Back in force
Nehad Selaiha hails the fourth Independent Theatre Season
Do you know the old song that says 'Going to One Wedding Brings on Another'? Well, it seems this dictum can also be true of some non-conjugal festivities. While the 38th annual Regional Theatre Festival of the Cultural Palaces Organisation was in full swing, keeping me on a daily shuttle between El-Samer Space and Manf hall (see my 'Welcome visitors' article in this section of the Weekly, 13 September, 2012, Issue No. 1114), the 4th Independent Theatre Season, a joint project of the Young Independent Artists Association and the Cultural Production Sector of the ministry of culture, was launched at Al-Hanager Centre on 8 September, that is, within less than a week from the opening of the said regional festival.
Scheduled to continue until 16 December, the season offers a total of 111 performances, divided between Al-Hanager, Rawabet and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. More than in any previous edition of this 3-year old annual event, the organizers have embraced this year a horde of newcomers, swelling the number of troupes featured in the season to 37, with an equal number of productions. Many of the well-known pioneering troupes Òê" such as Abeer Ali's 'Al-Misaharati' (Awakener), Mohamed Abdel-Khaliq's 'Theatre Atelier', and Mohamed Abul Su'ood's 'Al-Shazia' (Shrapnel), as well as some of the relatively more recent ones that have made their mark in the past few years Òê" like the 'Shousha' group, Hani Abdel-Naser's 'Halwasa' (Hallucination), Mohamed Abdel-Fattah's 'Hala' (Mood), Said Soliman's 'Ihtigag' (Protest), Mohamed Fawzi's 'Marionette' and Reem Higab's 'Salt', will be also taking part and are bound to prove the most popular.
As this year's edition, according to the poster and publicity bills, was dedicated to the name of comedian Naguib El-Rihani (1889-1949), the opening ceremony, held at Al-Hanager, was appropriately and delightfully heralded by the music of some of the most popular songs in his last movie, alternately called Ghazal El-Banat (Girlish Flirtation) and Ghazl El-Banat (Candy Floss), including his famous duet with Layla Morad, played by a gifted trio. When the music ceased, theatre actress and directress Azza El-Husseini, one of the main founders and organisers of the event, proudly announced the expansion of the project this year to include independent cinema and the plastic arts besides theatre. The evening did not only mark the opening of the 4th independent theatre season, but also the launching of the first edition of a bigger, more comprehensive Independent Arts Season of which theatre formed only one part. The opening of an art exhibition centered on the works of El-Rihani in theatre and cinema at Al-Hanager gallery was, therefore, an important feature of the evening. Another was the honouring of El-Rihani's name in the form of a trophy presented to his French-born daughter by the current minister of culture.
Other honorees included: Huda Wasfi, the former artistic director of Al-Hanager, who was instrumental in nurturing the independent theatre movement over 20 years, and also in setting up the 3 previous editions of the independent theatre season; actor Khalid Saleh, who first became known and carved his way to stardom through performances mounted by Mohamed Abul Su'ood's 'Al-Shazia' troupe in Al-Hanager; the name of critic and playwright Hazem Shehata who invested the best years of his short life in promoting the independent theatre movement before he was tragically killed in the fire that consumed the Beni Sweif cultural palace on 5 September, 2005; film director Abdallah El-Sayed, best known for his movie Microphone, and also for directing the video clip of a song that has been described by many as representing more sections of the Egyptian populace than the constitution drafting committee (you can watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY60TuvLyg4); and the present writer for her 'long, unflagging support of the independent theatre', as was said. To add to the pleasures of the evening, the opening ceremony was elegantly presented by the lovely theatre, TV and film actress Salwa Mohamed Ali, who, though a professional for years, has frequently starred in many independent theatre productions for next to no money, and who, on this occasion, fervently declared at the outset her loyalty and undying commitment to the free theatre movement.
After a short interval, it was time for the first performance in this year's theatre season. And what an enlivening, topically relevant and memorable performance it was. Bebasata Keda (alternatively translated as 'Simply So', or 'In Plain Words', was the fruit of a writing-story-telling workshop held by academics, writers and performers in 2011-12 to record the experiences of its members during, and in the aftermath of the 25 January revolution. 'Ana El-Hikaya', the troupe that produced the performance, was established in 2009 with the purpose of re-writing the classics of Egyptian literature, past and present, oral and written, to question and deconstruct their ideological premises. Consisting of a series of personal and imagined narratives, at once poignant, fresh, humorous and heart-rending, Bebasata Keda was competently and vividly delivered by the writers/raconteurs, led by Sahar El-Mogi, and was simply, seamlessly directed by Reem Hatem, without a theatrical set, except for a shadow screen, and no special effects. The stories were punctuated and enlivened by Iman Salaheddin's live performance on the lute of some of Sheikh Imam's songs. Bebasata Keda was adequately and competently reviewed for the Weekly by Osama Kamal following an earlier performance at Rawabet, before the opening of this event. I can, therefore, do no better than refer you to this review, which appeared under the title 'Revolutionary tales' in the Entertainment section of the Weekly on 30 August, 2012, Issue No. 1112.
The story-telling performance of the 'Ana El-Hikaya' troupe, a relatively new comer on the independent theatre scene, was followed at Rawabet by Nashaz (Cacophony), the latest production of the extremely popular and long-standing Hala street theatre troupe. Here, storytelling was also the norm, but presented in a different modality, fashioned by the pervasiveness of group dances and choral satirical songs. Dressed in sleeveless, phosphorescent-orange jackets and metal helmets, the group at once suggested traffic wardens, firemen and garbage collectors Òê" all vitally important professions, but shamefully underpaid and despised in Egypt. The members of the troupe took turns at telling stories, of their own writing, in which fantasy rubbed shoulders with reality and the intimately personal merged with the topically political. Some of the stories were bewitchingly whimsical and abundantly humorous, but all were poignant and expressive of the suffering and frustration of the underdogs in society. This new crop of Hala performers represented a variety of age groups, ranging from 10 to 30, and it is a credit to Mohamed Abdel Fattah, the founder of Hala, that he keeps recruiting, educating and graduating one generation of street performers after another. Though the 25 January Revolution overshadowed the narrative parts, it did not directly relate to their subject matter. Its presence was mostly felt in the witty, satirical poems, carefully selected from the rebellious writings of some of the most brilliant young poets around Òê" namely, Michael Adel, Mustafa Ibrahim, Khalil Izzeddin, Shadi Atef, and Ayman Hilmi, who also set them all to music. These songs, together with other familiar ones, some of them dating several decades back, provided musical interludes and telling comments between the stories, often taking the form of direct, barbed digs at the current president, his assistants, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
At Rawabet too, the 'Noah's Ark' troupe from Alexandria presented a daring one-woman show featuring a prostitute speaking openly of her profession and remembering her different clients and other past experiences. Unfortunately it played only one night, which explains my involuntarily missing it, and though it was said to be based on some Latin American source, I failed to discover it, or get any information about it, or about the troupe, except that the play's director is called Tamer Mahmoud. Indeed, so far, the scarcity of information about the participating troupes, performances and artists, has been a source of great frustration to critics and spectators alike and constitutes the only serious blemish on an otherwise very well-organized event. I also missed Al-Lu'ba (The Game), by a new troupe called 'Studio El-Brova' (Rehearsal Studio), directed by Mohamed Gabr, and have not got a feedback on it from any friends. Playing only 2 nights at Al-Hanager, it coincided with other performances I had to see elsewhere.
Al-Hanager also hosted Al-Sultaniyyah (The Bowl), a puppet play presented by 'Al-Mahrousa' (The Protected) troupe and directed by Reda Hassanein. Though it only played one night, I did catch it, only to be disappointed. Attempting to render in the visual terms of a puppet show a fascinating radio musical that dramatized a story from The Arabian Nights which enthralled my generation in childhood, Hassanein slavishly followed every detail of it, to the point of using the original recording. If the intention was to introduce this old gem to today's children and make them partake of its magic, the execution, at once clumsy and shabby, miserably failed to realize it, and fell far short of the original's power to stir the imagination. After watching some minutes, I closed my eyes and only listened to the radio recording, all the while nostalgically remembering how I used to see the story in my mind's eye as a child, and what a magical spell it used to cast on me.
The Bowl was given another performance at Rawabet, on 17 September, and was happily followed by Said Soliman's Al-Shal (The Shawl) on the 18th. Adapted from a play by Hassan Ahmed Hassan called Variations on a Folk Tale, it centers on honour-killing, representing it as a typical male response to the feelings of impotence, inadequacy, mistrust and self-doubt aroused in men when faced by free, self-confident, passionate women, and also as a result of a long tradition of negative female representation, nourished by a female-dreading patriarchal heritage that brainwashes women into embracing it and bequeathing it to their sons and daughters. When the husband in the play, a simple farmer (convincingly played by Subhi Isam) learns that a close friend of his has just killed his wife upon seeing her alone with a man in their home, he finds himself haunted by the ghost of his dead mother, remembering all her warnings against the fickleness, perfidy and insatiable lust of her own sex, and unconsciously projecting them on his own unsuspecting, loving wife. His suspicions are aggravated by his wife's grief for her murdered neighbour and her denunciation of honour-killing as a heinous, cowardly and unjustifiable crime. If his friend really believed his wife to have betrayed him, he should have divorced her, she tells him. Their confrontation is punctuated by the fitful appearance of the mother's apparition, all wrapped up in a big black shawl that makes her almost invisible in the surrounding darkness, and repeating over and over her warnings and enforcing them with a wealth of abusive proverbs and old saws. Ironically, the wife's tenderness and solicitude only succeed in building up the tension and augmenting the husband's suspicions, carrying them to a frenzied pitch that can only find relief in strangling her with her black shawl.
In the original play, the mother was a living character and no ghost. By rewriting her as one, Said Soliman made her into an immortal, immanent presence and a concrete metaphor for the power and authority of a patriarchal tradition that, though unreal and belonging to a dead, long outdated past, still dominates our lives and can actually kill. The change introduced by Soliman also intensified the conflict between the individual and his heritage by locating it in the husband's mind, gave the realistic original a haunting, visually exciting, expressionistic dimension in performance, and allowed him to fully exploit the versatile talent of May Reda by making her double as both the young wife and the dead mother's ghost Òê" a task she accomplished with ease and mastery.
Watching the transformation of the black shawl from an oppressive, traditional cover, rejected and discarded by the young wife at the beginning, into an emblem of the dead mother and a sign of her ghostly presence, then finally into a lethal rope that strangles the wife, you become convinced that it should have topped the list of the dramatis personae. As a mutable sign, it dominates the performance; and though it takes different aspects and serves different functions, it always enforces Soliman's feminist, anti-patriarchal message. By imaginatively turning the shawl into a sign of patriarchal oppression, Soliman meant to identify it with the veil forced on Muslim women in conservative societies, including Egypt. In other words, The Shawl encoded a political statement denouncing the rise of the Islamists to power and its imaginative artistic composition and clean, fine execution made the message easily decipherable. Here, as in Bebasata Keda, the frugality of Soliman's minimal set, solely consisting of a low eating table carrying some metal plates, two loaves of bread and an earthenware water jug, and the austerity of his lighting and sound effects contributed to the dramatic power of the show and its intellectual directness and lucidity. A dozen more shows of this caliber and one can safely declare this independent theatre season a great success.