Queen for a month
Kamal Sultan meets a veteran actress who played a royal role in Ramadan
I am to meet Layla Taher backstage at the Al-Salam Theatre, where she is appearing in Sameh Mahran's new comedy Habbak Awadein Tamer.
Layla Taher is one of Egypt's most popular actresses, and it is not hard to see why. An exceptional interlocutor, she can hold forth on many topics, exhibiting an extraordinary knowledge that allows the discussion to touch on several fields. She possesses the loveliest of smiles; perennial youth; and an exquisite taste in fashion. Tonight she is neatly dressed in a two- piece suit.
In Mahran's play, which is directed by Galal Othman, she plays the woman from Upper Egypt, a Saidiya. "Working in the theatre is hard, but I took the role because I wanted to play a Saidiya," she tells me. "I have only had once chance before this to impersonate a woman from southern Egypt. That was in the stage play Tareq men al-Samaa (A Knock from the Sky) with veteran actor Ezzat al-Alayli."
As we discuss her latest work I enjoy listening to her opinions on art and her personal views as she digresses from the subject in hand. Sherwit Mostafa Fahmai was born on 13 July 1940. She went by this name until her mentor, the late producer Ramsis Naguib, told her she needed a more appealing screen name for her first big role in cinema. And so, co-starring with Farid Shawqi in Abu Hadid (Muscleman), she was billed under her new name: Layla Taher.
Taher's first job with Egyptian television was as a presenter of variety talk shows including Magallet al-Telefizion (Television Magazine), but once her cinema career took off she left television to act full time, taking part in such memorable films as Ashat lel Hobb (She Lived for Love), Batal lel Nehaya (Hero To The End) and Al-Aydi al-Naema (Soft Hands). In all she has appeared in 85 films so far, including her latest, Ramadan Mabrouk Abul Alameinn with Mohamed Heneidi.
Her stage career has been just as illustrious. Her numerous successful performances have included roles in Al-Dabbur (The Wasp) and Sana maal Shoghl al-Lazizi (A Year With Nice Work) with Abu Bakr Ezzat. Thsee and nearly 100 television dramas turned her into an icon of Egyptian drama. Among her most popular shows were Al-Zaera (The Visitor), Borg al-Akaber (Tower Of The Great) and Lulu Wa Asdaf (Pearls And Seashells).
In her latest television drama, screened during the month of Ramadan on several satellite stations, Taher plays Princess Shewikar, the first wife of King Fouad of Egypt. Maleka fil Manfa (Queen in Exile) was written by Rawia Rashed and directed by Mohamed Zoheir Ragab. Also starring in the show were Nadia al-Guindi, Mahmoud Qabil, Kamal Abu Rayya, Sherif Salama, Samir Sabri, Sherin Adel, Manal Salama and Ayda Abdel-Azizi.
Princess Shewikar (Taher) becomes extremely jealous when Fouad takes another wife, Queen Nazli--played by cinema star Nadia al-Guindi--and starts making life difficult for everyone. " Soon the jealousy turns to vicious hatred," Taher says. " Nazli is a commoner, whereas Shewikar is royalty and thus feels slighted at being bested by someone of a much lower rank."
Even after Fouad divorces Shewikar, she continues to live in the palace since she is a member of the royal family and also the mother of Fouad's daughter, Fawqiya. "She lives in the same house as Nazli, and although the family tries to reconcile them, the reconciliation is only a veneer that hides a thick layer of hatred," Taher says.
I ask how she got along with Nadia al-Guindi? "It was fun to work with Nadia," Taher says with a smile. "We had some powerful moments in the show, such as when my character gets Fouad to turn against Nazli and she has to kiss my hand to gain my permission for Farouq to be named Crown Prince."
Taher says she felt no sympathy for the character of Shewikar. "I accepted the role because it was challenging and well written, and I found the notes that Rawia Rashed, the writer, prepared about the character extremely helpful."
As for Egyptian television drama, Taher says that there is a problem with production in Egypt. "Producers partner with state-run agencies, so the focus seems to shift from quality to money," she points out. "Most producers use big names to attract a big audience, and they hack into the production budget to pay the leading actors. The millions that are paid to the big names should have been spent on more essential stuff, such as the sets and the costumes."
She has a simple explanation for the increasing presence of Syrian actors in Egyptian shows. "Not all the Syrian actors who appear in Egyptian shows are big names back in their own country." She says. "The whole thing is a fad that started when Jamal Soliman made it big in Hadaek al-Shaitan (Gardens Of Satan). Since then there has been an onslaught of Syrian artists, directors too."
Are religious dramas a thing of the past, I ask? Taher is worried that this may be the case. "We used to have plenty of drama programmes that tackled religious content or a period of Islamic history in Ramadan, and I have taken part in some. But, unfortunately, now everyone is going for social drama. Even if there is a religious series, it gets screened at a late hour so people don't get to watch it."
What is her approach to historical dramas, which are back in strength this year with productions such as Cleopatra and Al-Saerouna Laylan (Those Who Walk By Night) ? Taher says she particularly liked the latter and enjoyed the way actress Fardos Abdel-Hamid enacted her character.
She is excited about her return to the cinema in Ramadan Mabrouk Abul Alamein . She was chosen for the role by the writer Youssef Maati and the leading actor Mohamed Heneidi. "I loved the character so much. I also loved the character of Ramadan, played by Heneidi, and the whole experience was enjoyable," she says
Taher has a life outside the theatre, too. Nowadays she devotes a lot of her time to charity and social work. " I am a member of the Lions Club and a founder of Gamayat Qulub Masr [The Egyptian Heart Association]. It is my way of giving back," she smiles.