Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

A forest of masks

Nehad Selaiha finds topical resonance and lots of fun in a provincial production of Alberto Moravia's La Mascherata

Though rendered into Arabic from the original Italian by Saad Aradash (the late great Egyptian director and theatre scholar) in 1987, Alberto Moravia's La Mascherata (The Masquerade, or Fancy Dress Party, as it is alternatively given in English) was not performed in Egypt until last month when director Amr Qabil staged it for Al-Sharqiyya National Theatre Troupe at Al-Zaqaziq Cultural Palace after 4 months of daily rehearsals and preparations. The project, while still in the making, seemed to alert the state-theatre organization to the importance of the play and its topical political relevance. Suddenly it became the focus of great interest and a grand, fat-budget production is planned by one of the major state-theatre companies in Cairo, with big star Nur El-Sherif in the leading part of the dictator.

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Based on a novel of the same title, the second edition of which was seized and banned by Mussolini's Fascist regime in 1941, forcing Moravia thereafter to write under a pseudonym, La Mascherata (1958) is a cynical, analytical exposition of the mechanisms of power and inner workings of the political game in totalitarian states. The setting is 'the present', in 'an imaginary republic', as the initial stage directions state, probably somewhere in Latin America, and the action unfolds in the grand villa of the Duchessa Maria Teresa Gorina, during preparations for a fancy dress party given in honour of General Tereso Arango, the military head of state, on a visit to that part of the country to open a new bridge. Soon enough, however, indeed as early as the prologue which opens the play, in which members of the secret police are disguised as servants and planted among the real ones, we realize that behind this openly planned festive masquerade there lies a veritable forest of masks.

All the characters, without exception, be they masters or servants, rulers or subjects, corrupt or innocent, wear some kind of disguise at one point or other, and the action they trigger consists of a series of interrelated, crisscrossing, often hilarious, even farcical, political and amorous intrigues involving lies, deception, pretence, subterfuge and concealment, and always motivated by a lust for power, sex, or money. But despite the sparkling comic surface and the gay opera bouffe atmosphere “ê" the lively mix-ups, servant shenanigans, romantic horseplay, and boudoir burlesque “ê" the world the play presents is a sinister one and carries a sombre warning. It is a world ruled over by a dictator and the list of the dramatis personae constitutes a virtual catalogue of all the familiar components of a totalitarian police-state.

At the top of the list is the military dictator, General Tereso Arango, an aging, bilious, swaggering, dictator, who rose to power after victory in a civil war, losing an arm in the process, and who, having consolidated his rule through terror, now believes himself sufficiently secure and popular to begin to think of giving his regime a new, more benevolent look. Next to him is his unscrupulous Chief of Police, Cinco, who, threatened with losing his power with the dictator since his brutal methods are no longer needed to subdue opposition, seeks to consolidate it by revealing to him, for once, the truth about the dismal state of affairs in the nation and the mounting discontent “ê" a truth artfully concealed from him by all his clique, thus arousing his fears of conspiracies, and goes a step further to plot a phony assassination attempt on the dictator's life and fake crushing it to enhance his popularity.

Aiding Cinco is the secret police apparatus, a network of spies and agents provocateurs, represented by the clever Perro “ê" a thorough Machiavellian cynic, with no convictions or loyalties, and only a passion for intrigue. Faithfull to his calling, he has cunningly passed himself off among the discontented proletariat as the head of one of the local branches of an imaginary secret revolutionary party plotting to overthrow the regime and managed to recruit some of its members. Duchess Gorina, an old, lascivious widow, who hosts the dictator to enhance her own prestige and offers him the young and luscious Marchesa Fausta Sanchez, another aristocratic widow, as sexual bait, represents, together with her party guests, who are more caricatures than characters, the fawning, wealthy upper classes who support the dictator and seek to curry favour with him at whatever cost to dignity, honour, or loyalty. A more forceful representative of this class, however, is Fausta, whose name is meant to indicate her insatiable greed, boundless sensuality and deceitful, immoral, calculating character, and who offers a more detailed exposition of the corruption and unconscionable venality that thrive and flourish in dictatorial regimes.

Though innocent and honest, Sebastiano Rivas, the romantic, impoverished country squire who passionately loves Fausta, and his illegitimate brother, the na≥ßve, fanatical Saverio, who ardently espouses the revolutionary cause and the idealistic dreams of the proletariat, are not spared and get embroiled in the grand masquerade. Both are forced into pretence and deceit and are in turn tragically deluded and deceived: while Saverio is recruited by the fake revolutionary Perro to carry out the fake assassination plot by faking the appearance of a footman and planting a fake bomb (which he takes for real) in the General's bathroom, during a fake love scene between the General and the false Fausta, and ends up shot dead, his brother, Sebastiano, volunteers to join the plot out of jealousy, for personal revenge, wearing the mask of a revolutionary, and ends up wailing over the corpse of his beloved.

As the play progresses, the masks multiply and the deceptions thicken, so that by the end the metaphor of reality under dictatorship as an endless, sinister, and thoroughly grotesque, immoral masquerade is solidly established. Karyn ReevesEven the book itself has something of a masked purpose: it is a kind of farce containing an analysis of the Italian fascist regime of Mussolini, but pretending to be the story of a dictatorship in an unnamed ex-Spanish colony somewhere "on the other side of the ocean".' One can say the same of the novel's 1958 dramatization.

To an Egyptian audience, however, it is not the fascist reign of Mussolini that watching La Mascherata would immediately bring to mind. Rather, they would see in it an imaginative, satirical replaying of their experience of military dictatorship since 1952 and a painfully bitter-sweet reflection of the current, obfuscating political masquerade, stage-managed by the ruling military council and performed, sometimes with some astounding improvisations, by the parliamentary majority parties and other political factions. It is this, perhaps, that drew director Amr Qabil to the play and decided him to stage it. Working with a provincial troupe, within the Cultural Palaces organization framework, however, imposes restrictions in terms of human, artistic and financial resources and allowed performance time. The text had to be cut almost by half and the 3 acts that would take at least 3 and a half hours to perform and require many sets had to be knocked together into a single, one and a half hour straight shot, with a basic single set and no intervals or blackouts.

Keeping his eye on what would be of most interest to his audience and significantly relate to their present reality, Qabil managed to produce an abridged version that marvelously kept close to the original text and sequence of events, merging some scenes, removing others and cleverly condensing the rest, always preserving the most significant and telling lines and character-revealing dialogue. Rather than reduce the play, Qabil's abridgement focused its astute, analytical exposition of the mechanisms of dictatorships, its core metaphor, as well as its inbuilt farcical element, general hilarity and comical wit. Qabil, however, allowed himself the liberty of adding very few sentences here and there, to bridge over omitted parts, clinch the meaning of syncopated scenes, or underline a point of great interest or relevance. The most memorable of these additions occurs in scene 11 of Qabil's version, which takes place in Duchess Gorina's bedroom. Watching a servant meekly asking Gorina for forgiveness after being slapped by her, the revolutionary Saverio, in servant disguise, comments: "we need a thousand revolutions before we can wipe out the stains this corrupt system has made on our souls." Qabil also used the masks of time, death and the devil that abruptly assail Fausta in Moravia's text in Act 3, scene 8, never to be seen again, as a recurrent motif, allowing them to appear briefly between scenes, as if they constantly haunt the world of the play and not just Fausta.

With a very inadequate budget, as Cultural Palaces budgets invariably are, and so many characters and scene changes, Qabil had to rely on the imaginative inventiveness and economic resourcefulness of his artistic crew. Stage and costume designer, Alaa Selim, produced generally decent, vaguely historical costumes, decking out the guests at the fancy dress party, at the director's suggestion, he admits, in black-and-white striped shirts, like the clich≥© of a chain-gang in caricatures and old movies, with ridiculously bizarre hats to boot, and came up with a composite, ornate set (a bit too cluttered, perhaps), representing several locations at once, private and public. Sometimes, a white sheet dropped down at the back, hiding all, and a few props were hastily introduced to suggest a lady's boudoir. Mohamed El-Tarooti's lighting contrived to camouflage the general poverty and shabbiness of the d≥©cor, endowing it with a semblance of opulence, and actively assisted in defining locations, highlighting emotions and enhancing moods. Ahmed Shaaban's incidental music was at once functional and unobtrusive, generating tension and atmosphere where required and accompanying the ominous, gruesome, fleeting capers of the 3 ghostly masks between the scenes.

Without good acting, however, not even the best technical crew in the world can make a play like La Mascherata get off the ground and successfully come across. Qabil has worked with this regional troupe for nearly 3 years now, directing them in 6 demanding plays, taking them through months of grueling rehearsals and fierce training before every production, always polishing their technique, honing their talents, bonding them together and infusing into them the spirit of 'an ensemble'. And the rewards have been great. From an insignificant, very modest regional body, Al-Sharqiyya National Theatre Troupe has transformed into one of the top Cultural Palaces theatre-making organs and boasts some of the most skilled and competent actors in the whole theatre sector of that organization. In last month's production of La Mascherata, Alaa Wahdan shone in the part of General Tereso, giving a finely shaded, sinisterly menacing and studiedly muted performance. Assuming a mask of urbane veneer, commanding decisiveness and dignified composure, he could still communicate with great eloquence the character's weaknesses and self-doubts, its moral fragility and sense of insecurity, suggesting them as the root causes behind its capacity for brutal ruthlessness and its ridiculous bursts of swaggering vanity.

As Perro, Fawzi Abdallah was the incarnation of a suave, cool, Machiavellian villain, satanically charming and deliciously wily. His cynical musings on the game of politics were delivered with a subtle, delightful mixture of seriousness and irony and he appeared throughout like a dexterous puppet master, effortlessly manipulating all the characters as if they were string marionettes, and feeling great relish and infinite pride in the display of his powers. The apex of his performance, however, was the ironic scene in which he tells the starry-eyed revolutionary, Saverio, decently played by Mohamed Aflaton, the honest truth about his being a spy, warning him of the evil he plans for him, only to have his words stoutly refuted and denied by the prospective victim. In this scene, Abdallah vividly brought to mind Shakespeare's Iago and his ironic caution to Rodrigo “ê" 'I am not what I am' “ê" in the opening scene of Othello.

The performances of the rest of the cast “ê" with Husam Subhi as Cinco. Mahmoud Saad as Sebastiano, Mohamed Abdel-Rahman as Contreras, the dictator's stupidly sycophantic and thick-headed secretary, Mahmoud Fawzi as Doroteo, the boyish golf-club bearer and Fausta's rough and eager secret lover, and Ahmed Hafiz as the head servant in Gorina's villa “ê" were uniformly accurate and lively, providing a rich display of talent and fervent dedication. It was also cheering and heart-warming to see such veteran members of the troupe as Badr El-Din Abu Ghazi, Mohamed Khalil, Wagdi Hamid and Sadiq Ibrahim rubbing shoulders with the army of young extras representing the servants and guests and gracefully accepting minor parts and playing them with unflagging zest.

With so many talented actors in the troupe, old and young, Qabil had no trouble casting the male parts. Unfortunately, however, casting female parts in regional productions is always a problem in view of the scarcity of local actresses and Qabil had no choice but to sacrifice the lively Giustina, replacing her with a male servant and severely curtailing her part. No such treatment would do for the 2 other major female characters, however, and once more Qabil, like most directors working in the provinces, had to resort to actresses from the capital. Luckily for him, the beautiful, sensitive and long-experienced May Reda was persuaded to take on Fausta, performing it with suitable verve and panache, while the youthful, little known but highly gifted comedian, Abeer Yusef, undertook the part of Duchess Gorina, delivering it as a hilarious caricature of an eagerly sensual, youth-clinging, decrepit female aristocrat. Both travelled almost daily from Cairo to Zaqaziq during the long months of rehearsals, expecting very little financial remuneration and practically no media exposure. Their passion for theatre and devotion to it are truly humbling.

Watching La Mascherata was pure joy and I will always recollect the experience with tender gratitude. My pleasure in the evening, however, was deeply clouded when I read in the play's progrmme Qabil's 'director's word'. In it he affectionately paid the group farewell, expressed his love and respect for all of them and thanked them most movingly for the joy he had in working with them and for their warm friendship and hospitality. He also remembered with profound sorrow and tenderness the ones that have fallen on the way, worn by the struggle with the invincible bureaucracy of the Cultural Palaces organization and the endemic, careless indifference, or positive, active hostility of its administrators. La Mascherata would be his last work with this ossified, antiquated, culture-loathing and theatre-hating establishment, he concluded. How many more artists have to prematurely die, or be forced to quit in time to save their souls, before this monolithic apparatus is thoroughly overhauled and put back on the right track?

La Mascherata (The Masquerade) by Alberto Moravia, translated by Saad Ardash as Al-Hafla Al-Tanakuriyya, directed by Amr Qabil for the Cultural Palaces' Al-Sharqiyya National Theatre Troupe at Al-Zaqaziq Cultural Palace, 20-24 March, 2012.

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