Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2009
Issue No. 975
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Melodrama with a difference

Nehad Selaiha watches a vintage melodrama by Tawfiq El-Hakim transformed into a sombre problem play

I have often confessed my professional debt to the Department of Performing and Visual Arts at the American University in Cairo for allowing me the pleasure of watching some of the classics of world drama that have never been staged in Egypt and bringing to my attention new plays I probably would not have heard about otherwise. I have been following the activities of that magnificent centre for nearly 20 years, in the course of which I have had the privilege of meeting some of the most dedicated, gifted and inspiring theatre makers who served at its head. Topmost among those I shall always remember, with affection and gratitude, Walter Eysselinck, Tori Haring-Smith and Frank Bradley.

Fortunately, Bradley is still with us, and very much active, though I heard he is no longer head of that department. Fortunately too, we still have Mahmoud El-Lozy, an actor, director and teacher of the finest calibre in all capacities. Throughout all those years, he has been one of the main pillars of that department, treating us to wonderful performances and productions, coaching new generations of theatre artists and scholars and providing a valuable link between his department and the contemporary theatrical community in Egypt. Indeed, in the absence of a repertoire system, and since our National theatre consistently ignores its responsibility of keeping the Egyptian dramatic heritage alive and accessible to the public in decent productions, it has been mainly thanks to El-Lozy's idea of annually staging an Egyptian play in Arabic at the AUC that the younger generations could sample some of the vintage dramas and old masterpieces of the Egyptian theatre.

As I once wrote on this page, after watching a lively production of No'man Ashour's 'Eilat Al-Doghry (The Doghries), directed by Nivene El-Ebiary (a student of El-Lozy's): "At the door of the Wallace, I cynically thought that, apart from the few surviving television recordings of old plays, it was now up to the AUC to preserve for us and keep alive our national dramatic heritage" (Issue No. 528, 5 April, 2001). Four years later, and in a bleaker mood after the Beni Sweif fire, I voiced the same thought again in a review of El-Lozy's AUC production of Saadeddin Wahba's Al-Mahrousa, writing: "It hurt to remember that for years the only places where one could get a taste of the drama of the 1960s in performance was either in the provinces, at some cultural palace or home, or at the American University in Cairo. Now that the future of provincial companies is in the balance and looks quite bleak, we are left with only the AUC theatre, with its exclusive, select audience and one annual production of an Arabic play. What if this quasi-foreign space suddenly stopped putting on plays from the Egyptian repertoire? (Issue 767, 2 November 2005.)

So far, this has not happened and pray God it never does. Though the AUC has moved out of downtown Cairo to its far away and less accessible New Cairo Campus, and though the wonderful Falaki Main Stage has been replaced by the more modest and less spacious Malak Gabr Arts Theatre as principal venue, Egyptian drama can still have a breathing space there. Only last week El-Lozy treated us to an elegant, polished and thoroughly intriguing production of one of Tawfiq El-Hakim's many obscure plays. Published in Akhbar Al-Yom newspaper in 1947 and performed the following year (see Fu'ad Dawwara's bibliography of El-Hakim's plays in The Theatre of Tawfiq El-Hakim, vol. 1, GEBO, 1985, p. 291), Al-Lis (The Thief) is rarely read nowadays and was never staged again after the 1948 production until El-Lozy picked it up and decided to give it a new lease of life.

Of all the Egyptian directors who have attempted to revive the classics of the Egyptian theatre, past or present, El-Lozy has proved the most adept at discovering their latent vitality, demonstrating their stage worthiness, bringing them closer to our times and excavating their enduring relevance. Amazingly, he achieves all of this without adding new lines, rearranging the order of the scenes, amalgamating some, or resorting to the usual, flashy gimmicks adopted by most directors when handling the classics. But though he guards the verbal integrity of the text far more than any director around, only resorting to minor cuttings when absolutely necessary and rarely changing the classical Arabic dialogue into the Egyptian colloquial version, as is the case in this production, he invariably manages to stun his audience with fresh and unexpected readings of the plays.

In his 1999 brilliant production of El-Hakim's Li'bat Al-Sultan (The Sultan's Dilemma), the best the play has ever received in Egypt in my view, El-Lozy, as I wrote at the time, managed "to contradict the play's optimistic assumption that autocratic regimes could be persuaded to seek legitimacy by submitting to the law and the will of the people. ... Instead of the original reconciliatory end, in which the sultan, having gained legitimacy at the hands of the rich widow, who represents Egypt, bestows his ring upon her in a symbolic marriage between ruler and subjects, El-Lozy" had "the executioner and a security officer throw a sack over her head and drag her away to certain death. It was a devastatingly cynical and bitter twist," I added, "all the more shattering because one suddenly realized that everything in the show had subtly prepared the way for it and relentlessly pointed in its direction." I do not know if this review of the production is available on the net, but you can read it in The Egyptian Theatre: Plays and Playwrights (GEBO, 2003) under the title "A Question of Legitimacy".

The same 'sting-in-the-tail' technique -- namely, changing the end in a disorienting way without changing the lines or adding so much as one word -- is used in The Thief to adjust our perception and reception of the play and project it in a new light. The original text reads like a melodrama about a young and honest woman, without independent financial resources, pitting her wits against those of her wealthy, powerful and licentious stepfather who lusts after her and managing to come out at the end unscathed, without loss to her honour or wealth, thanks to the merciful intervention of fate at the last minute, in the figure of a former employee who shoots the stepfather dead for having sacked him from his company, falsely accused him of fraud and seduced his sister to boot.

Though El-Lozy keeps the subplot concerning the sacked employee and his seduced sister, he refrains from using it as a kind of deus ex machina to resolve the conflict, as El-Hakim does. In his production, the play ends with the stepfather storming out in a rage, having divorced his wife, rendering her homeless and penniless, ordered her daughter and husband to leave the luxurious home he had given them as a gift in the hope of gaining the daughter's favours, and threatened to send her husband to jail on a trumped up charge for which he has already secured false evidence. The husband's "What can I do?" are the last words we hear before the final curtain, and since they are addressed to the audience, they land the problem right into their lap, leaving them to ponder it on the way home. By withholding El-Hakim's melodramatic solution, leaving the fate of all the main characters, including the sacked employee and his seduced sister, hanging in the balance, El-Lozy not only rid the play of its facile, symmetrical design, in which the action is triggered by a gunshot and resolved by another, but also transformed the stepfather into an undying symbol of coercion, exploitation, unbridled greed and moral corruption. The message of the play was no longer that one should trust in divine justice, but a warning that such businessmen as the corrupt, unconscionable, and exploitative Pasha are still with us, seducing and preying on the younger generation, albeit under new guises. It was as if El-Hakim's Pasha walked out of the scene on stage right into present day reality.

Furthermore, by not allowing the heroine to emerge triumphant from the battle of wits with the Pasha, or keep her ill-gotten wealth, as El-Hakim does, El-Lozy straightened the moral logic of the play and dramatic logic of the character. For while it is conceivable that the honest heroine, when desperate, could resort to trickery, feminine wiles and false promises to escape the Pasha's incestuous passion, marry the man she loves and secure him a lucrative post, it is quite unpalatable to think that she will get off scot-free after all and continue to enjoy the financial security the Pasha has provided for her, as El-Hakim's end leads one to imagine. Besides, as drawn by El-Hakim, the character of the heroine, Khayriya (in Arabic, literally, the Charitable), is not static; under the Pasha's pressure, she passes from innocence to experience, developing from a modest, morally upright person who believes in the value of work and earning one's own living, can make a little money go a long way, and refuses to start her life with her impecunious fiancé with the jewels showered upon her by the Pasha, into a clever, wily woman who first persuades the Pasha that helping her to marry the man she chose would allow her to become his mistress while keeping a decent social façade, then tries to wriggle out of her promise, first by feigning illness, then by waving her husband's honour in his face, before proceeding finally to brutal, undisguised rejection. El-Lozy's end is more in line with this development, bringing the character face to face with the consequences of her deception, ridding her of its shady rewards, and forcing her to face the rigours of life and engage in an honest, open fight with her oppressor.

Another wise decision that benefited the play no end was rephrasing the formal, classical Arabic dialogue into the familiar, Egyptian vernacular, a medium more befitting to realistic drama, and one which not only bridges the gap between the temporal setting of the play's action in the 1940s and our times, but also substantially tones down the preachy, moralizing note that occasionally creeps into El-Hakim's dialogue. El-Lozy entrusted this task to Zeinab Mubarak and she made a fine job of it, producing a faithful and elegant text that brought out all the latent humour and wit of the original. It was obvious the actors felt quite at home with the Egyptianized dialogue, and this allowed them to concentrate on their parts and give creditable performances. Noha Ga'far as Khayriya, Seif Abdel-Salam as Hamid, the 'thief' in the title who eventually marries her, and 'Alaa' Shalabi as the oily, menacing Pasha and lecherous stepfather, were thoroughly convincing without sacrificing an iota of humour, mixing seriousness with comedy in equal measure.

Equally vivid, carefully detailed and well studied was Samia As'ad's performance as the Mother. Initially portrayed as a soft, timid and helpless woman, who blindly obeys her husband, suffers in silence and prefers to turn a blind eye to evil rather than face up to it, hoping it would go away somehow without her lifting a finger, she is finally forced to wake up to the ugly reality of her marriage when her daughter spells it out to her in plain words, asking her to protect her from the Pasha. As'ad managed the transition smoothly, with subtlety, speaking falteringly at the beginning and inviting us to laugh freely at her seeming gullibility and ineptitude, then commanding our admiration, sympathy and respect at the end with her calm dignity and quiet fortitude. She played her confrontation with the Pasha in the final scene low key, meeting his blustering anger, ridiculous excuses and deadly threats with a long, silent gaze that amply spoke her anguish and firm resolve.

As the sacked, embittered employee, Osman El-Sharnoubi, carefully avoided melodramatic declamation, and so did Marwa Tharwat, as his seduced sister. But in the case of the characters El-Hakim intended as a but for satire -- namely: Safwat (the Pasha's accountant and right hand in his shady business deals) and the 7 hypocritical members of the society for the protection of virtue (who nominate the Pasha their honorary chairman) -- the acting veered sharply, and quite appropriately, in the direction of the farcical. Indeed, El-Lozy went a step further, and for once introduced an improvised, satirical interlude featuring the 7 virtue champions between Acts 3 and 4 to fill in the time needed for the change of scenes.

As usual, El-Lozy stuck to the original format of the play, preserving its now unfashionable four-Act division and marking the Acts with traditional curtain falls rather than blackouts. However, 3 long intervals are more than any modern audience could be decently expected to tolerate, especially in a theatre with no cozy, indoor foyer, as was the case here. El-Lozy compromised, allowing the audience only once out of the auditorium, after the second Act, and entertaining them with Ahmed Salah's lively music and catchy tunes in the interval between Acts 1 and 2, and with the above mentioned improvised sketch between Acts 3 and 4. El-Hakim's stage directions regarding the sets were also faithfully observed, and El-Lozy was truly fortunate in having Stancil Campbell at hand to execute them. His elegant, versatile, two-level set was convincingly realistic, reproducing the architectural style of the period, and could be quickly and easily turned round to represent different locations with different furnishings. Campbell also designed the lighting, displaying the same accuracy, finesse and attention to mood and detail, and his valuable visual contribution was complemented by Nermine Said's period costumes. Indeed, in every respect, El-Lozy's version of The Thief was a real treat, and its impact was curiously paradoxical: while its modified message seemed thoroughly in tune with our more cynical and disillusioned times, the whole mode of the production seemed to nostalgically hark back to a theatre of the past.

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