Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Budding talent

Nehad Selaiha attended the 13th Festival des Jeunes Createurs

Budding talent
Budding talent
Al-Ahram Weekly

Since 2003, the French Cultural Centre in Cairo has been holding an annual festival/competition to showcase and promote young theatrical talent in Egypt, rewarding some of the winners with the opportunity to expand their knowledge and experience of theatre by sending them on trips to France to attend the prestigious Avignon festival and allowing others to hone their talent at home by offering them especially organized theatre workshops conducted by prominent French experts in the field. This annual event, which only suffered a two-year interruption in 2011-12 due to the turbulences following the 25 January Egyptian revolution, was originally conceived and set in motion by Latifa Fahmi, the directress of artistic activities in the Centre for many, many years. Indeed, one can never speak of Le Festival des Jeunes Createurs without immediately thinking of her with deep respect and appreciation. Until last year, she was its organizer and guiding spirit, and before she retired she had made sure her baby was left in good, trustworthy hands and would continue to grow and flourish under the care of her long-time French and Egyptian colleagues who gained experience working alongside her.

In previous years, Fahmi, as an Egyptian, who has extensive knowledge of both the local and French theatrical scenes, is in close constant touch with the work of young theatre artists in Egypt and occasionally dabbles in theatre herself, undertook the selection of performances for the festival. Now that she is gone, this work was entrusted this year to an Egyptian three-member artistic committee. Out of the forty shows applying for participation the three members – directors Tareq El-Dweiri and Salam Yusri and choreographer and dancer Karima Mansour – watched, seven were picked out to perform in the competition before a jury made up of playwright/director Lenin El-Ramly, theatre scholar/critic Hazem Azmy, and choreographer/directress Mirette Mechail. A further three were invited to perform on the fringe.

Compared to previous editions, the choices of this selection committee reflected a somewhat tame, traditional spirit. Though the chosen performances offered a wide variety of world drama, including plays from Turkey, Japan, Russia, Spain, Belgium and, of course, France, which claimed a lion’s share with three classics of the French stage, almost all of them represented a tendency to play it safe by relying on well known, well tried, or internationally acclaimed dramatic texts and minimizing all risks by taking no liberties with them, and limiting dramaturgical interference to simply cutting them down to reduce their length. Whether this is to be attributed to the taste of the selection committee, or to the actual absence of eligible works of a different tendency among the rest of the forty shows that applied for participation, remains a question.  In any case, I personally missed the reckless inventiveness, adventurous spirit and willingness to take imaginative risks occasionally displayed in previous editions, even though, admittedly, more often than not, it ended in disaster.

 Another thing I missed in the festival this year was Egyptian drama; whether in the form of well-known plays by established writers, or new, original compositions, it was prominent by its absence. It is true that Egyptian drama never cut a high profile in this festival at any time; but it was never so totally absent as it was this year. Even the shadow-puppet play performed at the closing ceremony, outside the competition, had nothing to do with Egypt or its old, long tradition of shadow theatre. Entitled Patarikner (in Armenian, ‘Traces of Lingering Memories’, according to the festival’s brochure), it featured Armenian mythology and music, and was conceived and developed by Nini Ayach and Hany Hommos during an artistic residence in Armenia in 2013.

The opening night performance was El-Shanta theatre troupe’s production of Just a Simple Story, a widely acclaimed modern play in Russian by Ukranian writer Maria Lado, beautifully translated into colloquial Arabic from the original by Mohamed Saleh and engagingly directed by Hani El-Mettennawy. Like Patarikner, which closed the festival, it too was outside the competition, but for a different reason. While Patarikner was excluded on account of its being still work in progress, A Simple Story had already competed in an earlier independent theatre festival in March this year, a fact that automatically disqualified it according to the festival rules. This is a pity since it is a much better production than many in the competition (see my review of it in ‘Escapist flings’, Ahram Weekly, Issue No.1195, 1 May, 2014).

Another piece which should have been in the competition was  If Only I Were, by the Farghali Troupe for Performance Arts in Alexandria. Adapted from If Only I were Living with my Father, by Japanese writer Yasushi Inoué, it was directed by Mohamed Khamis, with lighting by Ibrahim El Forn and music by Mohamed Husni, and was performed by Salwa Ahmed and Mohamed Khamis. It features a traumatized survivor of some nuclear disaster (Hiroshima or Fukushima), haunted by the memories of lost family and friends and a harrowing sense of guilt for having survived them. The story of this lonely young woman’s quest for peace and reconciliation unfold through her soliloquies, the fairy stories she spins out in her solitude and rehearses before imaginary children, and her dialogue with the ghost of her father who ultimately helps her to and to go on with her life, conquer her feelings of guilt and embrace life and love. It came across as a sad, gentle, lyrical piece that advocates hope and courage.

Unlike this poignant, stoical plea for hope, or the delightful Simple Story production, with its fine reappraisal of traditional morality, the first performance in the competition section was a big disappointment and a positive drag. Eugene Ionesco’s Delire a deux (Frenzy for Two), by a new troupe that call themselves Aswad Faqi’ (Bright Black), proved a vapid, ruthlessly hacked version of the original. In Ionesco’s play, the silly domestic squabbling of the middle aged couple, who always talk of parting but have been sticking it together for 27 years, is gradually revealed to be an unconscious act of self-defence – a pathetic pact of mutual protection by self-deception that bonds them together and permits survival. The absurd bickering over tortoises and snails, the ridiculous boasting about personal appearance and former partners conceal real existential anxiety and a desperate desire to avoid facing up to the ugly realities of aging, inevitable decay and death, as well as the realities of an outside world torn by civil war and violence. Here, as in other Ionesco plays, sarcastic humour is used at once to reveal the tragic dimension of life and to satirize the shallowness and petty self-involvement of the bourgeoisie that blinds them to the political realities of the world around them.

 In Riham Desouqi’s version, not only was the threat of the outside world almost completely removed, but the tragic dimension of life also disappeared. The couple (performed by Bakr Mohamed and Iman Hussein) looked too young and lively to have any existential anxiety about sickness or death, while the set, a white backdrop with painted windows and other things (by Amir Abdel Ghani and Mohamed Abul Magd) looked quite cheerful and had the air of a colourful nursery room or a children’s party. But the cruelest cut of all was the punctuation of the mediocre acting and crude, unintelligible delivery of the verbal text with dance sequences (choreographed by Dalia Ahmed) which, performed to Mohamed El Souri’s music, were ridiculously intrusive and seemed to serve no purpose save to attest to the nimbleness and physical vigour of the couple.

The other two classics of the French stage featured in the festival, Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) and Albert Camus’s Les Justes (The Just Ones), fared much better. Indeed, director Ahmed Foad’s version of No Exit (performed by his Sufi troupe) had everything in its favour: a clever adaptation (by Foad) that reduced the text without sacrificing its integrity; neat, rigorous direction with no frills; good ensemble acting; a simple, austere set of a black backdrop, three wooden benches and an iron gate on one side that leads down to the auditorium, and appropriate costumes of black, red and blue (also by Foad). The three-member cast (Mohamed Hifzi as Garcin, Nora Ismat as Inez, and Dalia Ramzi as Estelle) were well picked and gave taut, forceful, well-tuned performances that sensitively observed the shades, nuances and subtle shifts in the relationships of the three damned souls, doomed to torture each other for all eternity in Sartre’s hell. The Jury gave Mohamed Hifzi the Best Actor Award and Nora Ismat got the special Jury Award.

Albert Camus’s Al-Adeloon (Les Justes), by the Cairo University Faculty of Law troupe, adapted and directed by Mohamed Abdel Sattar, designed by Nada Abdel Maged and Nada Sherif, with costumes by Shahenda Kamal and lighting by Khaled Hussein, was equally rewarding, albeit for a different reason. The technical faults of the production, which mainly had to do with the director’s blocking and the actors’ articulation and character interpretation, were made up for by the boldness of the choice of text. Based on the true story of a group of Russian  Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II in 1905, Les Justes explores the moral issues involved in terrorism. The topical relevance of such a discussion in view of the daily terrorist attacks launched by Islamist in Egypt at present is unmistakable and overwhelming. Though all but one of the characters in the play, including Ivan Kaliayev, the twenty three year old murderer who is given the role of protagonist by Camus, were drawn from the Memoirs of a Terrorist by Boris Savinkov, no Egyptian could fail to establish parallels between the Russian socialist terrorists of the past and their Islamist counterparts in Egypt today. More importantly, in his honest, intelligent adaptation of the play, director Abdel Sattar (who got the Best Dramaturgy Award) refrained from taking sides and preserved the moral complexity of the play and its fair-mindedness. The moral dilemmas faced by the terrorists and their intolerable suffering in grappling with them were presented fairly and sympathetically. If this propels spectators to rethink terrorists as agonized human beings rather than faceless, inhuman enemies, then the production is more than welcome regardless of any technical defects.

Another French text, albeit by a Belgian, was King, Clown, King, an adaptation of Michel de Ghelderode’s 1927 play, Escorial, presented by the Vice Versa Arts and Theatre Troupe from Alexandria, directed by Tareq Nader, designed by Israa Zakaria, with costumes by Hania El Kordi, music by Mohamed Hassan, and starring Onsi El Nili and Ahmed Magdi in the title roles. Michel de Ghelderode was part of that extraordinary explosion of European playwrights who blended wit, emotion and absurdity to make sense of the mad interwar years in which they lived. His frequently gothic-tinged work is strongly influenced by the art of the Renaissance in Europe and he based many of his themes and much of his imagery on paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco and Brueghel, evoking the universal monstrosities of humankind as well as the violence and sense of alienation permeating the modern world. His plays are also known for being noisy and colorful spectacles, using various sound effects to reproduce the grotesque and cacophonous nature of nightmares and the vulgarity of waking life.

Escorial is no exception, and dramatizes one of Ghelderode’s overriding themes, namely, that cruelty and the power lust motivate most human actions. First performed in 1929, it is set in the 16th Century and shows King Levisetti engaging his clown, Folial, in a deadly battle of wits while his queen lies dying. The king-and-jester power games, which increasingly take on a physical aspect, are punctuated by the Monk’s failed attempts to bring them back to reality, and gradually reveal that the King suspects Folial of intimate relations with the Queen, and is perhaps trying to elicit a confession that will lead to a hasty execution. But the King himself is impotent and insane, tossing out contradictory commands and finding traitors everywhere. The mind-twisting endgame in which king and clown are pitted against each other ends in a final, brutal climax with the king murdering the clown.

Escorial has been described as ‘a violent, iconoclastic, hyper stylized play that never quite establishes a discernible style, remaining poised between farce and melodrama.’ This makes it an extremely tricky play to stage and a veritable trap for inexperienced directors. In the case of the Vice Versa troupe’s production, what little sense or coherence the play could be said to have was completely lost. It came across as a senseless jumble of jarring scenes, as noisy and physical as anyone could wish, and introduced the entire court, including the dying queen, all garishly dressed, on stage in silent processions and tableaux. The stage image was over cluttered and painfully discordant, the acting very clumsy, and the whole thing was totally devoid of humour, macabre or otherwise. There was no hint of menace anywhere and one could not care less when the clown was finally murdered. If one felt anything at the end, it was relief, for though the play was abridged, the performance seemed to endlessly meander and tediously drag, as if it would never end.

The two specimens of Spanish drama represented in the festival were a welcome treat, as both are fairly new to Egyptian audiences. In The Ballad of the Phantom Train, presented by the Dreamers Troupe, Arrabal uses the deserted mining town of Madrid in New Mexico, which he visited in 1974, as a metaphor for the Spanish capital he left in 1954. The stage directions describe Madrid, New Mexico, as a ghost town that lost all its inhabitants twenty years ago. The time is 1974. Franco reigns in the Madrid of the Old World from which, like Arrabal himself, two of the play’s three characters – Tharsis, a middle aged circus performer, and the Duke de Gaza, an elegant, arrogant young man of twenty, who has rejected the fascist Francoist political principles of his aristocratic Spanish family – fled twenty years before. Arriving in the New World Madrid, they find it as barren as the one they left. Like the miners who could not breathe once their lungs had been polluted, these exiles felt suffocated under Franco’s oppressive rule; and, like the New World Madrid, decimated by exploitation, the Spanish Madrid seems doomed to extinction under Franco. But there is hope yet. Though the scene is one of utter desolation, with slag heaps and dead horses scattered about, one man has survived: old Wichita, once a tightrope walker, still an artist and a free man.

Wichita wanders among phantoms. His memories of the lung disease that killed his family and friends are delivered in a matter-of-fact way, but he waxes rhapsodic over the glories of a town populated by ‘’the barons of slag heaps and the knights of coal’’ – its championship baseball team, its elaborate Christmas crèche and, especially, his own exploits as ‘’the angel of the high wire.’’ Wichita can’t navigate the wire any more, but idealistic Tharsis wants to learn, to ‘’take the wire, make it create a poem and sing.’’ Inspired by Wichita’s New World freedom, he resolves to return to Madrid and walk high above the Plaza del Sol as a symbol of liberty.

With a minimalist set (by Abdel Rahman Sayed), consisting of a black curtain at the back, with a dark opening in it to serve as the entrance to the mineshaft down which Wichita disappears at the end, a long, narrow plank of wood, raised on two battered barrels, to serve in the ropewalking scenes, a shabby looking open suitcase holding a telephone with a long antenna, connected to a rusty transmission device, on which the Duke, pretending that Tharsis has kidnapped him, sends messages to his Falangist father, hoping to scare him into giving liberty to Spain –, with this minimalist set, Abdel Aziz Mohamed, a young actor making his debut as director in this production, managed to capture the dreamlike quality of the play. His well-judged blocking, atmospheric lighting and sound effects, together with Marwan Kamal’s evocative music, were great assets in this respect.  Besides directing, Abdel Aziz Mohamed played the Duke opposite Bakr Mohamed as Thrasis, and entrusted the demanding role of old, fey, eccentric Wichita to young actress Lilette Fahmy. She did not let him down and won the Best Actress Award. I thought that Bakr Mohamed too deserved Best Actor. Up in the air, poised on the plank like a ropewalker, dreaming of walking high above the Plaza del Sol, he gave us a glimpse of Arrabal’s vision of the artist as liberator.  

The other Spanish play, Alfonso Sastre’s The Gag, an indictment of censorship under patriarchal tyranny, which exposes the abuse of power in authoritarian social structures, was another very good choice. Only I wish that the Mahmoud Hussein troupe who presented it had not changed its title to Hot Nights – a sexy title that raises false expectations. Directed in an abridged version by Gaber Farrag, with an elaborately detailed, somewhat  ornate, realistic set by Mazen Fadl, lighting by Ahmed El-Debeiki, and music by Ahmed Sami, it was marred the acting, which often relied on clichés. Nevertheless it scooped the Best Performance Award and shared the Award for Best director with The Ballad of the Phantom Train.

Aziz Nesin’s play, You Are Not Gara, adapted, designed and directed by Mohamed Ali for the Akoun (To Be) Studio troupe in Ismailia, was the last production in the competition section. In it, Aziz Nesin uses a realistic setting to satirize the absurdity and corruption of politicians who often falsify history with fabricated myths of heroism to serve their own ends. In a small Turkish town, Bryn and Salesa, two high local officials, recreate Gara, an army deserter, vagabond and petty criminal whom they presume is dead, into a war hero who died defending his country and unveil a statue of him in an official ceremony. When Gara unexpectedly returns because he misses his town and family, the two officials are determined to protect the myth they created and repeatedly try to bribe him to leave and never come back. When he finally refuses, they make him literally disappear. He dies denying the lie, crying out that he is alive and that the truth will out one day. You can kill a man, but not the truth, the play seems to argue. As Nesin wrote it, all the play demands to work on stage is a statue and three good comedians. The Akoun Studio troupe provided the statue, and an impressive piece of sculpting it was, but not the comedians.  Ahmad Kamal, Mahmoud Nouh and Islam Mohamed not only mangled their lines, but managed to chase the spirit of comedy out of the text as well. Like the first performance in the competition, this last one was a thoroughly depressing affair.

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