A year of revolutionary theatre
Nehad Selaiha gives a bird's eye view of the Egyptian theatre scene in 2011
Theatre has been active in the Egyptian revolution since its eruption on 25 January 2010. During the Tahrir Square 18-day long sit in, which brought Mubarak down, theatre artists made their presence very much felt. With collectively improvised stories, sketches, songs and dances they helped their fellow revolutionaries keep up their morale, fight off the bitter cold and, in between skirmishes, some of them bloody, mourn the martyrs and while away the long days and nights of the long, long suspenseful wait. Mubarak's ouster only marked the end of the first phase of the revolution; it still continues, as the recent bloody events in downtown Cairo amply bear witness. And throughout its inspiring yet painful progress, its ups and downs, young theatre artists have tried to keep pace with the events.
Click to view caption|
'The same sober, somber mood persisted through the autumn and still colours many of the performances offered at present. It is as if the revolution has to start all over again'
The first phase of the revolution yielded a rich crop of performances that sought to salvage, document and store in the collective memory the stories of the people in Tahrir Square, both living and dead, though narration and first or second- hand live testimonies. Suddenly there was a powerful upsurge of a new branch of documentary theatre that has been absent from the Egyptian theatre scene -- namely: verbatim theatre. And it was mostly offered by independent groups, through untraditional or fringe venues, in the courtyard of Al-Hanager, at Manf Hall, Rawabet, and the on the campuses of some universities. Outstanding examples of this type of performances were Dalia Basiouny's Tahrir StoriesI, Hani Abdel Naser's By the Light of the Revolution Moon and Pages from the Tahrir Diary, and Laila Soliman's No Time for Art. At the heart of this documentary effort was an ardent wish to record what that brief, 18-day utopia in Tahrir Square had meant and done to those who experienced it and to mourn and honour those who fell defending it.
Inspired by the same wish, young artists in the mainstream (state) theatre staged similar performances, albeit more technically elaborate, in March and April, like Mohamed El-Gheiti's Ward El-Ganayen (Garden Roses), first presented at Al-Salam then at the big hall of the Floating theatre, and Sameh Basiouny's A Ticket to Tahrir Square, collaboratively written by the performers in an improvisation workshop conducted by Yusef Muslim at Al-Tali'a (Avant-garde) theatre, with lyrics by Mohamed El-Azayzi, music by Ahmed Hamdi Ra'of and scenography by Fadi Fouquet. Both featured scenes from the Tahrir demonstrations, punctuated by songs, video projections, individual statements and several personal stories and monologues of varying length. About the same time too, the Cultural Palaces organization stepped in, staged a big event on the same themes, called Hikayat Yanayer (Tales of January) at Manf hall, which hosted 5 independent performances, plus concerts, films, political colloquia, a book fair and a photography exhibition.
In those early months of the year, the poignancy of the pieces that spoke of the martyrs was softened by a joyful sense of liberation and a festive mood that permeated a spate of performances that at once satirically looked back at what Egyptians had suffered under Mubarak and celebrated his downfall. It Was a Misunderstanding, collectively improvised and directed by Mohamed Mabrouk, and Hamada Shousha's Sahra Thawriyya (An Evening Celebrating the Revolution), also collectively devised by the members of his troupe, with music by Hussein Abu Al-Derda' and choreography by Rasha and Leebi, both presented at Manf Hall, as well as Hikayet Midan (Story of a Square), by the Fannaneen Masriyeen (Egyptian Artists) troupe, conceived, directed and partly written by Amr Qabil, and presented at. Beit Al-Umma Cultural Centre for 3 nights in April, were political cabaret shows, consisting in varying degrees of poems, music, songs, brief, satirical sketches, mime acts, some storytelling and group dances. Though predominantly humorous and vastly entertaining, there were moments when the feeling of elation and the celebratory mood gave way to profound grief and sorrow over fallen friends and comrades. In the state theatre, Al-Nafiza (Window), written and directed by Sa'id Suliman at Al-Ghad theatre in May, and Bahig Ismael's Qoom Ya Masri (Rise Up, Egyptian), a mixture of history, comedy, fantasy and patriotic outpourings, directed by Isam El-Shweikh and staged by Al-Mutagawil (Travelling) theatre company at the International Park Theatre, Nasr City, partook of the same celebratory mood while looking further back, beyond Mubarak's reign, and the reigns of Sadat and Nasser before him, to search for the roots of despotism and oppression in the deeper layers of Egyptian history and cultural heritage.
By July, the summer heat seemed to evaporate the dewy dreams of utopia, and in the performances that still looked back in anger and celebrated the revolution one could clearly detect a note of forced cheerfulness, so hungry and eager, so fierce in its determination to be hopeful, to turn a blind eye to the present and cling to the Utopian image of Tahrir Square in the early days of the revolution, and yet so painfully conscious of being unsustainable. How easy it is to look back in anger and theatrically rehash and trot out grievances on which all agree; how much more difficult to confront a painfully confused and confusing reality and peer into a future hitherto dim and foggy. Commedia Al-Ahzaan (Commedy of Sorrows), by Ibrahim El-Husseini, directed by Sameh Megahed and presented at Al-Ghad Theatre in July, captured this state of mind. And so did Malameh, (Features), at Yusef Idris Hall. In both there was a sober realization of the burden of long years of oppression that has eroded much that was good and honourable in the Egyptian character and that this heritage of oppression could not so easily be shaken off, that the road to a socially fair, free and democratic nation would be long and arduous. Indeed, as early as April this year, the Youth theatre's Beit El-Naffadi (House of Naffadi Alley), a political whodunit by Mohamed Mahrous, directed by Karim Maghawri and presented at Yusef Idris Hall, Al-Salam theatre, had warned against the effects of this heritage.By August, and not surprisingly, in view of the many sorrowful events that seemed to render the revolution void of meaning, a note of warning, sometimes subtle, sometimes loud and direct, crept into all the staged shows on the fringe and in the mainstream. While Abeer Ali's and her Al-Misaharati troupe's Mr. X, performed on a makeshift stage in front of Al-Hanager, and Feeh Eeh Ya Masr? ( Egypt, what's up?), conceived and directed by Yasir Sadiq, with text and lyrics by Sirag El-Din Abdel-Qadir, and presented at Al-Salam theatre, dwelt on the dangers of sectarian conflicts, Laila Soliman's Doroos fi Al-Thawra (Lessons in Revolting: a physical and visual political column), choreographed by Karima Mansour and presented at Rawabet, warned against the dangers of renewed military dictatorship and bore witness to the abuses of the supreme military council in rule, and the National theatre's Hikayat El-Nas fi Thawret 19 (Tales of People in the 1919 Uprising), conceived and directed by Ahmed Isma'il and presented at Miami theatre, juxtaposed the 1919 uprising and that of 25 January, forcing the audience to critically compare the two, and powerfully embodied a warning against the forces of darkness (namely, the Islamists and Salafis) that threaten to engulf the latter.
Other productions of the same period, like the Comedy theatre's Nothing to Laugh About, staged at main hall of the floating theatre in Giza, the Cultural Palaces' Tricks in the Bag, at Manf Hall, Through Salah Jahin's Eyes, a joint production by Al-Tali'a and Al-Arayes (Puppets) companies, and Alouli Hena (They Said It's Here), a mime performance by the Cairo Acting School in collaboration with the Dutch Cultural Centre, directed by Guido Kleene and Jochem Stavenuiter (from the Netherlands) and presented at Rawabet, questioned the limits of tolerance, and wondered if a people raised in the shadow of despotism and corruption can cope with democracy.
The same sober, somber mood persisted through the autumn and still colours many of the performances offered at present. It is as if the revolution has to start all over again. Watching Mahmoud Abodoma's the Alternative Theatre troupe's Sotoor min Dafater Masr: Infagiru aw Mootu (Lines from Egypt's Diary: Explode or Die), a collection of recited ancient Egyptian texts and poems by Salah Abdel Sabour, Amal Donqol, Alfred Farag, Naguib Sorour and Anas Dawood, with musical accompaniment by the popular Massar Igbary (Compulsory Direction) pop group, at the French Cultural Centre in Alexandria last week, I felt as if the revolution was yet to begin. The performance was part of an Arab theatre event, significantly called 'Reveille', independently staged in place of the annual, state-funded Independent Theatre Mediterranean Forum, which the Bibliotheca Alexandrina failed to run this year. Tunis, Syria and Jordan were all strongly present with stirring performances, and classes and workshops were offered with the help of the Swedish Institute, the Goethe Institute, the Swiss Prohelvatia, Sida, and the French Cultural Centre in Alexandria.
Introducing this 'Reveille: Arab Theatre Gathering', Abodoma wrote in the event's booklet: ' Reveil is an Arab theatre gathering, a wake-up call that seeks to promote awareness of social and political changes and their cultural repercussions. ... We aim to transcend the narrow limits of time and place. We find echoes of what is happening now in Egypt in Palestine, Jordan and Syria. We observe that what is happening in Tunisia has stirred Yemen and Iraq. We seek to awaken Damascus, Amman, Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo and Sana'a. We seek to remove the long stock layers of dust off our body. We seek to lead the way to broad prospects, to reach every Arab citizen to hear our wakeup call, our Reveil. ' Does not this sound like a call to revolt long after we thought the revolution had already started?
One would think that in such a revolutionary atmosphere the classics of world and Arab drama would have no place. One would be wrong though. In more than one performance we have seen the classics reworked to fit the moment. As early as May this year, Jose Triana's La Noche de los Asesinos ( Night of the Assassins) -- a complex, intriguing and technically elaborate masterpiece that, as Diana Taylor has pointed out (in her essay, 'Framing the Revolution', Latin American Theatre Review, Fall, 1990, pp. 81- 92), 'questions the nature and meaning of revolution, ...conflating parricide and rebellion' to identify 'the patriarchal family' as 'the primal model of political government,' as Aristotle described it, and argue for the need to dismantle this model in favour of a new social order -- was adapted and directed by Tamer Karam and presented at Salah Abdel Sabour Hall, Al-Tali'a theatre. Projected against the backdrop of current events in Egypt, this Egyptian version of La Noche de los Asesinos came across not only as a call to overthrow oppressive, authoritarian systems, but also, and more significantly perhaps, as a subtle, ironic comment on the political scene in Egypt and a sobering warning against the pitfalls that beset all revolutions -- namely, violence, disorder, irrational fear, fanatical aggression and power struggles, not to mention breeding new dictators to replace the old ones.
Also in May, Sa'dalla Wannoos's Al-Feel Ya Malik Al-Zaman (The Elephant, O King of All Time!), a cautionary tale against the consequences of fear and cowardice in the face of tyrants, was staged by the students of English Department, Cairo University, Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, translated and adapted by Osama Nureddin and directed by Ahmed Ragab, was presented at Al-Tali'a theatre, and Ibsen's equally anti-patriarchy Little Eyolf, directed by Sherif Hamdi, was aired at Rawabet. Soon afterwards, the Youth theatre staged Dario Fo's Isabella, Three Tall Ships, and a Con Man, a farcical political satire about the councils of ossified intellectuals and scientists in the employ of rulers, in the small hall of the Floating theatre in Giza, rechristened The Boat and the Bad Guys.
In August, Lenin El-Ramly reworked and directed an old play of his, condensing it to give its detective plot an ironical metaphoric dimension that satirizes the feverish eagerness of every political faction in Egypt today to claim for itself alone the honour of having brought down Mubarak, whereas, according to the author, it was Mubarak himself who put an end to his political life. It was presented on the roof of the Cinema Cultural Palace under the title: Al-Garima Al-Kamila (The Perfect Crime). Another classic of Arab drama -- Saadallah Wannoos's Rites of Signs and Changes -- surfaced in October at the American University, adapted by Effat Yehia, a pioneer of the independent theatre movement in Egypt, to reflect the current Egyptian political scene and also directed by her . In the same month, Arthur Miller's The Witches of Salem (alternatively titled The Crucible ), translated by Abdel Mon'im Al-Hifni and abridged and directed by Gamal Yacout, graced Al-Tali'a theatre, sounding the alarm against the possible danger of religious terror in Egypt should the Salafis come to power.
Of theatre festivals, 2011 had but a few. The cancellation by the ministry of culture of the annual Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) was a bitter disappointment and occasioned a lot of dismay among theatre artists, critics and scholars both at home and abroad. However, one found some solace in the governorate of Hilwan's School Theatre festival , held in April at the Balloon Theatre, in the "noTHEREthere" festival of one-act Plays , held in May by the Department of Performing and Visual Arts of the American University in Cairo at its Malak Gabr Theatre in New Cairo, and in Al-Sakia's Independent Theatre Festival, held in August..
In August too, the Cultural Palaces organization held it 37th regional theatre festival in a tent erected on the site where its El-Samer theatre used to stand, bringing to Cairo the best performances produced by cultural homes, palaces and provincial national companies all over the country in the past 12 months, The productions, numbering 14, were all adaptations of local and foreign texts, executed in eager pursuit of political topicality and relevance, and all were thickly overlaid with songs and group dances that focused on the suffering of the people under Mubarak and the many ills of his regime and celebrated the popular uprising that brought it down.
But, as I wrote in my review for this paper on 25 August (Issue No. 1062), the really inspiring feature in that festival was 'the strong presence, in most casts, of female performers -- usually hard to find in provincial theatre. Veiled or otherwise, young or mature, with some acting experience or treading the boards for the first time, they seemed to send a message of defiance to the Salafi puritanical views of theatre and women. Whatever the quality of their acting, and some seemed naturally talented indeed and were really very good, what was of real significance here was that they defied repressive traditions, clung to their rights to public speaking and performance and affirmed it in action, without fear or shame, and believed that they were doing something good and honourable, of value to themselves and the community, pleasurable to all and not offensive to God.' I wound up saying that 'I looked forward to the day when the veiled young actress from Quilleen would not feel so disconcerted and thrown off balance by her head scarf slipping back to reveal her hair, as happened in The Dowry, and when the taboo on male/female touching on stage would be lifted, sparing the veiled actress, who played Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and many others like her, the irksome trouble and embarrassment of manipulating the two ends of a long scarf, draped round her neck, as substitutes for her hands whenever they were called for -- an exercise that put her in mortal danger of strangulation at one point .'