Business as usual
At the Creativity Centre, Nehad Selaiha finds solace but feels a pang
For months the theatre committee of the Supreme Council for Culture debated the future of theatre festivals in Egypt. Uppermost on its agenda was the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET), the last edition of which was held in 2010. To abolish it, or not to abolish it, was the virulently contentious question. While a few (Girgis Shukry and Maysa Zaki prominent among them) sensibly opposed the pernicious, time-hallowed tradition, dating back to the times of the Pharaohs, of obliterating any achievements realized under a deposed ruler, arguing that, notwithstanding its many shortcomings and glaring defects, the CIFET had built an international reputation over the years (it started in 1988) and won for itself many prestigious, world-famous loyal friends, and was, therefore, worth rehabilitating and preserving, the majority of the members were dead set on killing it, turning a deaf ear to the voice of reason. Ironically, those who had benefited most from that festival in terms of power, awards, media exposure and prestige were the loudest and most fervent in calling for its termination. It was as if in their eagerness to align themselves with the 'revolutionaries' and dissociate themselves from the so-called 'fulool' (remnants of the old regime), they were anxious to wipe out from the memory of the nation anything, whether good or bad, that once associated them with the ousted regime. Blinded by fear and self-interest, they were willing not only to blot out the best part of their own personal artistic and cultural history, but also to rob the Egyptian theatre, and, indeed, Arab theatre in general, of the valuable place it has at long last found on the international theatre map.
Like the CIFET, The Creativity Centre in the Opera grounds, which houses a cinema, a modern dance school and a theatre studio, was the brainchild of former minister of culture Farouk Husni. While the cinema was intended as a purveyor of high-quality movies from all corners of the world -- movies that cannot be seen anywhere else in Egypt -- thus expanding and refining the taste and knowledge of both filmmakers and movie buffs, the aim of both the dance school (formerly run by Walid Aouni and currently by Karima Mansour) and the theatre studio (managed by Khalid Galal from the start till now) was to scout for talent and provide young artists with excellent training in performance and theatre-making skills.
Over the years (the Theatre Studio came into being in 2003), Khalid Galal, gifted director with a fecund imagination, an indefatigable will and immeasurable powers of contrivance, aided by a team of experienced, dedicated experts and coaches, including director Isam El-Sayed, costume-designer Na'ima El-Agami, actress and elocution mistress Nagat Ali and choreographers/dance-masters Mohamed and Diaa, among others, has been churning out exciting new directors, all-round versatile performers and inventive stage and costume designers. Indeed, some of the best young directors around at present -- like Abeer Ali, Hani Afifi, Reem Higab, Islam Imam and Yasser El-Tobgi -- have passed through that theatre studio. It is true that none of them was a novice when she/he joined the studio; some had made theatre on the fringe for years, with independent or amateur troupes or at university, while the others had studied at the theatre institute. But it can equally be argued that their training at the studio has substantially expanded their minds, enriched their imagination, taught them new skills and made them more adventurous and daring. While talent and learning aptitude are the only criteria for applicants wanting to train as actors, a measure of previous experience is required for admission to the directing section. As Galal sees it, those who want to learn stage-directing from scratch should join the theatre institute or attend workshops for beginners. The studio's job is to hone, promote and shed light on already proven talent in this area.
I have been closely following with unabated excitement and unflagging enthusiasm the progress of the theatre studio since its inception and have seen all its demonstration-performances and graduation projects. These are always festive, joyful occasions, and some of those projects -- like the improvisation workshop's mime and movement Forced Landing, directed by Khalid Galal who runs this workshop, the direction workshop's Five Versions of King Lear by Young Directors under the supervision and guidance of Isam El-Sayed (both in 2004), Qahwa Saada (Turkish Coffee, Black, No Sugar), constructed out of the cast's improvisations and directed by Khalid Galal in 2008, and I Am Hamlet, directed by Hani Afifi in 2009 --represented Egypt in the CIFET international competition, winning different awards, and toured successfully in the Arab world.
Unlike the CIFET, the Creativity Centre's Theatre Studio has survived the destructive bent of the times and Khalid Galal and his team were able carry on with their efforts, work in relative peace and finally put on display the fruits of their labour at the appointed time. 'Ard Khass I (Special Performance I), which opened at the beginning of July and ran for nearly a fortnight, proved really special in a most unexpected way. It turned out to be a quadruple bill, consisting of 4 different plays, by 4 different directors (three of them women, I am happy to say), and lasting all in all only one hour. A crazy idea, one might think; but director Isam El-Sayed, who envisioned this project for his class of 4 directors, would disagree. To dramatize a short story -- whether by an unknown writer, as in Hani Abdel Nasser's Tamtheel fi Tamtheel (It's All An Act), or by one as famous as Tawfiq El-Hakim, as in Marwa Radwan's Laylat Al-Zifaf (Wedding Night), or condense a full-length play -- Yusra el-Sharqawi's version of Lorca's Blood Wedding, or Wissam Osama's rendering of Peter Turrini's Shooting Rats, into a 12-minute performance is a lesson in economy. Indeed, El-Sayed would tell you that it is an exercise in grasping the basic essentials of a text and reaching to its very core. Besides, it gives the artist the freedom to present in a very clear, concise way not only her own reading of the text, but also her commentary on it.
Of the four 12-minute performances, two were serious in mood, verging on the tragic, though shot through with flashes of somber humour and visual grotesquery; the other two treated their subjects satirically, with lots of comedy and pointed burlesque. Hani Abdel Nasser's Tamtheel fiTamtheel visually split the lonely figure sitting in a lonely room, in front of a mirror, talking to himself, in the original story, into two people, so that the long monologue on the boredom, futility and falsity of life became a dialogue, with visible conflicting wills, and set many parts of that dialogue to music, so that the piece became a miniscule musical, proficiently sung and danced by Adel El-Husseini and Sherif El-Khayyam.
Wissam Osama's Shooting Rats, which features a young couple dating for the first time on a rubbish dump and seeks to expose the dehumanizing futility of consumerist society and call upon us to recognize and shake off the piles of junk under which we hide our true selves, was presented with force and visual flair and inventiveness. Cutting down the spoken dialogue to a few sentences, she relied on movement and costume to convey the message of the play. In the first part of the performance, Evie (Marwa Himdan) and Adam (Mahmoud Soliman), the girl and boy in Turrini's play, move and talk like robots, and while the former is grotesquely dressed in frills and lace and pink satin, together with a blonde wig, and looks exactly like a gaudy doll, the latter, immoderately thin, tall and emaciated, looks like a famished, ghostly vagrant. When the couple agree to cast off their borrowed robes and show their true selves, the contrast in terms of looks and movement is stunning. A sense of liberation dominates the scene as they gracefully dance around. But suddenly, a shot is heard and Evie collapses. Society cannot bear too much reality, it is clearly spelt, nor can it tolerate freedom either.
But Shooting Rats did not follow immediately after All An Act; the somberness of mood in both would have been too heavy on the audience. To vary the mood, Isam El-Sayed inserted Yusra El-Sharqawi's hilarious parody of Lorca's Blood Wedding between them. Yusra reset the play in Upper Egypt, which, as she said in the few introductory words allowed each of the four directors, resembles in traditions, customs and temperament the Spanish countryside. She reduced the 10 characters in the original play to 4 -- the Bride, the Groom, the Groom's Mother and the Lover -- and cut out everything but their confrontations. These confrontations, however, though they kept to their original order in the play, were pared down to a few sentences each and those sentences were delivered in a farcically melodramatic way, in an exaggerated parody of the Upper Egyptian dialect that had the audience roaring with laughter. There was hardly any movement at all. The characters stood separately round the stage and were picked up by the light at the beginning of every scene so that we never saw them cross from one spot to the other and the effect was that of a comic strip. That the bride was also almost 3 times as large and heavy as either her lover or groom strengthened this effect and was a source of irrepressible hilarity. Yusra's delightful cast (Mona Gamal, Hamdi El-Tayeh, Dina Mohsen and Ahmed Yehia) seemed infected with the same spirit of mirth; they played with zest and vivacity and seemed to enjoy every minute of the performance.
The last play was Marwa Radwan's dramatization in 5 very brief scenes of a story called Wedding Night. In the first, the bride Riham Sami), at last alone with her handsome, eager groom (Sherif Nabil), confesses to him that she loves another and they agree to avoid the scandal of a quick divorce by keeping up the appearance of a happy married couple for a while. In the second we see them asleep, the woman on top of a high table, dressed to look like a bed, and the husband underneath it. Both are quarrelsome and cannot seem to get used to each other's sleeping habits. Next we see them faking a brawl for the benefit of the bride's mother to prepare her for the idea of divorce. Then we see the husband with a bandaged head after a fight with his bride's lover who tried to drag her away against her will and she promptly confesses to her nominal husband that she has discovered that her former lover was a worthless good-for-nothing and asks for the husband's forgiveness and to make their marriage real. Then suddenly, the spirit of parody overwhelms all and the couple burlesques a song-and-dance love duet taken from some Indian movie. Immediately, they are joined by all the actors in the previous plays, all dancing in frenzy, and a mood of boisterous revelry seizes all present. Suddenly, the gloom that had weighed upon me for weeks seemed to lift off and I was inspired with hope, with a sense of joyful defiance. Come what may, I shall place my trust in the wonderful young artists of Egypt.