A grim prophecy in festive robes
Nehad Selaiha watches the first fruit of a cooperation protocol between the State Theatre and Cultural Palaces organisations
So far, the 25 January revolution has effected no material change in the structure, organization, working methods, or funding policies of the public theatre sector. Nor was such a change to be credibly expected in view of the rapid succession of ministers of culture we have had so far (5 ministers in less than 2 years). Key positions in the ministry remain in the hands of the same old familiar faces, all nearing the age of retirement, and are bandied about amongst them in the semblance of a ridiculous game of musical chairs. No wonder that the upgrading of poet Saad Abdel Rahman to the post of head of the Cultural Palaces organization, where he served for years, or the transference of Naser Abdel Mon'im from the headship of the National Theatre Centre to that of the State Theatre Sector have left things pretty much the same as they found them and both seem happy to let the old, halting machines creak along on the same old rusty rails until such time as they inevitably grind to a stop. No fresh visions or reform plans have come from either. More depressingly still, no word from Abdel Mon'im about the long delayed restoration of the National theatre, destroyed by fire on Saturday, 27 September, 2008 and still in ruins, and no word from Abdel Rahman about rebuilding El-Samer theatre, recklessly pulled down in 1985 to be replaced by an ambitious theatrical complex that never materialized.
With the same endemic bureaucracy still bedeviling the Cultural Palaces and crippling its performance, and with the State Theatre growing more anaemic, presenting fewer plays of poorer quality than before the revolution, it was natural, perhaps, that the two organizations should lean on each other for support. Rather than individually address their basic problems and initiate reform, the 2 organisations have recently signed a 'cooperation protocol' which allows troupes belonging to both establishments to pool their resources and work together in joint productions. The first fruit of this project was Madad Ya Shikanara! (Succor, O Shikanara!), a co-production by the Youth State Theatre and Al-Samer Cultural Palaces Company, written by Mohamed Amin Abdel Samad and directed by Adel Hassan. It opened on 9 July (and is still running at the time of writing this article) in a colourful, roofless marquee, pitched for the occasion on the derelict site of the old demolished El-Samer.
Though the show was good, as I shall soon demonstrate, the choice of venue, if it can be called a choice, was painfully ironical. Here were two major theatre-making state organizations, joining forces in a worthy initiative, and the only space they could come up with to house it was this rugged, rat-infested, walled-in piece of waste land! This alone speaks volumes about the dire shortage of suitable performance spaces in Egypt and the decades-long criminal neglect of the infrastructure of theatre. Not only is the Samer company without a home, but so is also the Youth theatre. It has recently lost its original modest venue, the Yusef Idris small hall at El-Salaam theatre, which is the headquarter of the Modern State Theatre Company, when the whole building, with its two halls, rehearsal spaces and offices, was declared unsafe and put out of action after a minor fire in the basement of the adjacent Academy of Scientific Research, to which the theatre originally belonged before it was rented (or taken over) by the ministry of culture.
As a result, the Modern Theatre Company has temporarily taken refuge in Al-Hanager Centre, thus usurping for a time, and may be forever, the only state-run place in Cairo that is supposed to nurture independent artists and theatre troupes. Moreover, the Youth Theatre's other, modest venue “ê" the Small hall of the Floating Theatre in Giza (originally the home base of the Children's Theatre Company) “ê" is currently closed for repairs and maintenance, and so is the big hall of the same theatre which serves as the venue of The Comedy Theatre Company. With so many homeless companies and such few venues to go round, not to mention the bureaucracy, mismanagement meager budgets and outdated technical equipment, theatre-making in Egypt has become a real nightmare. And yet, artists go on making theatre, distilling magic out of the ugly, the painful and the mundane
The primitiveness and technical shortcomings of the venue were uppermost in my mind as I made my way to see Shikanara. I had seen scores of visiting provincial shows in that same spot, shabbily mounted on small, rickety, make-shift stages, with pathetic lighting and sound facilities, drab curtains and no wings, and had unfailingly writhed with embarrassment for the poor actors. This time, however, as soon as I stepped inside the tent, all my fears were dispelled. Stage designer Mohamed Gaber had made a virtue of all the evils of the place, transforming the derelict site of the demolished El-Samer into a brilliantly lit fairground, in an old quarter of Cairo, during preparations for an annual celebration of some holy sheikh. It struck me as an Egyptian version of what I have always imagined the setting of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fayre (a comedy written in 1614) to look like. At the back of the gaily coloured marquee, near the entrance, was a modest, make-shift caf≥©, selling a variety of hot and cold drinks to the audience, in the middle, a children's roundabout, on one side at the far end, a puppet sideshow, on the other, facing it, a live band of folk musicians and singers in their long, traditional robes and turbans, while two painted clowns in motley, a dervish in rags, with rosaries and strings of beads round his neck and swinging a censer, and a fortuneteller in a gypsy costume moved freely among the seated audience, talking and joking with them. One side of the marquee was built to look like a typical old Cairene alley, with a domed holy shrine, a traditional, popular caf≥©, a newsstand, some shops, and a high archway, suggesting other alleys beyond, and flanked on both sides with attics, rooftops and lattice windows. It would have been wonderful had that structure extended to enclose the whole space within, spreading the action round the audience and allowing them to walk freely around or move their seats as they liked. This, however, would have required more extras, raw material and work and proved all together too expensive. As it was, when the show proper began, the carnival atmosphere retreated to the built side of the marquee, which remained the only lit place and, except for occasional forays by the clowns among the audience, was the sole acting area.
The curious, intriguing title of the play, Madad Ya Shikanara, is deliberately facetious and pointedly satirical; it blatantly joins the sacred and profane, using the word 'madad' (Succor), a prayer or call for help strictly reserved by tradition for sacred figures, to address an imaginary burlesque of a holy man carrying a funny-sounding, nonsensical name. Judging by his name, this Shikanara was most likely a charlatan, an invention of a conman, a figment of some crazed imagination, or a creation of a mind stuffed with drugs or steeped in alcohol. His shrine, however, or, rather, the lucrative, influential job of 'shrine servant', which carries immense power and authority, is the focus of the play and its primum mobile. When the job falls vacant due to the death of its holder, the conflict erupts over whom to succeed him. The conflict divides the alley dwellers, triggering words and deeds that reveal the socioeconomic structure of this little community (a microcosm of Egypt), its clashing interests and ideological differences. Though the wealthy merchants and the leaders of various religious sects vie for the job among themselves, they, nevertheless, band together against the working poor and join forces with the police to wheedle, cheat, and/or terrorize them. Needy, ignorant, and long intimidated, the working poor are at first reluctant to defy their oppressors and waste time quarrelling among themselves over trifles and nursing petty feuds and grudges, thus becoming more vulnerable and easier to infiltrate and deceive. Eventually, however, they are aroused by the intellectual rebel Ghareeb (Stranger in Arabic) who comes amongst them from no-one-knows-where and earns his living as a waiter in the alley's caf≥©. He preaches resistance, unity and the sharing of power through democratic elections and eventually succeeds in getting them to choose a candidate from among their own ranks and to go to the polls and cast their votes.
Suddenly, however, Ghareeb disappears as mysteriously as he appeared and is rumoured to have been killed. Subsequently, the elections are rigged by the policeman and his agents in favour of the candidate supported by the regime and all the groups “ê" the working people, the business men, and the warring religious factions “ê" are furious and suspicious and hurl accusations of treachery and collusion with the regime at each other. The play ends with a gang of long-bearded, white-robed, fierce-looking and gun-waving Salafis suddenly invading the alley through the archway, as if to quell all fights and impose their laws. Whether they will take over the shrine or not is a question the play leaves open. The final scene is a tableau vivant in which all the parties in the conflict, including the newcomers, stand still, glaring at each other.
But this is not the only question the play leaves open; another and more intriguing one concerns the shrine; that it is a metaphor is obvious; but a metaphor for what? For Egypt? For political power? For political Islam? It is a credit to Mohamed Amin Abdel Samad, the author of the Shikanarqa text, that one can convincingly argue in favour of all three answers and still the meaning remains uncertain, dubious and teasingly elusive. One wonders if this short, serious, and thought-provoking political play will gain in concentration and clarity if presented without the many frills contributed by director Adel Hassan, particularly the many religious chants and folk songs contributed at short intervals by Samir Azmi, accompanied by the South Folk and Popular Music Band, the lively antics of the two delightful clowns, Mohamed El-Nabawi and Nawal El-'Adl, and the qaraqoz puppet show presented by Mohamed Abdel Fattah.
In the absence of those frills, however, some of the play's flaws, like its weak characterization and occasional preachy tone, may become more glaring. It is true that the actors seemed at times irritated and distracted by the constant intrusion of music and song; in the absence of such interruptions, however, parts of their dialogue and some of their speeches might have come across as somewhat pallid, repetitive, unconvincing, or underwritten. Purists may argue that Hassan's amusing frills and the festive ambience contributed by Mohamed Gaber's design may have diluted the drama a bit, and possibly blunted the political edge of the play's warning. But one can also counter argue that thanks to the director's and designer's combined imaginative efforts, Abdel Samad's somewhat dry text gained a vibrant, attractive theatrical dimension and its important message was put across in an entertaining popular form that drew audiences and made the show a definite success.