Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1227, (1-7 January 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1227, (1-7 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The greatest show in Egypt

The National Theatre finally reopened after six years of restoration, writes Nevine El-Aref

The greatest show in Egypt
The greatest show in Egypt
Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week, the Al-Azbakiya area near Al-Ataba Square was buzzing with people as folk music from the National Theatre complex filled the evening air. To the sound of reed pipes and tanoura dance rhythms, dozens of actors, journalists, intellectuals, TV presenters, directors, writers and   officials were flocking into the complex to witness its reopening after six years during which it was closed for restoration work triggered by a devastating fire that erupted due to a short circuit in the air-conditioning system in 2008. It left the George Abyad Theatre (named after the famous Lebanese actor) drenched in fire-extinguisher liquid, the velvet of the seats charred, the main stage destroyed and the dome with a hole made by firefighters struggling to contain the blaze.

Hundreds gathered on the pavements trying to catch a glimpse of the celebrities. On a wall at the  entrance, a large abstract painting entitled Egyptians’ Dreams by artist Ahmed Shiha welcomed the visitors as they proceeded to their seats before the arrival of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, invited to cut the ribbon and announce the reopening of the theatre by Culture Minister Gaber Asfour. Mehleb also launched a stamp to commemorate the event.

Before the ceremony, Asfour gave Mehleb and other officials a tour of the stately premises, including the lecture hall, library and information centre, all refurbished to resume the authentic look of the National dating back to 1920. At the museum, they saw paraphernalia and photos of such pioneer thespians as Ismail Yassin, Ali Al-Kassar, Zaki Tolaymat, Youssef Wahbi, Amina Rezk and Karam Metaweaa. Dignitaries included Planning Minister Ashraf Al-Arabi, Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou, Youth Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz, Local Development Minister Adel Labib and Cairo Governor Galal El-Said.

In his speech, Mehleb stressed Egypt’s vision for culture and art as “soft power”, expressing his pleasure with the reopening of the theatre and calling on artists to continue sending messages of value to the masses as they have done through the country’s history.

For his part Asfour recounted the story of the theatre’s construction in the time of Khedive Ismail, as part of his vision for a modern state that also included the Suez Canal and Opera Aida, and how the Comedie Française performed at the initially small venue occupying the southern flank of the Azbakiya Gardens. Likewise the reopening is connected with the new Suez Canal, the minister added, thanking Mehleb for raising the ministry’s budget and emphasising the government’s interest in culture. “Political tyranny and religious extremism are the theatre’s enemies,” he said. Egyptians rid themselves of the first on 25 January 2011 and of the second on 30 June 2013. “The challenge continues until the theatre regains its full power and freedom,” Asfour concluded. “The theatre is a flame of enlightenment against terrorism calling for dialogue and respecting all points of view.”

Mehleb and Asfour then went ahead and honoured two dozen National Theatre icons including Samiha Ayoub, Rashwan Tawfik, Samira Abdel-Aziz, Aida Abdel-Aziz, Mahmoud Yassin, Ezzat Al-Alayli, Hussein Fahmy and Abdel Rahman Abu Zahra. Young singers performed 1960s patriotic songs by such legends as Abdel Halim Hafez, Om Kalthoum and Shadia.

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The National Theatre was the first theatre to be built within the Azbakiya Gardens in Cairo. The history of the area dates back to the 15th century when the gardens served as  pleasure grounds for the Mameluke aristocracy, with lavish palaces surrounding a central lake. When the French Campaign led by Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 the gardens became the site of a theatre built to entertain the French troops. Under Muhammad Ali Pasha, who ruled following the French withdrawal, the lake was filled up, and Khedive Ismail oversaw the building of a new theatre on the site. In 1885 the theatre, known as Al-Azbakiya Theatre, hosted its first performances by an Egyptian theatre group. It went on to become the home of the Abu Khalil Al-Qabani, Iskandar Farah and Al-Sheikh Salama Hegazi theatre troupes, named after their famous impresario directors.

By 1935 the National Egyptian Group had been formed under the leadership of poet Khalil Motran, but it was later disbanded in 1942 following anti-British performances. After the 1952 Revolution Al-Azbakiya Theatre became the National Theatre. It boasted two resident companies, the Egyptian National Group and the Modern Egyptian Theatre Group. Actors such as Samiha Ayoub, Ezzat Al-Alayli, Nour Al-Sherif, Hamdi Ahmed, the late Sanaa Gamil, Mohamed Al-Dafrawi, Karam Motawei, Tawfik Al-Deein and Hamdi and Abdullah Gheith graced its stage, where premieres of works by playwrights Saadeddin Wahba, Alfred Farag, Lotfi Al-Kholi, Noaman Ashour and Youssef Idris were performed.

In early 2000, the theatre was officially put on Egypt’s Heritage List for its unique architectural style and the over 100-year-old building. It consists of two auditoriums, the main one bearing the name of the Lebanese actor George Abyad and the small one named after the famous Egyptian actor and director Abdel-Rehim Al-Zorkani. The complex also contains a rehearsal hall, a smaller building for the actors’ dressing rooms, an administrative building, a youth theatre and spaces for the Puppet and Taliaa Theatres.

“Returning the theatre to its authentic look after such a destructive fire was  a real challenge,” Ahmed Fouda, the engineer in charge of the restoration project, explained, adding that the state-of-the-art work depended on old documents provided by the Ministry of Antiquities and photographs of plays performed in the early 20th century. “The work sought to return the theatre to what it was, so that it can remain a cultural beacon for all the arts,” Fouda said, adding that the building contained a unique collection of antique sets, artefacts and paintings. “Among the valuable items is the huge crystal chandelier located at the theatre’s entrance, which weighs 720 kg, is five metres high and contains 80,000 pieces of crystal.” Khaled Al-Zoheiri said this item was not among the theatre’s original furnishings but is in line with the historic atmosphere of the space. It replaces an earlier chandelier, completely destroyed in the fire, and being four meters wide will help to absorb extraneous sound might interrupt the performances within.

The glass façade of the administrative building is not in line with the spirit of the restoration, however. Along with concern over the restoration budget, which went up from LE 55 million to almost LE102 million, this is the main criticism directed against the project. In response to censure Asfour has said that the  façade was built according to drawings approved in October 2013 and aims to mix a modern architectural style with the historical style of the National Theatre.

Mohamed Abu Saida, the head of the Cultural Development Fund at the ministry, explained that in 2008 the prime minister approved the contract with Hassan Allam and Sons, a leading company, at LE55 million, but further investigation revealed hidden costs. The dome of the theatre was found to be unstable, for example, since the iron frame supporting it had buckled in the heat, and this necessitated extensive reconstruction. “Egypt’s Heritage List was another reason,” Abu Saida pointed out, since some materials had to be changed to meet antiquities preservation regulations. This and the increase in the prices of materials following the three-year hiatus during the revolution raised the budget.

Abu Saida felt the criticism of the glass façade was “architectural brouhaha”. “The building was ramshackle,” he said, and when the committee decided to convert it into a museum, “this required the consolidation of the building, the construction of an¡∞other floor on top of the first one, and covering the original façade with a new glass one.” But there are no rights or wrongs in architecture: some people prefer traditional designs, others want to see modern or postmodern ideas. “There is a variety of acceptable architecture methods,” and mixing modern with classical styles can be seen, for example, at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

“This design aims to reflect the original building on the mirror glass façade of the new one in order to provide visitors with a new view of the old building.” It is in line with the development plan of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony. “The project is one of the country’s new mega cultural projects, and it will not only rescue a historical site but also revitalise an important cultural hub,” he concluded.

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