Nehad Selaiha finds plenty of youthful energy and defiance in the 38th annual festival of regional theatre troupes
From fasting to feasting is the best way to describe the Cairo theatre scene in the weeks immediately following the holiday of Lesser Bairam at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Though most of the main Cairo stage companies have since remained out of action or migrated to Alexandria, leaving only the National's long-running Fi Baytena Shabah (A Ghost in our House), which resumed performances immediately after Ramadan, and El-Ghad's recently premiered Leil El-Ganoub (Sothern Night), a sudden influx of productions by regional troupes has brightened the scene. The purveyor of these much needed, pleasurable goods was the Cultural Palaces Organisation, which, despite its many irking, chronic problems and a mounting dissatisfaction with the present leadership, did not fail to hold its annual regional theatre festival, dedicating this year's edition to victims of the fire that destroyed the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace during a performance on 5 September, 2005, killing over 40 artists, critics and members of the audience and leaving dozens injured or maimed.
The 27 performances featured in this 24-day festival (from 2 to 27 September) represent the best that has been produced by Cultural Homes, Palaces and National troupes all over Egypt in 2011/12. For a whole week now I have been regularly presenting myself at 7.30 every evening at Manf Hall, where the 7 Cultural Homes shows are accommodated, then rushing to El-Samer next door at 9.30 to catch the ones offered by the Cultural Palaces. Richer in budget and prestige, the Regional National Troupes will perform in better equipped, closed theatres, mainly Metropol, downtown. The 12 works carefully culled from their harvest this year are scheduled to start on 15 September “ê" 3 days after the conclusion of the Cultural Homes and Palaces displays “ê" and continue till the 26th. On the 27th, a roundtable on the future of theatre under the Cultural Palaces Organisation will be held at noon in the Supreme Council for Culture, followed in the evening by the closing ceremony at the said Metropol theatre. As usual, the highlight of this event, in expectation of which all the troupes will be waiting with bated breath, will be the announcement of the winners in the festival's 3 contests. Happily, the number of awards and their monetary value are equal in all three. Out of the plays competing in each section (the Homes, Palaces and National troupes) the appointed juries will nominate the Best and Second Best performances, directors, actors, actresses, stage-designs, music and lyrics, with awards ranging from one to five thousand Egyptian pounds.
It is yet too early to predict how the shows of the National troupes will turn out, since they only start a week ahead. It the case of the Homes and Palaces, however, which have only one or two more days to go at the time of writing this article, some productions clearly stand out and, not withstanding the notorious vagaries of some juries in past years, are expected to come out winners. Foremost among these in the Homes section is an Egyptian version of Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba by Al-Qabbari Cultural Home in Alexandria, directed by the daring and wonderfully gifted Riham Abdel Raziq. Reset in Upper Egypt and rephrased in the charming dialect of that region by Shazli Farah, it was rechristened Nisaa' Al-Naar (Women of Fire) “ê" an apt title since here, as in Lorca's original, Alba's five daughters, all given metaphoric names, highly expressive of their temperaments, were afire with sexual longings and frustrations. Mohamed Abdel-'Aal's predominantly brown and yellow set, representing a typical living room in the home of a traditional, well-to-do Upper Egyptian family on the decline, before the age of electricity and television, was enhanced by Ibrahim El-Forn's atmospheric lighting, which progressively highlighted the deep cracks in the walls. Predictably, Riham made a meal of the traditional Upper Egyptian mourning chants and rituals and clothed her all-female cast in black from head to foot. And yet, except for the indomitable Bernarda (here called Om Shalqam) and the chorus of mourners, they all looked beautiful, seductive and full of life. Their rebellion against the dictates of oppressive traditions and the tyranny of patriarchal authority, as imbibed and practiced by the mother, seemed to gain force and urgency in view of the very real threat of further female repression posed by rise of Islamists to power.
Of the Cultural Palaces' shows seen so far, the most powerful, topically relevant and technically impressive was a production of Clifford Odets's 1935 one-act agitprop play, Waiting for Lefty. Translated by Mohamed An'am and designed and directed by Khaled Tawfiq, it was admirably performed by the troupe of Kafr Saad Cultural Palace in the northern governorate of Damietta. On an empty, black-draped stage, a couple of raised platforms at the back, 5 box-like empty frames, made of light, grey metal and dexterously manipulated by the actors into different geometrical formations (alternately suggesting a maze, invincible, metal traps, prison cells, the soulless architecture of industrial towns and factory floors, or the homes of poor workers), and 5 black and white pin-up illustrations of different interiors (an office in a factory, another of an impresario, a third in a hospital, a bare, miserable room in the home of a poverty stricken labourer's family and the porch outside the cottage of another, equally indigent), all executed by Amira El-Sawy, made up the whole of the set conceived by the director. The actors costumes, restricted in colour to grey, black and white, together with the director's plain lighting plan, visually translated the play's series of related vignettes, framed by a planned labour strike, into a succession of austere, bleak images reminiscent of a black-and-white movie. The intricate movement patterns in the group scenes, ingeniously choreographed by Karim Khalil, were executed by the 25-strong cast with consummate discipline and split-second timing. Regardless of the size of the part, the whole cast acted with passion and conviction, displaying a degree of physical and vocal competence rarely met with in regional theatre. They moved with resilience and agility and delivered the lines of the classical Arabic translation with clarity and precision, sparing us the pain of the all too common, jarring grammatical mistakes that usually mar performances in classical Arabic, professional or otherwise. In this one respect at least, Tawfiq's young cast, though predominantly amateurs, far surpassed many of the professionally trained ones you come across in the capital.
Another happy choice in the Cultural Palaces section was Mohamed Mursi's play, Tarh El-Sabbar (Bitter Aloes), directed by Khalid Abu Heif and performed by the Abnoub troupe in the southern governorate of Asyut. Based on the famous Shafiqa and Metwally folk ballad that centers on seduction and honour-killing, the play adopts a feminist approach to the story, stripping Metwally of his traditional heroic robes and condemning his killing of his sister as a senseless, criminal act, prompted by nothing more than a blind, slavish obedience to patriarchal values, and recreating Shafiqa as a positive symbol of female resistance to male authority. Rather than a victim of seduction, fleeing her home and male relatives in fear and shame, she is here presented as a free spirit, seeking her liberty and defying backward traditions and patriarchal oppression. Simple and modest in every aspect, the production, however, boasted an unprecedented feat by using local actresses, both Copts and Muslims, all drawn from conservative Asyut and its surroundings. Moreover, the set and costume designer, Amal Yusef, is also a woman. To see Amani Mohamed Husni as Shafiqa, dancing uninhibitedly and reveling in the freedom of her body, was heartening and liberating.
The Cultural Palaces section also featured 2 Shakespearean plays. The first, Julius Caesar, which graced the opening of the festival, came from Tanta, and was an intelligently abridged version that preserved the dialectical power of the text and its cunning exposition of the political power-game that underlies all revolutions. Director Rami El-Tanbari made extensive use of the montage technique, juxtaposing similar confrontations between different sets of characters by playing them simultaneously and cross cutting between them. The galloping rhythm, simple, versatile set (by Mahmoud Al-Ghareeb), sincerity of the acting and urgency of the theme made up for the general shabbiness and poverty of the costumes and relative lack of acting skills. The second Shakespearean play was a simple, straightforward and blissfully unpretentious rendering of Mohamed Enany's lucid, stage-worthy translation of The Winter's Tale, designed in a simplified, muted Grecian style by Wisam Adel, directed by Abdel-Rahman Salem, and performed by the Ghazl Al-Mahalla Palace troupe. Here, the handling of the last scene of discovery was the high point of the show; its ritualistic air and dream-like quality, teasingly bordering on the real but constantly slipping into the legendary, was an imaginative feat and a credit to the director.
Other Palaces and Homes performances of which one had high hopes included: a noisy burlesque version The Merchant of Venice, from Qoos, in Upper Egypt, a lackluster rendering of Do Something, Met, by Turkish playwright Aziz Nesin (1916-1995), presented by the Meet Ghamr Cultural Palace troupe, a thoroughly confused and incomprehensible version of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, from Tahta, in the Delta, a tediously long and overblown version of Mahmoud Diab's Egyptian classic, Ard La Tunbit Al-Zohoor (A Land Where Flowers Cannot Grow) that brought it closest in effect to a tedious TV drama serial, from Borg El-Arab in Alexandria, and an abjectly gimmicky rendering of Mustafa Saad's expressionistic, psychological drama Al-Wahm (The Illusion), from the Tamia Cultural Home in Fayyoum. Unfortunately all were disappointing in varying degrees and amply displayed some of the most glaring weaknesses and debilitating faults that not infrequently bedevil regional productions “ê" namely: a misunderstanding of the plays and/or wanton corruption of their texts, an evil, pretentious tendency for gratuitous gimmickry and comic effects, a frequent, unwarranted intrusion of songs and dances, and a marked degree of artistic naivet≥© and intellectual immaturity, often bordering on imbecility. One wonders what the jury that selected those shows for the festival from among others saw to recommend them. In terms of variety and topical relevance, however, even the most disappointing of these shows can claim some merit. Where else in Egypt nowadays, unless on the fringe, or in regional theatre, can you hope to find artists reckless enough to risk productions of Shakespeare and Brecht, or undertake such risks in the worst possible conditions out of a belief in the political efficacy of theatre, and for no other reward than indulging their passion for creative playacting.