Revisiting the classics
Nehad Selaiha wonders at the abiding attraction of one classic and mourns the sad Egyptian premiere of another
I wonder if theatre students all over the world are as fond of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie as ours at the theatre institute in Cairo seem to be? There, together with a handful of other plays with similar meaty parts and a strong melodramatic streak, it is regularly unearthed and frequently features in end-of-year and graduation projects. This question first crossed my mind years ago when, going as far as China in the company of two colleagues to visit an educational acting establishment in Guangzhou, we were offered no less a treat by our generous hosts than a performance of the said play, which, I was surprised to discover, had established a strong foothold even there.
One can understand the attraction of the play to budding actors, directors and even set- designers. The encounter, on board a barge, after a separation of 15 years, between an irresponsible, guilt-ridden father and his long- forsaken daughter and the eventual discovery that this daughter, whom he believes to be an innocent child, was in fact raped by a member of the family that brought her up and has since been forced into prostitution by the necessity to eke out a living, is very strong melodramatic stuff. Add to this that the said parent, once a brave sea captain in the great days of wind jammers in Sweden, is now an old, disillusioned man, whom the sea has robbed of his nearest and dearest, and who has been reduced to working as the skipper of a coal barge running between New York and Boston -- in other words, a bit of a romantic hero fallen on hard times and come down in the world; add too that, in preparation for the arrival of his daughter from whom he receives a card appointing the date, he mercilessly drives out a kind, helpless prostitute, who has been his long time mistress; that a gigantic but child-like shipwrecked sailor suddenly arrives on the scene, picked up by the barge, and falls in love with the fallen daughter, believing her to be an angel in human form; and that both men, the father and the lover, in their ignorance of the reality of the eponymous heroine, fight over her, and the play becomes simply irresistible.
It was not, therefore, surprising that Ahmed Ragab, a recent graduate of the Theatre Institute at the Academy of Arts in Cairo, chose Anna Christie for his professional debut as director at Al-Tali'a theatre, using an abridged, adapted version, by Osama Nureddin, in which, at the end, rather than await the return of her lover to marry her, as he finally makes up his mind to do despite her sinful past, Anna walks off to commit suicide. Nor was it surprising either that he cast Nihad Sa'id, also a recent graduate of the same institute, in the title role, and chose his artistic crew -- Amr Shu'eib (set-design), Rihab Abdel-Rahman (costumes) and Wa'el Rida (incidental music and sound-effects) -- from among his colleagues there. With Anna Christie, they were all on sure, familiar ground, having studied the play and probably gone through a performance of it, or seen their colleagues do so in their student days. Indeed, in all respects, including the abridgement of the play, which is never acted in full in student projects, and but for the casting of TV star Sa'id Abdel Ghani as captain Chris Christopherson and Nadia Shukry, an older actress, as his companion, Marthy, the production bore all the marks and had the air of a graduation project -- and I don't necessarily mean this in a derogative sense.
Everything was done exactly as it should be and by the book, as it were. The costumes were explicitly denotative in terms of cut and colour (to an almost embarrassing degree, perhaps); the realistic set, of a barge deck, with a cabin on one side and the dark sea for a backdrop, was studiedly detailed, displaying all the paraphernalia conventionally associated with such a setting -- ropes, lifebuoys, barrels and bottles of booze -- and looked neat and spruce, as if freshly arrived from the scenery or carpenter's workshop; and Nihad Sa'id, as Anna, acted with obvious conscientious attention to tone, mood and gesture and was clearly out to impress the audience; not only did she strive to display all the skills she had been drilled into as a student, she was also careful never to allow us to forget that she was doing so.
Nadia Shukry, a seasoned theatre actress though little known, entered into the student-like spirit of the show, matching the studied earnestness of Nihad Sa'id, with whom she had half of her scenes. But you couldn't expect a handsome, established and spoilt TV star of immense popularity, like Sa'id Abdel-Ghani, to fall into step and take the march seriously. Elegantly dressed, no doubt at his own insistence, in a well-cut, flattering sea-captain's suit of immaculate whiteness, he pranced about the stage like a dandy, flirting with the audience when he forgot his lines, which was the case more often than not, and delivering the ones he remembered (thanks to the prodding and prompting of the actors) in the sophisticated, debonair manner of a society fop. At no point in the performance did he seem to take his part, or the play, in earnest, looking as if he had wandered into it by mistake, thinking it was a commercial comedy; and whenever he was urged and persuaded by the tone and manner of Sa'id or Shukry to simulate a degree of seriousness, he invariably looked as if he was parodying the character he was supposed to impersonate. Rather than O'Neill's romantically rugged hero, raging at the mighty sea, Abdel-Ghani was the nearest thing to a drawing room gallant, or an aged, philandering beau out of some restoration comedy.
But vexing and disconcerting as Abdel-Ghani must have been to manage and keep in reign, director Ahmed Ragab and his virtually unknown cast were glad to get him, thinking that something of his glamour might rub off on them and that his name and popularity would attract audiences and critics and guarantee wide coverage by the media and success at the box-office. Sadly, nothing of this has happened. Rather than inspire his young partners on stage, Abdel-Ghani seemed intent on marring the performances of the two actresses and, worse still, set the 2 young males in the cast (Magdi Rashwan, as the rescued Mat Burke, and Hassan Nooh, as the Captain's errand boy) a bad example, disastrously luring them into adlibbing for laughs and playing up to the audience. Nor has the play done well at the box-office; notwithstanding the star's presence, the auditorium was all but empty the night I was there and I am told on authority that this has not been unusual since it opened.
I had higher hopes of Sherif Hamdi's production of Ibsen's Little Eyolf, the first in Egypt as far as I know, even though I guessed from its being billed as an independent venture, partly subsidized by the Norwegian embassy in Cairo, to be performed in the Rawabet garage-theatre downtown, that it would be a frugal, small-budget affair with no known actors. I expected some cuts of course, no classic nowadays is performed without them; but since the play is one of Ibsen's shortest and most sparsely plotted, I hoped they would not be many. I also expected lots of doom and gloom, given that the play centers on the death of a crippled child and the grievous consequences of this to his parents; nevertheless, I hoped that Hamdi's Alfred Allmers and his wife Rita -- the 2 bereaved parents in the play -- would not overdo the grieving and recrimination and skirt clear of sentimentality and declamation.
Sad to say, all my hopes were dashed. The text was so savagely reduced as to leave nothing but a few sentences of each scene, like dangling tags or labels; the meager set looked slovenly and dismally shabby; the lighting was consistently ghostly, obliterating both the actors and set and sinking everything in shadows; the performers' feeble attempts at emotional restraint were loudly mocked by recorded sentimental songs and the whole performance was drowned by Mohamed Gharib in a turgid sea of lugubrious music. What an insult this was to Ibsen and what damage to his reputation among those of the predominantly young audience for whom this was their first introduction to his work!