Nehad Selaiha is disappointed by a festival dedicated to Youssef Wahbi
In a bid to link the past with the present and prompt young artists to explore the heritage of Egyptian theatre and acquaint contemporary audiences with it, El-Saqia Cultural Centre has dedicated its 8th theatrical festival to the name and works of Youssef Wahbi (1898-1982). Mohamed El-Sawy, the founder of this wonderful beehive of cultural activity that he named after the title of one of his father's fictional works, has been pondering this project for some time. Not only is Wahbi one of the founding pioneers of Egyptian theatre, a great actor, director, writer and producer in theatre and cinema, a brave aristocrat who defied his family to make theatre his profession at a time when acting was a dirty word in respectable social circles and spent his inheritance, after his father's death, on founding one of the best, most successful, and longest- surviving theatre companies in the first half of the 20 century, he also happens to be the uncle of El-Sawy's mother. Family loyalty is a wonderful thing, especially when justified by public achievements and good works, and Wahbi's great artistic stature and seminal contribution to theatre and cinema are more than enough justification for El-Sawy's loyalty to his great uncle.
There is also the sad fact that theatre is an ephemeral art; Wahbi is rarely remembered nowadays as the great homme de theatre that he was and few of those who had the privilege of seeing him on stage, in a live performance, are still alive today. Of the 300 plays that are reported to have made up the repertoire of his Ramses company between 1923, when it first opened, at 8.45 pm, on Monday, 10 March, and 1970, its last recorded season, only a few have survived in film versions (which he himself made) and even fewer were recorded for television after it opened in 1960. Wahbi wrote 60 of the plays in that repertoire and directed most of them, as well as many of the others, usually casting himself in the lead male part.
The recorded plays, if they still survive in the television archives and have not been lost or deleted, are rarely broadcast. For most Egyptians today, Wahbi is only known through the films (about 75) in which he appeared. Some of these can be seen sometimes on a couple of satellite channels that specialize in broadcasting old Egyptian movies, and it is thanks to these films that Wahbi can still be seen in action, as actor, director, or both, and that the scripts of some of the plays that have been lost, like the 1943 Al-Shaitan (The Devil), which was transferred to the silver screen in 1944 as Safeer Guhannam (The Ambassador of Hell), can be reconstructed.
El-Sawy's project, however, was not as simple as he thought. A major obstacle was locating the texts which have never been collected and preserved in manuscript or made available in print. Most of them have been lost and the few that have survived are kept in the archives of the National Theatre Centre. Besides, the theatrical traditions in which the Ramses Company mainly invested, namely didactic melodrama, boulevard theatre and Grand Guignol, have become outdated and far removed from the younger generations' tastes and sensibilities. One could always watch them as a curiosity of course, but few young theatre artists would be anxious to stage them. They also involve many scene changes and require realistic sets, a requirement that is impossible to meet on the low budgets dispensed by El-Saqia to the troupes. These considerations, perhaps, account for the curious outcome of this project.
Of the 10 scheduled plays, only 3 -- Rasputin, rechristened Al-Shaitan (The Devil), Awlad Al-Fuqara (Children of the Poor) and Safeer Guhannam, (The Ambassador of Hell), which is in fact the film version of another play by Wahbi called Al-Shaitan -- were written by Wahbi. The rest were adaptations of foreign classics plus one Arabic play, all of which Wahbi is supposed to have directed and/or performed -- namely: Al-Garima wa Al-Iqab (an adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment ), Al-Zahab (described as an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Gold ), Othello, the Conqueror (based on a translation of Shakespeare's play by Khalil Mutran , Ali Ahmed Bakathir's Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah, about a famous mad ruler of that name, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, and a mysterious Romeo and Juliet. Moreover, of those 10 plays, only 7 materialized: Safeer Guhannam, Awlad Al-Fuqara, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Crime and Punishment, and Gold.
In fact, neither Crime and Punishment nor Romeo and Juliet figure on any list of the Ramses Company's repertoire, and while The Merchant was one of the rare plays that Wahbi had nothing to do with (it was directed by Fattuh Nashati and starred Zaki Tulaimat, George Abyad and Ahmed Allam), the only play entitled Al-Zahab (Gold) on the list of Wahbi's complete works dates to 1924 and is described as an adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel, David Copperfield, translated by Mohamed As'ad Lutfi. If we are to believe theatre historians, the play called Al-Zahab that Wahbi directed and starred in, together with Rose Al-Yusef, Amina Rizq, Fatma Rushdi, Fardous Hassan, Aziz Eid, Omar Wasfi, Ahmed Allam and Mukhtar Osman, in 1924, has nothing to do with Eugene O'Neill's 1918 one act play called Gold, or with its 1920, expanded, 4- act version of the same title. (See Amr Dawwara, "The Complete Works of Yusef Wahbi", Yusef Wahbi, the People's Artist, ed. Mohamed El-Sayed Eid, the Cultural Palaces Org., Cairo, 1998, pp. 167, 168, 217).
Furthermore, the trio of Shakespearean plays that we saw had absolutely nothing to do with the theme of the festival, nor could we reasonably expect them to have. I do not know if Mohammed As'ad Lutfi's translation of Julius Caesar, or that of Abdallah El-Rifa'i of The Merchant of Venice, both of which Wahbi used, are still available; but since Wahbi's versions of these plays are irretrievable and we can only vaguely guess what they were like on stage from a few scattered notes and general comments, it would be ridiculous to expect the young directors who took part in this festival to reproduce them even in part. Opting for Shakespeare seemed an evasive ruse, a bluff; rather than do their proper homework and sift through the available Wahbi texts, even if they have only survived in film versions, and use their imagination to pick the ones that could still appeal today, like Bayyoumi Effendi (Mr. Bayyoumi), for instance, the troupes that opted for foreign sources treated the festival as an opportunity to do their own thing, regardless of Wahbi.
Apart from the first and last productions in the festival, one tended to completely forget Wahbi. Using modern translations, with extensive excisions, and, to put it quite charitably, treating them in an experimental spirit as vehicles for their own visions and ideas, the 3 troupes that took on Shakespeare did not, by any wild stretch of the imagination, belong in this festival. Isma'il Mustafa, who adapted and directed The Merchant for the 'Opera' troupe, clearly states in the festival's brochure that his 'romantic' approach to the play '"differs totally from that of Wahbi's." He goes on to confess that his troupe only chose this play to meet the stipulations of the festival, in other words, because it features on the repertoire of Wahbi's Ramses company. Honesty is a commendable attribute, and I really admire Mr. Mustafa for it. However, I would have admired him more had the treatment of the religious minorities been less insensitive, the movement less clumsy, the humour less crude and the noise less cacophonous. In this case, and in many others, the term commedia del'arte is used as a rubric under which ham actors and directors commit horrendous theatrical atrocities.
Unfortunately, I had to miss Abdallah El-Sha'ir's version of Romeo and Juliet, but, again, judging by the recording I have seen, and though it was really a tremendously energetic exercise in a Commedia del'arte vein, it not only did not belong in the repertoire of Yusef Wahbi, but also did not distantly relate to his work in any discernible way. The same could be said of Julius Caesar by the 'Hayat' (Life) theatre troupe. Here, using a recent translation, and drawing on Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, the troupe framed the action with Shakespeare's presence as writer and victim. Shakespeare is first seen, outside the closed curtain, bending over his papers, writing his play. As he starts reading out loud the list of his dramatis personae, the curtain opens and they materialize, one by one, in a pool of light. By the end of the list, they have formed an impressive tableau vivant. The play proceeds smoothly, with well-judged cuts, and the sets and costumes, though visibly shabby and poor, seem adequate in the light of the competent performances of the actors. But once we reach the end of Act 3, when civil war is about to erupt, the characters rebel and refuse to go on with the play as Shakespeare wrote it. Both the male and female characters dislike their parts and they summon Shakespeare and put him on trial. Shakespeare defends his right as an author entitled to do as he likes. Brutus, having killed Caesar for his dictatorial ambitions, now stabs Shakespeare in the name of freedom. The performance ends with Brutus and Shakespeare locked in a mortal embrace.
Mohamed Abdallah's adaptation and direction of Crime and Punishment for his troupe, 'Ihsas', was fittingly grim and depressing in terms of theme, music and visuals, but featured some good performances, particularly in the parts of Raskolnikov, which Abdallah himself played, and Sonia's alcoholic father. 'El-Zurqani' troupe's version of O'Neill's Gold, adapted and directed by Inji El-Gohary, in which greed for this precious metal destroys the crew and captain of a merchant ship, as well as the captain's whole family, was palpably amateurish, but sounded sufficiently didactic, like the kind of play Wahbi would have enjoyed doing. Unfortunately, Rasputin, which Mohamed Fu'ad was supposed to direct for 'Al-Ganib Al-Aakhar' (The Other Side) troupe, Ahmed Seif's Othello for the 'Cue' troupe and Ayman Mas'ood's adaptation of Bakathir's historical verse drama, Al-Hakim, which Hisham El-Sunbati, a talented director, was supposed to direct for the 'Orchid' troupe withdrew from the festival at the last minute. May be it was just as well in the case of Othello and Al-Hakim ; but I really would have loved to see what Mohamed Fu'ad and his team made of Rasputin.
The festival came into its own only twice, on the first night, when 'Al-Shoaf Al-Mughayer' (Seeing Differently, or Different Vision) troupe performed a substantially reduced version of Awlad Al-Fuqara (Children of the Poor), abridged and directed by Hisham Ali, and on the last night, when Safeer Guhannam (The Ambassador of Hell), by a troupe called 'Klasikiyyat Mu'asirah' (Contemporary Classics) brought the festival to a fitting end. The fact that 2 of Wahbi's plays, or, rather, film scripts, framed the event was some consolation. According to theatre scholar and historian Amr Dawwara, Awlad Al-Fuqara, first performed in 1931 and later made into a film in 1942, was a reworking of an 1889, 4-act German play by Hermann Sudermann called Die Ehre (Honour) that Wahbi presented in 1926 under the same name. Wahbi kept Sudermann's central theme -- the meaning of honour for the rich and the poor -- and plot outline (the dishonouring of the daughter of a poor family by the son of their wealthy patron and her brother's attempts to kill him in revenge), but Egyptianized the setting and characters and used the fourth act of one of his own earlier plays, called Al-Qubla Al-Qatilah (The Lethal Kiss), which he presented in 1929, in writing the fourth act of the new play (see (see 'Yusef Wahbi as Playwright" in Yusef Wahbi, the People's Artist, pp. 84-5). Judging by the film version of Awlad Al-Fuqara, the result of this concoction was a tearful, violent melodrama, full of undeserved suffering, naked evil and moral hectoring and ending with repentance and poetic justice.
Though the version we saw at El-Saqia was extensively pruned, with many details, scenes and chunks of the dialogue removed and all references to venereal diseases meticulously purged, it still had enough blood and tears and melodramatic thundering to make it great fun to watch. In view of the many scene changes, director Hisham Ali used the part of the auditorium below the stage and facing the front seats as an extension of the stage and began the performance with the last scene, projecting the events that preceded it as a flashback. The acting was predictably uneven, with some really good performances by some and very ham ones by the others. But one virtue of melodrama is that it does not require for its effectiveness sensitive, finely detailed realistic acting and can make a virtue of declamatory histrionics. And believe you me, melodrama, when taken seriously, can be great fun for any audience.
The Ambassador of Hell was more sophisticated, if you can speak of sophistication in a festival at this level. In this Faustian drama of an honest but poor school teacher who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth, wealth, power and love, comedy, rather than melodrama, had the upper hand, with a witty, lighthearted performance from Mohamed Mabrook as the Egyptian Faust, a number of lively, expressionistic dances for the devil's assistants and a simple, versatile stage design (by Mohamed Zikry) that consisted mainly of a huge screen at the back that could reflect different designs, light schemes and shadow scenes to fit the occasion and, with the help of a few props, suggest different sets. Though longer than the other items in the festival and containing many side stories, the performance was lucid, fast-moving and quite interesting. It was no surprise that it won the top award for best performance, together with 3 prizes for best actor, best actress and best scenography. Awlad Al-Fuqara came second and Julius Caesar came third. Hopefully, next time the great Wahbi is honoured, someone will take the trouble to watch the 21 or, possibly, more film versions he made of his plays and choose the ones that could still work today and give credit to their author.
8th Saqia Theatre Festival, 19-23 November, 2010.