Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 September 2010
Issue No. 1014
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Breaking the ban

Nehad Selaiha applauds El-Saqia's daring decision to celebrate Ramadan with a theatre festival for young people

Traditionally, Ramadan is marked by a dearth of serious, secular, live drama and a sharp rise in the consumption of folklore and other products of the cultural heritage, side by side with nuts, sweets, syrups and TV soap operas. For the first 10 days, all theatres dim their lights and close their shutters, and most of them remain shut till Bairam; the few that reopen after this 'discreet' pause prefer to put on light, spectacular musicals on religious or national themes to vie with the plentiful supply of religious concerts and recitals and traditional folk dance performances offered at cultural centres, state-run historical sites and other non-official venues everywhere. This Ramadan was no exception; apart from a revival of a 1983 quasi- documentary concoction of music and poetry, featuring a poetic contest between poet laureate Ahmed Shawqi and the 'poet of the Nile' Hafiz Ibrahim, and played against a sketchy historical background of the early decades of the last century, at Al-Salam theatre, a religious musical called Habibi Ya Rasoul Allah (O, Messengar of God, My Beloved) at the Balloon, and a nostalgic rehashing of the popular artistic heritage of 'the good old days' under the title Wallah Zaman (It's been so Long!) at the Cultural Garden in Sayeda Zeinab, all the other state-theatres are closed. No wonder that in the Listings section of the Weekly theatre was prominent by its absence throughout Ramadan.

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Whether to remedy this shortage of live drama, or to remind people, particularly young people, that theatre is not at variance with the spiritual nature of this holy month, El-Sawi cultural centre (El-Saqia) launched a special Ramadan theatre festival for independent troupes from 19 to 25 August, in which 14 performances competed for the 3 top places and the financial prizes of LE 5,000, LE 3,000 and LE 2,000 that went with them respectively. But more admirable and praiseworthy than the idea itself was the choice of performances by the festival's organizing committee. Though the festival was pronouncedly held in honour of the holy month, as its title clearly indicated, the chosen plays steered clear of religious themes and sentiments and were as secular in orientation, outlook and execution as those you would normally find at other times of the year. In other words, the festival organizers did not impose any religious restrictions on the artists and left them completely free to stage whatever they wanted, making technical competence and artistic coherence the only criteria for participation.

No where was this enlightened policy more apparent than in allowing director Mohamed Abdel-Maqsood and his Funoon (Arts) troupe to stage Jean Genet's disturbingly violent drama of prison life, Haute Surveillance (Deathwatch in English), with its inverted morality, apotheosis of criminality, celebration of the underworld where Genet began and spent much of his life, and pronounced element of homoeroticism. Staging such a play outside Ramadan would normally raise many eyebrows; performing it in Ramadan was, before this festival, simply unthinkable. Centering on 3 isolated cellmates -- Green Eyes, an illiterate, muscled hulk of a man who rules the cell by virtue of his hyper-masculinity and brawn and faces a death sentence for murder, George Lefranc, or Georgie, the literate petty thief who takes care of Green Eyes' correspondence with his unseen girl friend and longs to match Green Eyes' criminal status and spiritual authority in the prison hierarchy, and Maurice, a slender, handsome youth, who relies on his wit, charm, and good looks to get by in prison life and is infatuated with Green Eyes' masculinity on which he relies for sex and protection -- the play reveals the egotistic and homosexual tensions that wrack the relationship between the three men, frequently leading to explosions of verbal and physical violence, and culminates in Lefranc's murder of Maurice to rise in the hierarchy of criminals and become the equal of Green Eyes.

Deathwatch has been described both as "a study of the metaphysics of evil" and "a look into human nature under extreme conditions showing to what lengths people will go to survive and determine their own destinies." Director Mohamed Abdel-Maqsood, however, diverged a good deal from Genet's expressed intentions and sought to convert the play into a cautionary tale. In his director's 'word' in the printed programme, he wrote: "We must stand together so that no one can divide and destroy us, and we have to guard our authenticity, our civilization and traditions to remain one united nation. If we lose those, we lose everything and become the subject of haute surveillance"!! I don't know if one should take such a statement seriously or simply regard it as a smoke screen intended to camouflage the shocking nature of the play and divert the audience's attention from its morally iconoclastic message. However, what matters is the performance itself, and not what the director says about it; and the performance exuded a sense of embarrassment, as if the director was clearly aware that no ordinary Egyptian audience could be expected to sympathize with Genet's peculiar 'theology' or his characters, or stomach the vague but dense tissue of hints about homosexual relationships which is woven in the dialogue. This explains the various cuts, which reduced the play to 50 minutes instead of its original 90, the foregrounding of Green Eyes' jealousy about his girlfriend, who becomes here his 'wife', the frequent appearance of this female character (absent in Genet's text) as a dancing phantom that seems to haunt the men's minds, and, more significantly, the use of classical Arabic -- a neutral, 'respectable' and 'polite' medium that levels, elevates and unifies the characters' language and distances them from lived reality -- rather than the Egyptian slang, which would have been more in line with Genet's instruction that his dialogue be pronounced "with the characteristic deformations that go with the accent of the slums."

But, perhaps, one should sympathize with the director's embarrassment since Genet himself seems to have entertained a similar feeling about the play many years after he wrote it. In a note written in 1967 for volume IV of his Oeuvres Complete, he sought to dissociate himself from the play, saying: "I would like this play published, as a note or as a draft of a play, at the end of volume IV of my complete works. ...I would also like for this play never to be staged. It is difficult for me to recall when and during what circumstances I wrote it. Probably out of boredom and by mistake." The same embarrassment infected the performance of the actors, which was seemingly intended to be straightforwardly realistic. While Mahmoud Assaf, as Green Eyes, and Khalid El-Shirshabi, as Lefranc, took refuge in physical woodenness and ranting, Ashraf Husni, as Maurice, took the easy way out and reproduced the theatrical (often comical) cliché of the effeminate male familiar on Egyptian stages. As the Guard, Ahmed Hussein was almost voiceless and invisible.

However, one detects in the director's introduction of Randa Gamal as the (veiled) dancing phantom of Green Eyes' absent 'wife', in Mustafa El-Tohami's frugal, expressionistic set, with its row of dangling hangman's nooses downstage and smoky, dusty look, and in Basim Abqareeno's predominantly dim and ghostly, bluish lighting an attempt to interpret Genet's stage direction that " The entire play " should unfold " as in a dream." Genet, however, had further suggested that " The movement of the actors should be either heavy or else extremely and incomprehensibly rapid, like flashes of lightning ", that " If they can, the actors should deaden the timbre of their voices " and that the lighting designer should " Avoid clever lighting " and use "As much light as possible." None of these instructions was obeyed, but even if they had been, I doubt that the production would have been any better. For a play that depends on tension and violence for its effectiveness and the communication of its meaning, a rawer, more theatrical, gustier approach than the one used here was needed. And also, a more intimate space that allows for the claustrophobic atmosphere of a prison cell to be reproduced. Al-Hikma hall at El-Saqia, with its traditional stage and atrocious acoustics that make microphones a necessity, was the least suited venue for this kind of play.

Admittedly, other performances in the festival were technically superiour and/or more coherent and less disturbing. Some of them, like Deathwatch, used abridged versions or adaptations of well known literary texts -- like Mohamed Abdallah's stage version of Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, which he rendered as a traditional, realistic family drama and sensitively directed for the Ihsas (Feeling) troupe in a palpably cinematic style, winning third place for the performance, as well as 2 certificates of merit for his actors and one for musical arrangement; Ahmed Radi's abridged version of Yusef Idris's 1960s' Al-Mahzala Al-Ardiyya (World Farce), presented with plenty of gusto by the Bila Hudood (Sans Frontiers) troupe; Al-Mishakhasatiya (Actors) troupe's Al-Qatalah (The Killers), an Egyptian version in colloquial Arabic of G. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, adapted and doused in sentimental verse by Nagui Abdallah and directed by Yasir Izzat; Hisham El-Sonbati's condensed version of Naguib Soroor's 1960s' epic play, Mineen Ageeb Naas... (Where Can I Find People...), which he directed with live music and songs for the Orchid troupe; Scenes and Excerpts from Sa'dalla Wannus's Epic of the Mirage ; Ali Salem's vintage satire Beer El-Qamh (Corn Well), directed by Mahmoud Taha and presented by a troupe called Qawalees El-Mahrousa (Egypt's Backstage).

There were original plays too, namely: Bakry Abdel-Hamid's Damm El-Sawaqi (Blood of the Waterwheels), a somber folk drama performed by the Workers' Youth Union's troupe and directed by Samir Ahmed, in which a modern romantic couple fleeing coercive parental authority to get married find themselves successively identified by the inhabitants of the villages they pass with the tragic heroes and heroines of the popular ballads of "Hassan and Na'ima", "Yasin and Bahiyya" and "Sahfiqa and Metwalli" and are finally forced to succumb to the same repressive traditions and oppressive conditions that dictated those characters' fates; Ahmed Nabil's satirical comedy, Halawet Shamsena (See How Beautiful Our Sun Is), directed by Mahmoud Gamal for Al-Azifeen (Players) troupe, in which a playwright keeps rewriting the same scene, which is enacted before us, over and over again, only changing the characters' cultural level, socio-economic status and ideological orientation to offer a comprehensive survey of the prevalent ideological trends in Egypt today and show that they are hypocritical, shallow and easily exchangeable; Munir Yusef's 'Ala Haffat AlHawiyah (On the Edge of the Abyss), a bleak melodramatic piece consisting of a series of brief sketches that successively display in a caricaturist style the many hardships, humiliations and forms of inhuman exploitation that the poor and needy face in modern day Egypt, which he himself directed for the Marionettes' Revolt troupe; a collectively written satirical revue in the style of the Living Newspaper theatre called Akhbar El-Yom El-Thamin (News of the 8th Day); and, of course, Hani Abdel-Nasser's delightful El-Sirq Sirqina (This Circus is Ours), which I recently lauded in issue 1008 of the Weekly, on 22 July, in my article "Laugh if you can," and which deservedly won second place, as well as a certificate of merit for best actor, which went to its dramaturge and director Hani Abdel Nasser.

The honour of winning first place went to Teatro Misr troupe for their performance of Abdalla El-Sha'ir's adaptation and direction of Friedrich Durrenmatt's second radio play, The Trial of the Donkey's Shadow (1951), itself an adaptation of Christoph Martin Wieland's History of the Abderites (1781; translated as The republic of fools, 1861), which, in turn, was a reworking and development of one of Aesop's Fables. The original fable, as translated by William Cleary in his book, Aesop's Best 80 Fables in Verse, reads as follows:

"On a hot sunny day a traveler paid

For a donkey and driver to rent,

But half way to town, when stopping for lunch,

He decided he wasn't content.

I'll eat in the good donkey's shadow, he said,

No, you won't, said his driver and guide,

You paid for the donkey but not for the shadow

That falls on my good donkey's side.

Yes, I will! said the man. No, you won't! Said the guide.

They shouted like lunatic men.

And the donkey got frightened and ran for the hills,

And never was heard from again".

"The Moral is: In fighting over trifles, we may lose greater things."

Though Durrenmatt sticks to the basic plot of both the fable and Wieland's story -- namely, the dispute between the donkey's owner Anthrax and the dentist Struthion over whether the latter in renting a donkey for a day's journey to visit a client in a neighbouring town has also rented its shadow -- he introduces new elements, mainly the class struggle (prominent in the speeches of the Agitator of the Macedonian Workers' Party and the President of the Senate) between the proletariat who worship at the Latona Temple and the bourgeoisie who patronize the Jason Temple, that transform it into a scathing satire on Europe after World War II. 'Modern too,' as one critic notes, 'is the interest of the weapons industry in supplying both parties while fanning the flames of conflict. And timely 6 years after the end of World War II, yet timeless in its validity is the observation of the High Priest Agathyrus: "It has always begun with the adoration of a Jackass and ended with mass murder. We know the symptoms." '

As the dispute between Anthrax and Struthion escalates, taking them to court, where two unconscionable lawyers pounce upon them and egg them on, promising them large settlements, for which they charge exorbitant fees, Anthrax is forced first to pawn his furniture, then to sell his wife, and both parties change their life styles to appear more virtuous than they are and scramble to find connections that could influence the judges. While Anthrax seeks the help of a famous public courtesan, Struthion sends his wife to the bed chamber of one of the judges to intercede on his behalf. When the court fails to reach a decisive verdict in favour of either litigant, the case, already a public issue, spirals into a national conflict, threatening civil war The proletariat and bourgeoisie form two parties, one, the Donkeys, favouring Anthrax and advocating 'traditional values', and the other, the Shadows, siding with Struthion and advocating 'progress'.

At this point, Durrenmatt diverges from Wieland's plot, in which the Abderites avoid civil war by making the donkey a scapegoat. He introduces a drunken sea captain, named Typhis, who accepts bribes from both parties and sets both the Latona and Jason Temples on fire on the same night. And at this point the play develops into a real macabre farce as the firemen, who are half Shadows, half Donkeys, refuse to cooperate in putting out the fire since this would compromise their principles, with the result that the fire spreads to the town and consumes it. Durrenmatt gives the last word to the Donkey, which is running for its life from the angry mob: "Since I have, in a way, the leading role in this tale," he says, "don't be angry with me and answer me honestly with a clear conscience, as I now perish miserably from the arrows of your brothers. Was I the Jackass in this story?"

In his adaptation, El-Sha'ir preserved the atmosphere of the fable and the old, foreign setting, only changing the Greek names of the parties and their temples into the Frogs and the cocks, and projected the political conflict between Marxism and Capitalism onto the current sectarian tension between Muslims and Copts in Egypt to warn against its catastrophic results. And to emphasize the character of the performance as a didactic fable and cautionary tale, he framed the whole play with the invisible donkey's voice (performed by Tamer Nabil) as both narrator and commentator. Mohamed Zakariya's set of panels and pillars (which won a certificate of merit) was aptly historically vague, suggesting an undefined time in the ancient past, while Sherif Nabil's choreography, aided by Ahmed El-Debeiki's lighting (for which both earned certificates of merit) orchestrated the movement of the principal actors and townspeople into lively, vivacious spectacles expressive of the mood of every scene. The show was at once topically relevant and thoroughly entertaining and amply deserved the prize it won.

Having said this, I still believe that though Deathwatch cannot begin to compare with The Trial of the Donkey's Shadow in terms of topical relevance, intellectual maturity, technical competence or audience appeal, and though it fell far short of its director's ambitions and our expectations, it was, nevertheless, the most exciting and provocative show in this festival and the one that spelt its secular message most clearly and underlined its significance as an event that espouses free expression at all times and defies the ban on secular live drama in Ramadan.


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