; or why the drunken tramp, who looked so menacing throughout the performance, became so kind and sympathetic at the end, tinkling some airy tunes on his rough, primitive xylophone to comfort the sad, little puppet-boy who had seen the relationship of his human parents collapse before his eyes; or what it was that made the prim, efficient-looking, nurse-like human female, who wears a plastic bag, containing her knitting, as a scarf on her head, kill the frivolous, puppet fat lady at the end and use her for a mattress on which to relax, or, as a friend whom I invited to the show on the second night kept asking me, what the lengths of red thread that the old puppet-woman kept coughing up meant, and why the nurse- like lady kept collecting them to knit a long, red scarf that she eventually wrapped round the neck of the tramp, who, in his turn, first manipulated it as a cross to emulate the crucified Jesus, then threw over the corpse of the old puppet-lady as he, very gently and quite affectionately, bundled her into her basket-coffin.
Performances which deeply move and puzzle you, and keep you pondering their mysteries long afterwards, are extremely rare, and of all the performances I watched in this festival, Façade was the only one of this kind. No other show came anywhere near it in terms of impact. However, there were a few other performances that I found both moving and exciting. Foremost among those was a cross-gender cast production of Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba by the Mexican Compania de Teatro del Espacio Cultural Metropolitano. The set consisted of a long table, on which most of the action took place, except when the actors got off to disappear behind two huge, white screens at both ends, on which a succession of still silhouettes of scenes taking place outside were displayed. On the table, which acted as a traverse-like stage, with the audience sitting on both its long sides, director Sandra Munoz placed a number of high-back, wooden chairs of different heights that were used by the actors either realistically, to sit on, or to form a dinner table, or expressionistically, to highlight certain moods or focus certain emotions. The movement and acting style, alternately realistic or finely stylized, were generally intense and passionate, intricately detailed and graphically shadowed. Though the costumes, uniformly black except in the final scene where Bernarda's 'girls' appear in their sleeveless, white night gowns, were oppressively austere at the top, they were nontheless erotically slit at the bottom, occasionally revealing the 'girls' legs as they swished around, and, in the case of some of the girls, mostly Adela and Mrtirio, also the edge of a blood-red skirt worn underneath. Munoz's Alba was the best I have seen in years and her cross- gender casting of Alba, her maids, her ugly and sickly, 39 year old eldest daughter, Angustia, and her deformed younger one, the humpbacked Martirio, added a refreshingly new, controversial and thought-provoking metaphoric dimension to the play, identifying maleness with oppressive repression, sexual deprivation and frustration, deformity, wealth-based power (Angustia is the only daughter with an inheritance and a dowry) and all destructive passions. Technically, the most intriguing aspect of the show, apart from the ritualistic, huge dinner-table set, with all its Christian, last-supper connotations, was the use of fans, which, as they noisily flicked open and shut, seemed to orchestrate the performance, controlling and regulating its tempo.
Another exciting production was Lenin El-Ramli's new play, The Illusion of Love. But, being part of an international project initiated by world-renowned Shakespearian scholar Stephen Greenblatt to re-imagine a presumably lost play by Shakespeare, based on the story of Cardenio and Lucinda in Cervantes's Don Quixote, and believed to have been written in collaboration with Fletcher in 1613, and being itself an Egyptian adaptation of the play Cardenio, co-authored by Greenblatt and Richard Mee to launch this project, it deserves an article all to itself. As for Iraq's two contributions -- The Shadows, by the Workshop of Ongoing Rehearsals, based on Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, adapted and directed by Haytham Abdel-Raziq, and Echo, an originally written two-hander by Magid Hamid featuring a meeting between a bereaved mother and a long-absent, prodigal son who has killed all his brothers, which was austerely directed in black and white by Hatem Ouda and performed by the National Theatre Troupe, though they drew upon the dismal current situation in Iraq and flirted with highly topical issues, both struck me, particularly Echo, as technically belaboured, distressingly obvious and emotionally facile.
Equally obvious, superficial and artificial was Lebanon's Wa Mu'tasimah! (a traditional Arab cry for succor in moments of crises). A dance and mime show, conceived by Samir Awwad and choreographed by Malik 'Indari, it consisted of a succession of naïve scenes expressing the oppression of the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, down history, and ended up with the sturdy and fierce-looking dancers stoning the audience with paper pellets and lunging aggressively towards them, rifles in hand. Less aggressive, more technically elaborate, but equally simplistic were the Bulgarian Theatre Studio 4xC's Orpheus, a pretentious, boring, and interminably long reworking of several treatments of the Greek myth, sporting many anti-climaxes and delivered in poor English, that laid to waste the great skills of the young dancers and the visually arresting and imaginatively captivating choreography of Petia Iosifova.
It is productions like these that are usually trotted out and used by the anti-CIFET camp to denounce the festival and call for its abolition. But, in the middle of all the chaff and dross that the festival admittedly imports every year, you could find, if you look closely or are lucky, some rare jewels, like Schechner's lecture and the Polish Façade.
Best Performance: South Korea, Macbeth, directed by Nak Hyung Kim, the Jaranda Project Company;
Best Director: Osama Halal, Syria, for Don Quixote , text by Kefah Al-Khous, the Koon Theatre Group;
Best Scenography: Edurado de Paiva Souza and Paul Selwyn Norton, for The Facade , by the Polish Bialostocki Teatre Lalek and the Duch Laswerk
Best Actor: Mohamed Fahim, Egypt, for his performance in I Am Hamlet , adapted and directed by Hani Afifi, the Cairo Creativity Cenytr Studio;
Best Actress: Bushra Isma'il, Iraq, for her performance in Echo , written by Mageed Hameed, directed by Hatem Auda, the National Acting Company;
Best Ensemble performance: Mexica, The House of Bernarda Alba , by the Compania de Teatro del Espacio Cultural Metrop0olitano.