Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Staging tolerance

Nehad Selaiha applauds the current Christian initiative in Egypt to promote theatre and the arts

Though theatre, as a communal practice, invariably has its origins in religious ritual, its relationship with official religious institutions has always been paradoxical and problematic. In the middle ages, the Church Fathers found it a handy tool to propagate the new faith and fight deep-rooted pagan myths and rituals. But since theatre, by its very nature (as live performance and fictive fabrication), foregrounds the body and appeals to the imagination, it tends to spill over the limits of dogma and invoke, in vivid, audio-visual terms, alternative realities, interpretations of the world and ideological view points. Whenever this latent potential of theatre begins to develop, as it did after the stage of liturgical drama in medieval Europe, you are sure to find the religious institution, which had previously embraced and exploited it, viciously turning against it and passionately opposing it. Though I cite the attitude of the early Church Fathers as an example, this deep- seated distrust of the theatre and its people is by no means confined to Christianity. Long before it arrived on the scene, Plato had decided to banish the players from the Republic and "in the actual government of the ancients," as Joseph Wood Krutch notes in his Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration, "there were many statutes which implied that the theater was regarded at best with suspicion." The suspicion predictably developed into full-fledged antagonism under Islam, a doctrine which, unlike Christianity, opposes all forms of figurative representation. It seems that for theatre to survive the antipathy of dominant religious authorities, it has to make itself their loyal servant, or at least make a show of doing so.

Click to view caption
Wi Ba'dein?

In the case of the Christian institutions in Egypt, as the 2nd Festival of the United Drama Teams for Christian Theatre, held from 16 to 19 March at the Catholic Cultural Centre, bears witness, this traditional view of the theatre seems to have given way to a more mature, less restrictive attitude which does not insist on purely biblical themes and characters, expands the definition of religious theatre beyond the passion, mystery or miracle play and, in the spirit of Aristotle, conceives of drama as the manifestation, in action, of spiritual quests, moral conflicts and eternal truths. In this view, the inherent, sceptical tendency of theatre to question the given, propose an alternative and initiate a conflict between them, is seen as a necessary, painful step towards a deeper faith, all the firmer for having withstood the test of dramatic, imaginative investigation. The educational function of theatre, its potency as a method of teaching and persuasion by giving concrete, moving examples which appeal to the senses, has long been recognised and, indeed, has formed the moral basis of any defence of the theatre attempted since Aristotle. After his trip to Paris, as a religious guide and preacher to the Egyptian students sent there by Mohamed Ali in 1826, Sheikh Rifa'ah Rafi' Al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), the progressive Azharite teacher and scholar, defended the acting of plays on very much the same grounds and since then, the moral and educational value of theatre has been repeatedly trotted out by way of defending the practice whenever the cultural atmosphere grew repressive and hostile to the arts.

But even so, and despite the predominant edification drive which seems to inform all religious sponsoring of theatre in the churches of Egypt, most of the plays offered in this festival steered clear of preaching anything more definite than the need to overcome one's subconscious, irrational fears and crippling weaknesses, guard one's dignity as a human being and stand up for one's right to lead a decent, fulfilling life. Moreover, this message was mostly coached in the form of heart-felt, passionate protests against a wide spectrum of social ills, ranging from general issues, such as the absolute sway of patriarchal authority, female oppression and the unequal distribution of wealth, to more topically urgent ones, such as unemployment, corruption, police brutality and the housing shortage. Though all four evenings began with prayers and a concert of beautiful hymns sung by different church choirs, underlying most of the plays, in varying degrees, was a restive awareness that, embedded in the cultural heritage and consecrated by it, was a domination/ subservience principle which governed all social relations and transactions.

In Nagui Abdallah's quasi-expressionistic Al-Khawf (Fear) which opened the festival, directed by Amir Rif'at and performed by The Dream Team, a group of friends are seduced by the promise of a hidden treasure to a lonely spot dominated by a scarecrow who intermittently comes to life to haunt them and embody all the antagonistic figures of authority in their lives -- the figures who have frustrated them and sent them on this wild goose chase. When opened, the big, wooden chest, bequeathed to one of them by a dead uncle and supposed to contain the treasure, is discovered to be empty and only releases their anxieties, crippling memories and subconscious fears. In terms of form, the initial, suspenseful situation triggers a series of dramatic monologues where narration alternates with enacted scenes from the past and realism gives way to expressionism. Rather than develop an action, this form works by accumulation which leads to illumination and the rephrasing of the initial quest. Though the monologues seem quite isolated at first, like separate dives into the mind of each character in turn, they are all variations on the theme of fear and the need to resist it. This is underlined at the end when the young men join forces and gang against the seemingly inert but viciously, insidiously active scarecrow, the symbol of multifaceted coercive authority.

Like Fear, Maged Shawqi's and Suzette Mansour's Maganeen wa Lakin (Lunatics, But...), directed by Wa'el Atta and performed on the second day by Al-Kalima lil Drama (Drama Has the Word) Team, could be performed anywhere and does not need a pronouncedly religious context to function and make an impact. The same applies to Al-Sakhra (The Rock) Team's ' Ayesh wa Mish 'Ayesh (Living though not Alive), adapted from Tamer Mohsen's Marionette and Lenin El-Ramli's Inta Hor (You're Free), and directed by Ayman Futmar, and Nagui Abdallah's second play in the festival, Wi Ba'dein? (What's to be Done Now?) which was also directed by Amir Rif'at and performed by The Dream Team (and which, incidentally, scooped 4 of the festival's 8 award, including the top one of best production).

Though similar in form to Fear, unfolding through confessional monologues interspersed with vivid sketches and realising its message by cumulative effect, Lunatics is more colourful in characterisation, makes more demands on the cast, requiring each actor to play several parts in quick succession, and opts for comedy, even farce, and a more openly theatrical mode of performance, with changes of costumes in full view of the audience. Featuring a group of dangerous lunatics who escape the mad house and find their way into the home of their psychiatrist, threatening both him and his wife, it gradually reveals the ugly, brutal, confused and confusing social reality which has driven those pathetic characters to take refuge in madness. Though the cast definitely deserved a best ensemble performance award, Lunatics only won the award for best supporting male role, given to Emad Romani. This makes us demand that a best ensemble performance award be added next year.

Living though not Alive and What's to be Done are strongly reminiscent of Lenin El-Ramli's You're Free and adopt its biographical form and episodic structure. Both follow the progress of an Everyman- like central figure, an ordinary, struggling middle- class Egyptian citizen, through life, and in both the major conflict is between the individual and the many rigid social institutions into which he is born and which eventually destroy his will, erode his individuality and sap his creative energy. One remembers Peter Handke's Kaspar. But while Living comes across as a pale imitation of El-Ramli's play, even though Nermine Gamil, who doubled in many parts in it, amply deserved the award of best actress, What's to be Done shows clear signs of imaginative vitality and a developed sense of stage craftsmanship. Mixing comedy and pathos, realism and grotesque caricature, Nagui Abdallah manages to achieve imaginative unity and dramatic coherence by means of a telling poetic fable, drawn from one of Salah Jahin's famous quartets, and used to sum up, obliquely and metaphorically, in a concentrated, bitterly ironic way, the hero's tragedy and the message of the play.

Jahin's fable tells of a bull, tied to a waterwheel and forced to turn it forever blindfold. When urged to break his shackles and "curse and spit," he answers: "Better go on a little further; a step and then another, and who knows? I may reach the end of the road, or may be the well will dry up." Though this quartet is pointedly quoted at the hero (played by Mena Makram who won the best actor award) halfway through the play, he fails to comprehend that rebellion is the only way out of the vicious circle of senseless suffering, arbitrary humiliation and oppression into which he is caught. Like Jahin's parabolic bull, this modern Everyman keeps going on and on, and is only released by death. It is only at the end of his days, as he looks back regretfully on his wasted life and at the lives of those around him, all deeply scarred and disfigured, that he grasps the meaning of Jahin's lines and their relevance to his fate and bitterly realises it is too late to do anything. This sudden awakening literally kills him, and though he is careful to repeat Jahin's fable to his son before he dies, the son fails to heed it and the vicious circle continues. In a cunningly ironic, original move, Nagui Abdallah ends his play with an exact repeat of the opening scene, but this time performed by the hero's son; the effect is shattering.

Of the seven productions presented in this festival "for Christian Theatre", as its title openly declares, only three were pronouncedly religious, in the sense of dealing with biblical themes, characters and images. Al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice), by Al-Nur Al-Haqiqi (The Genuine or Real Light) Team, was a short mime and movement piece conceived and directed by Joseph Amin and centered on the attempts of the devil to tempt some representatives of the human race and lead them astray. Though technically crude and underdeveloped, it made brave attempts at using props and lighting to create a fitting atmosphere and its honest, childish naiveté and palpable ardour had a certain charm and was faintly moving. But why in God's name present the devil as a woman dressed to look like a serpent? Though the woman in question was a graceful, extremely attractive young brunette by the name of Nancy Izzat, and though the part revealed her potential as a promising performer, I could not forgive the anti-feminist message encoded in her stage image. Compared to The Choice, which however defective had the virtue of being brief and silent, Al-Ibn Al-Dal (The Prodigal Son), which attempted to transpose the biblical story to the present and project it realistically, was a real pain in the neck, too wordy and overlong -- a tedious monodrama, clumsily acted by Sameh Kamal and, possibly, since no other name is mentioned in the festival's programme, also written and directed by him.

Plays which draw on the Bible for stories and characters, however, do not have to be simplistic, obvious and boring. In the hands of brave and gifted writers, like Basem Youssef, biblical material can be imaginatively used to construct sophisticated and highly provocative plays which, without actually overstepping the mark, dare to go too far or, at least, further than most plays would, in asking questions and airing doubts. Basem Youssef's Suqut Al-Aqni'a (Dropping the Masks), which he also directed for Al-Karma (The Grapevine) Team is set in a courtroom which brings the stage and auditorium together and casts the audience collectively in the role of jury and witnesses. The defendant on trial is Jesus, no less, and the witnesses whom the prosecutor summons from among the audience to testify against him and corroborate the charge of cruelty and hatred brought against him by a nameless agent are Lot's wife, Cain, Salome and the Egyptian Pharaoh who opposed Moses and his people. Framed in a pool of light while the rest of the stage is plunged in darkness, the witnesses, in succession, speak directly to the audience, telling their stories from their own point of view, sticking to the facts mentioned in the Bible, but giving them a completely different interpretation. Rather than culprits, as the Bible presents them, they passionately argue that they are the victims of a wrathful, vengeful God who takes sadistic pleasure in denying humans all pleasure and maliciously forbids the pursuit of earthly happiness, condemning it as a sin. The monologues of the 4 witnesses take up so much of the play, almost 3 quarters of its total time, and sound so passionate, so sincere, so logical and convincing that for a moment one begins to really fear that the balance may tip against Jesus and starts to worry about His fate. It is a wonderfully exciting moment in theatre when a play seems to really get you, creep under your skin, causing you real anxiety and sending your pulse racing. Such moments are rare and only happen when one's deepest convictions and settled views seem really endangered. The witnesses' monologues, supported by the prosecutor's confident tirades which appeal to rationality and commonsense, do not only upset the expectations of an audience of believers, but also seem to want to pit reason against religious faith, and this is what makes the play so powerful, so thrilling.

When a young woman from the audience volunteers to defend the accused, the witnesses set upon her and nearly get her to acknowledge the justice of their claims. This is as far as the play can risk to travel along such an iconoclastic path. It is also, conveniently, the point at which the Lord's patience seems to run out. Without deigning to counter their arguments, or uttering a single word, Jesus sweeps the witnesses and prosecutor with one blow, revealing them as devils in disguise, intent on corrupting the young woman's mind and eroding her faith by making her doubt the truth of the scriptures and the judgment of the Lord. Like most religious stories, the play ends happily, miraculously, amidst sensational lighting and sound effects, with the young woman showing contrition and Jesus giving her absolution and placing a kindly hand on her head. This happy, if somewhat melodramatic, end does not however completely invalidate what came before it, nor does it mean that people will not continue to be assailed by the same doubts the young woman entertained and strive to conquer them as she did. The battle goes on, and real, profound doubt, the play seems to say, is the only road to genuine, profound faith.

Though Dropping the Masks unsettled some of the audience and flurried one member of the jury, it won its author, Basem Youssef the award for best dramatic text and its stage and sound designer, Girgis Nassif, the award for best scenography. Indeed, the awards, together with the performances, vindicated and gave credence to the motto of the festival, "An Invitation to Change", which father Kamal Attiya, the director of the Catholic Centre, which hosted the festival, stressed and foregrounded in his opening, welcome speech. The festival's "objectives" too, as printed in the programme and poster and projected every night on a screen before the shows, emphasise the need for making theatre a democratic forum, a dynamic vehicle for enlightenment, and an incubator for new talent and new ideas. It confidently points in the direction of an ideological opening up, an ideological tolerance of difference which could lead to the reconciliation and cooperation of all faiths, creeds and religious denominations for the good of humanity.

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