Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Temporary shelter

Nehad Selaiha hails a new festival for homeless theatre makers

Al-Ahram Weekly

Kemet Festival for Homeless Troupes, Opera Malak theatre, 14-18 March, 2015.

Five years ago, I reviewed a stunning, wildly original production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a young director called Ahmed El-Sayed. In this review, entitled ‘Time for dreams,’ I described the show as ‘a rollicking, jazzed up, modern-dress, pop-musical ‘ version of the play, with the young actors/dancers dressed ‘in hippie, punk, Goth, and other youthful fashions’ and the whole thing imaginatively choreographed all the way through and performed ‘like a formal dance, with plenty of mime and hip-hop sequences, and most of the dialogue delivered in the style of rap.’ Not withstanding such innovations, El-Sayed managed to remain faithful to the spirit and mood of the play, ‘at once preserving its magic and sad meditations on the fickleness of lovers and transience of love’ and to bring out ‘the dark side of the world of Oberon and Titania and the sense of menace it inspires’ (for the full review, see the Weekly, Issue No. 1004, 24 June, 2010).

This production remains the best I have seen of the play in Egypt, though it is the most frequently performed of the entire Shakespearean heritage, and I naturally expected this brilliant young director to follow it up with other, equally delightful ventures. But the years went by and no more productions were attempted by El-Sayed. Instead, he channelled his creative energy into another direction, championing the cause of independent theatre artists. His experience as director in the state theatre sector convinced him that for theatre to continue and flourish, it had to find ways round this rotten, ossified, bureaucracy-ridden establishment. El-Sayed was in the forefront of activists during the 25 January uprising, the sit-in of intellectuals and artists at the ministry of culture during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nationwide popular demonstrations of 30 June, 2013, which toppled them. Under the new regime, he expected and wanted to see real change, at least in his area of immediate concern – namely, theatre. When he did not find it, he fought many battles; but the fiercest one was his battle to salvage Malak theatre and extricate it from the bureaucratic quagmire it had fallen into. The ministry of culture had acquired that beautiful old theatre in 1983, upon the death of its founder and owner, the famous 1940s singer Malak, then left it to rot – and this in a city that suffers from a severe, chronic shortage of performance venues. Not only did El-Sayed finally manage to have the restoration work nearly completed, but has also recreated the theatre into a veritable incubator, developer and promoter of new theatrical talent, a host for the work of independent theatre artists, and a powerful magnet for young theatre audiences (see May Selim’s interview with El-Sayed for the Weekly in Ahram Online, Tuesday, 17 June, 2014). Like the Townhouse Gallery, which has transformed the poor downtown area around it into a fashionable haunt for artists, Malak theatre, under El-Sayed’s management, will hopefully develop its location – a rundown lane off Emad Eddin Street in downtown Cairo – into an artistic beehive and a Mecca for youthful theatre lovers.

Even before the official opening of the theatre on 15 June, 2014, while still camping among builders and workmen in the midst of rubble, gutted floors and naked wires, El-Sayed initiated several technical workshops for beginners and amateurs in a wide variety of theatre arts, covering playwriting, directing, and scenography, as well as sound and lighting design and engineering. Following the opening, a series of festivals targeting new, young talent in all the arts of performance was launched on a monthly basis and significantly christened ‘Kemet’, one of Egypt’s ancient names, meaning ‘the black land’ in reference to its fertile soil. The Kemet Festivals included one for solo performances by the under twenty, and another for short plays, between fifteen and twenty minutes, for two or more actors. But the most celebrated achievement of Malak theatre so far has been its stage version of John Gray’s best-selling nonfiction book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which has proved so wildly popular that it ran for seventy instead of its originally planned fifteen nights and is still touring in universities and performing at the theatre between events (see my review of the play in the Weekly, ‘Back to the battle of the sexes’, Issue No. 1227, 1 January, 2015).

The latest festival in the Kemet series (held from 14 to 18 March) was dedicated to ‘homeless troupes’ and featured ten productions by such troupes. Of these, two – Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit), adapted, designed and directed by Ahmed Foad and performed by his Sufi troupe, and Fernando Arrabal’s The Ballad of the Phantom Train, directed by Abdel Aziz Mohamed and presented by the Dreamers Troupe – were seen the week before at the French Cultural Centre’s 13th Festival des Jeunes Createurs and were reviewed in last week’s article (see ‘Budding talent’, the Weekly, Issue No. 1238, 19 March, 2015). That they were allowed to play in the Kemet festival is a tribute to El-Sayed’s sympathetic understanding of the feelings, problems and needs of independent troupes. After months of hard work developing a piece, they naturally want it to be seen as widely as possible; you could hardly expect them to be satisfied with performing it once or twice before consigning it to oblivion, or, at best, to digital memory as a mummified image on a disc. Plays are made to be seen live, and it is El-Sayed’s ambition to get as many of them, as often as possible seen.

Of the other eight, four were adaptations of well known classics of Egyptian, Syrian and German drama, two were original plays by accredited authors and one was a collectively written script by the actors. But whatever the source material, all were small-budget productions and displayed admirable artistic resourcefulness in surmounting the restraints imposed on the stage image by extremely limited resources. In all, the sets consisted of drapes or curtains, with wooden frames, cardboard boxes, a forest of sticks, a table with a chair or two, or lengths of rope in one or the other. In view of this, all relied heavily on lighting to mark dramatic changes or shifts in mood, and used the bodies of the actors and their movement to suggest places and shape the scenes. In Al-Dokhan, an intelligently compressed version of Mikhail Roman’s 1960s’ play about an intellectual driven to drugs by life’s pressures and existential despair (presented by a troupe from Ein Shams University), director/dramaturge Mahmoud Tantawi, using a number of wooden blocks and empty frames, all manipulated by the actors, and with the help of sensitive lighting, well-tuned ensemble acting and evocative music, transformed the stage into a haunting mental space into which gripping images floated, lingered, faded, or merged into each other. Though an amateur production, it was the best of the play I have seen as yet and well earned the awards for Best Performance, Best Dramaturgy, Best Director, Best Scenography and the Jury’s Special Award for Acting. Translated into cash, they amount to eight thousand Egyptian pounds, plus 3 performance nights at Malak theatre.

The Second Best Performance Award went to Drama Al Shahateen A Beggars Drama (by the Faculty of Law troupe, Cairo University), adapted and directed by Ahmed Sa’d, who also played a major role and designed the costumes. Sa’d picked a virtually unknown play by a virtually unknown Syrian writer called Badr Mohareb (who possibly had John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in mind when he wrote it). It tells of a pack of vagabonds and riffraff – two penniless ex-actors (drawn on the model of Laurel and Hardy), an attractive female pickpocket in dirty tatters, a thug in leather with metal studs who manipulates her, and a whitelivered petty thief – who take refuge in a deserted, dilapidated theatre to spend the night. When surprised by a police officer in pursuit of the thief who snatched the handbag of a woman, they pretend to be actors rehearsing a play and, in their confusion, alight on a photocopy of Hamlet. To their chagrin, the policeman turns out to be a theatre fan; he not only decides to stay and watch, but takes it upon himself to correct and direct them every now and then, and even volunteers to play the ghost of King Hamlet.

The comic potential of this situation in which one drama is superimposed on another and constantly interferes with it is obviously limitless, and the director, besides making the most of it and of burlesquing Hamlet, packs the performance with practically every known comedy routine. The play, however, ends sadly and somewhat melodramatically. When the policeman finally departs in peace, the suppressed rivalry between the leading ex-actor and the ruthless thug over the female pickpocket who is attracted to the former boils over to the surface and erupts in violence, ending in a shooting that leaves the hapless girl dead. Ahmed Sa’d has a real flair for comedy, whether as actor or director, and his irrepressibly ebullient, comically explosive Beggars Drama deservedly scooped, besides the  Second Best Performance Award, the Award for Most Popular Comic Show,  plus two acting awards, for Best Leading and Best Supporting Male roles. The awards total six thousand Egyptian pounds, with an added bonus of three performance nights at Malak. What a pity that the other Syrian play in this festival, Saadallah Wannus’s Tuqus Al Isharat wa Al Tahawulat (Rituals of Signs and Transformations) – a decidedly greater and technically superiour play to Badr Mohareb’s Beggars Drama, left the festival empty handed. Directed with admirable clarity and economy by Tareq Izzat, whose careful reduction of the play’s length preserved its shocking boldness in matters of sex and religion, it ran well over the festival’s stipulated one-hour-duration, with the result that it was disqualified and only got a recognition of merit on a piece of paper. This was a pity, as El-Sayed and the members of the Jury admitted; but fairness to all impelled their decision.

The three originally written Egyptian texts featured in this festival did not match up in respect of craft or impact to either Mikhail Roman’s Smoke, or Mahmoud Diab’s Rigaal Bila Ru’uus (Headless Men), also presented in the festival, though I missed it and therefore cannot say what Magdi El-Mansoob, who adapted and directed it, playing the lead male as well, made of it. Nuqta Wi Min Awel El-Satr (Period, a New Line), written and directed by Mohamed Musa for a troupe from Qina, mysteriously called Anaconda, treated us to an impressive show of swarthy Upper Egyptian men, ceaselessly milling around the stage and wielding long, thick sticks, alternately waving them in a menacing way, holding them in certain positions to form some shapes, or banging them on the stage floor in a thundering way. The whole text was recited in chorus save a few lines, and as the performers had no elocution skills of any degree, the words came across as jumbled sounds. Hard as I tried, I completely failed to puzzle out what was said or what the play was all about. However, the show got a joint scenography award, presumably for the stick formations.

By contrast, the actors’ elocution in Fannan Majhool (Unknown Artist) was faultless, and no wonder, since most of them are students and graduates of the theatre institute, as the name of the troupe clearly declares. It also helped that they rarely spoke in chorus and took turns delivering their speeches and monologues solo, framed in a halo of light. The monologues and speeches were all drawn from political poems and plays, including Salah Abdel Sabour’s verse drama, Laila and the Madman, and Mahmoud Diab’s Bab El-Futooh (Conquerors Gate), and generally dwelt on social injustice and the poverty and hopelessness it breeds, and on oppression, whether of citizens under totalitarian regimes, or of despoiled nations, such as the Palestinians.  The trouble was that powerful, and eloquently, feelingly delivered as the speeches were, they failed to connect in any semblance of a drama, nor did they seem to relate to the boisterous, riotous opening of the show, in which the actors literally stormed the stage from the auditorium, creating a terrible din, then walked round it in circles, screaming out their grievances and frustrations as young people in Egypt today. What a lot of physical energy was here overthrown!

Like Fannan Majhool, Khata’ Lahzi fil Aql (A Momentary Mental Lapse, or Momentary Lapse of Reason), written, directed and performed by Wa’el Mohamed, was also an original composition and consciously acted to the audience whose participation was coercively solicited and insistently encouraged. Only it was a monodrama, or, rather, a one-man story-telling show with a single, definite theme that harked back to Roman’s Smoke – namely, drug addiction. With the audience sitting around him on stage, as well as facing him in the auditorium, Wa’el Mohamed told the story of the half-crazed, seedy drug addict he masterfully impersonated, dwelling on all the sordid details, all the degradation, mental agony and crushing remorse he suffered. It was a powerful cautionary tale in which tragedy was laced with black humour, and earned Wa’el Mohamed a Jury’s Special Award of one thousand Egyptian pounds.

It strikes me as curious that Wa’el Mohamed’s fictional addict never sought treatment at a sanatorium; and may be it is just as well if you think of Doktor, Fraulein Mathilde Von Zahnd’s Les Cerisiers sanatorium in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists. What haunting fears drove director Salah Ihab and the Faculty of Law troupe of Ein Shams University to choose a play about the social responsibility of the scientist is a matter for interesting conjecture. Not that the moral debate about this responsibility really engages the centre of the play; it is long delayed and only comes at the very end after all the revelations but one have been made, and, in any case, in this version, it is severely pruned. But apart from any portentous themes or moral debates, the play is sufficiently attractive to draw any director and group of actors. The setting is a Swiss madhouse with three mental patients who believe they are great physicists. When the play opens, two nurses have already been murdered and a third looks very much set to join them, and eventually does. When she is finally dispatched, but not before her murderer has had a visit from his ex-wife, the revelations come tumbling down: the two patients who believe they are Newton and Einstein are in fact secret agents of two countries after the hidden scientific discoveries of the third inmate, Mobius, who believes he is receiving dictation about physics from King Solomon. But Mobius too is feigning madness to hide his dangerous scientific discoveries from a world that might destroy itself with such knowledge. The play ends with the most horrendously ironical revelation of all: we discover that the deformed, kindly looking female doctor is the only really insane person in the asylum, that she really has visions of King Solomon, and that she has secretly stolen or copied Mobius’s manuscripts and intends to use his knowledge to conquer the world. In other words, the play ends with the prospect of a power-crazed insane woman ruling the world. The performance I saw at the festival had good lighting, some good acting (it garnered two acting awards worth one thousand Egyptian pounds) and was tolerably entertaining. Having said this let me quickly add that it is not in search of technical excellence that one goes to the Kemet festivals, but in search of hope. In this respect, they never disappoint.

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