Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Women centre stage

The fifth Arab Theatre Festival honoured 16 Arab theatre women earlier this month. Nehad Selaiha, who was among the honourees, reviews the event

Women centre stage
Women centre stage
Al-Ahram Weekly

On 9 January, I found myself in Qatar, almost against my will. Though I was delighted to be invited by the board of the Arab Theatre Organisation to attend the fifth edition of their annual Arab Theatre Festival, talk about theatre in post-revolutionary Egypt and be among this year’s honorees, I was sorry this had to take place in Qatar. I have nothing against the country or its people, but I cannot agree with its rulers’ support of the present regime in Egypt. To be honoured for my work in promoting theatre in a country whose rulers support a regime in mine that opposes theatre and the arts and seems intent on suppressing women was difficult to swallow. Finally, however, I was persuaded by trusted colleagues to go since the invitation came not from the rulers of Qatar but from a non-profit, non-governmental pan-Arab theatre organization run by highly respected fellow theatre people. It was a chance to see many of my Arab friends of whom I had lost sight for some years. I would be in good company too, and a highly respectable group, which included Samiha Ayyoub, Fatheya El-Assal, Nur El-Sherif, Ashraf Abdel-Ghafour, Khaled Galal and Mohamed El-Rubi, among others.

The Arab Theatre Organization was founded in 2008, at the initiative of, and with generous funds from, the ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, Member of the UAE Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, as his full title reads, has 2 doctorates in history and is fond of writing plays. The organization has headquarters in Sharjah and branches with local representatives in all Arab capitals. It has a list of impressive names on its board of trustees, including veteran Egyptian actress Samiha Ayyoub, and holds an annual festival in a different Arab capital each year. The first took place in Cairo, in 2009, the second in Tunis, the third in Beirut, the fourth in Amman, and the fifth, this year’s in Doha. (For the story behind this Arab Theatre Organization and information about its founder, see my “Babel”, in the Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 949, 28 May, 2009.)

Generously funded by Al-Qasimi, the festival has an annual competition for best dramatic text, a substantial financial award for the best performance and another for a distinguished Arab theatre personality nominated by the board of trustees. In the previous editions, Samiha Ayyoub, Iraqi writer and director Yusef El-‘Ani and Tunisian playwright Izz El-Din Medani received this award and this year’s nominee was Moroccan Actress Thuraya Gobran. Her nomination coincided with Al-Qasimi’s decision, announced at the opening of this 5th edition by Ismail Abdallah, the secretary general of the Organization, to henceforth mark 10 January as the Arab Theatre Day, on the model of the ITI’s World Theatre Day, with a message to be delivered by the board’s chosen theatre personality of the year. Unfortunately, Gobran was suddenly taken ill and could not appear in person. Instead, a short documentary film about her achievements was shown and ended with a sequence showing her in her hospital bed reading only the first paragraph of the address she was asked to deliver. Lebanese actress Randa Al-Asmar took over from there, reading the rest with dignified gravity.

Another new feature introduced this year was the decision to honour 16 theatre women from different Arab countries for their services and contributions to Arab theatre. These were, in Arabic alphabetical order: Ahlam Mohamed (Bahrain), Amina Abdel Rasool (Oman), Randa Al-Asmar (Lebanon), Zahira Ben Ammar (Tunisia), Samia Qazmuz Bakri (Palestine), Soad Abdallah (Quwait), Summer Mohamed (Iraq), Samira Ahmed (United Arab Emirates), Sekina Mekwi, alias Sonia (Algeria), Fayza ‘Amseeb (Sudan), Fatheya El-Assal (Egypt), Mariam Al-Saleh (Kuwait), Mariam Sultan (United Arab Emirates), Melha Abdallah (Saudi Arabia), Nehad Selaiha (Egypt), and Hediyya Sa’id (Qatar). By recognizing the work of women in theatre and giving it the appreciation it deserves, the festival seemed to be putting to shame all the Arab regimes that oppose theatre and the arts and strive to shut women out of the public space and keep them silent and invisible. 

The festival opened at Qatar’s National Theatre in Doha on January 10 with the Qatari Al-‘Ard Al-Akheer (The Last Performance). Featuring a theatrical troupe rebelling against Sabir, the leading actor, for always imposing his own views and choices, monopolizing the main parts and allowing no one to shine, the play soon reveals itself as a camouflaged political parable about totalitarianism and the rule of dictators. The opening scene is followed by a series of flashbacks that trace Sabir’s rise to power by wily and unscrupulous means, aided by the stupidity and ineptness of the troupe’s director, and the play ends with the tyrant challenging the audience to rise in revolt against him and concluding when they don’t that they deserve what they get since they prefer to sit back and applaud. Having delivered this political condemnation, he mounts a throne-like seat, pitched on white cubes, and holds in his hand a bunch of strings tied to the still actors, assuming the pose of a puppet master. Coming from Saudi Arabian writer Fahd Raddah Al-Harithi and Qatari director Faleh Fayez (who also played the leading part), the political message struck me as an invitation to the peoples of both countries to join in the Arab Spring and was enough to reconcile me to the generally amateurish acting and the many egregious technical faults of the performance.

The following evening took us to Qatarah Arts City, a newly built district, with cobblestone streets and quaint traditional architecture. Intended as a haven for artists, it houses galleries, poetry reading and storytelling spaces and a building which contains a sumptuously fitted and equipped theatre on the ground floor and an opera auditorium on the second. There, at the theatre, I watched Kuwait’s Mandaly (the name of the main character). An adaptation by Iraqi writer/director Jawad Al-Asadi of Georg Buchner’s unfinished, fragmentary Woyzeck, it focused on the dehumanization of the eponymous character, Mandaly, a poor, timid soldier, by his ruthless, tyrannical military commander. Indeed, the whole adaptation aimed to condemn military dictatorships and expose their satanic methods of crushing the souls and bodies of individuals and distorting their minds. In the original play, Woyzeck vents his rage at his oppression on Marie, the woman who shares his miserable existence, and kills her. In Al-Asadi’s version, however, Mandaly gets up enough courage at the end to kill his oppressor. Abdalla Ghadanfari’s elaborate, expensive-looking set, with mobile walls that can at times close in on the poor soldier when left alone to reveal his commanding officer carousing in a tavern, or become quite transparent at others (thanks to Mish’al Al-Murgan’s lighting and visuals) to show us what goes on in Mandaly’s mind in the form of scenes enacted behind him, was quite impressive and helped to dispel something of the oppressive effect of the very melodramatic writing and acting. Indeed, by physically exaggerating the monstrosity and savagery of the officer and the mute suffering of Mandaly in this melodramatic text, director Abdalla Al-Turkumani turned both at times into ridiculous caricatures that defied sympathy and credibility.

The second play that evening was the Tunisian Infilat (Breakaway), a 2-hander, written and directed by Walid El-Daghasni, and performed at the National Theatre by Amani Balaag and Makram El-Sanhoury. Set in the living room of a young couple during the Jasmine revolution, it traces their different reactions to the demonstrations raging outside. Finally the woman walks out to join the demonstrators while the man opts for safety in seclusion. The style of the acting and directing was typical of the trend started by Rajaa Bin Ammar in the 1990s, in which sets are dispensed with in favour of an empty stage, modern dance alternates with or accompanies acting, the lines are often delivered at breakneck speed without any attempt at realism and the actors’ movements do not follow or support the realistic verbal text, but seem to form a separate visual sub, or co-text that sometimes engages the spoken one in dialogue, or acts as its subconscious, or as an ironic, deconstructive comment on it. 

In Iraq’s Passport, four young men from different social classes and backgrounds wait at a railway station amid loud explosions and air-raid sirens, hoping to leave their devastated country, but hear one train after another whizz by without stopping. An explosion hurls them underground, beneath the station, amid the rubble. The play ends with an ironic master stroke: when the 4 young men finally withdraw out of sight into the shadows, four new passengers walk in with suitcases, and obviously unconscious of the ruins around them, stand still, anxiously waiting for a train to carry them away. The text, by Haydar Gom’a, consists mainly of monologues, with very little dialogue, and passionately expresses the despair and furious frustration of the generation of Iraqis who knew nothing of life but war, fear, deprivation, sectarian conflict and military invasion. I had seen the play in Baghdad in October and was stunned by its force and the impact it had on the audience. This second time in Doha, however, everything seemed wrong: the set, the acting tempo and the lighting and sound effects, which were never on cue. The performance seemed a pale shadow, a tragic parody of itself. The audience too was different, did not understand the Iraqi dialect and failed to engage with the plight of the characters on stage. There, in Baghdad, the audience knew, had lived through what the characters talked about and you could sense the energy of their feelings and memories, of their deep emotional involvement flowing from the auditorium to the stage. That a performance could be so vibrant and alive in one context and so flat and cold in another is one of the mysteries of theatre.

Lebanon’s The Dictator, seen the same evening, more than made up for the disappointment I felt watching Passport. Isam Mahfouz’s text was written in 1968 and centers on 2 male characters. The first is a strutting, fretting megalomaniac general, conducting a coup d’état against the king from his isolated, barricaded headquarters and gradually going to pieces and mentally disintegrating as news of his allies liquidating each other and failing to capture the fugitive king keep reaching him through the phone. The second is his timid, sycophantic servant, who meekly tolerates his abusive violence, anxiously ministers to his delusions of grandeur and shores up his fading hopes of victory. Finally, the crazed general projects the character of the elusive king onto his servant, who tragically plays along, and ends up killing him.

The play was first performed in Beirut in 1969 and surfaced again in 2012 in Amman, at the 19th Jordanian Theatre Festival. In the hands of Lena Al-Abyad, who designed and directed the version I saw at Qatar’s National Theatre on 12 January, 2013, the two male characters became two women, grotesquely made-up and dressed, and the whole action was presented as an elaborate cathartic nightly ritual, vividly reminiscent of the one enacted by the two maids in Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes. Indeed, El-Abyad seemed intent on drawing attention to this similarity. Every aspect of the performance recalled Genet’s Maids and, occasionally, his Balcony: the minimalist, unrealistic set, solely consisting of 6 white cubes, used to simulate a bed, a chair or a podium, and 4 long mirrors, 2 on each side, reflecting distorted images of the two women; the stylized, exaggerated acting, often bordering on the grotesque; the occasional stepping out of the part to give instructions or reprimands; the elaborate ceremony of dressing the general on stage; the mock telephone receiver dangling from the belt round the servant’s waist; and the killing ritual at the dramatic climax of the play with the final quiet, sombre return to reality that follows it. Julia Qassar, as the general, and Aida Sabra, as the servant, gave superb, perfectly controlled and synchronized performances that made me breathless with wonder. It was as near-perfect as a show can ever be and it was no surprise to me that it walked away with the best performance award. 

Morocco’s Tamareen fi Al-Tasamuh (Exercises in Tolerance), which I had seen at the National Theatre in Rabat last spring, has an episodic structure, which combines poetry, live music and dancing with spoken dialogue, and consists of a series of disconnected encounters between couples at variance, who fail to understand, communicate with, or tolerate each other. The sketches, which require comic talent, physical agility and vocal virtuosity and were acted for the most part at a galloping rhythm, allowed director Mohamed Al-Shahedi to showcase the versatility and technical mastery of his 5-strong cast, particularly the 2 women, Hagar Al-Sherki and Sarah Al-Raghai. Al-Raghai also designed the simple, geometrical, mobile set, which consisted of 3 white frames on wheels, with extended bases, like doorsteps; it could be moved around to form different shapes and one at least had a detachable top that was removed to serve as a seat in ‘the president’s press conference’ scene in which the audience were made to represent the press.

The acting was generally studiedly affected and fittingly exaggerated, bordering on the farcical, except in the case of the street sweeper. This character moved unnoticed among the audience in the theatre foyer before the show and accompanied them inside, still plying his broom. He actually fooled me when I bumped into him going down the steps of the auditorium and I remember making a loud remark about the negligence and tardiness of cleaners. On stage, he was completely silent till near the end, just flitting in and out between the scenes. Finally, however, he speaks, delivering a long poetic monologue which turns into nonsensical gibberish at the end and sounds like a volley of bullets fired from an automatic gun machine. It vividly reminded me of Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot. Like Lucky, he is a poor, oppressed underdog, cared for by none and abused by all. The similarity between the two characters becomes particularly striking in the sweeper’s encounter with a rich fat man standing on his doorstep. The scene begins with the latter ordering the former about in a harsh, domineering manner, then thinking aloud to himself that perhaps the best way to eradicate poverty from the world is to gather all the poor of the world together and set fire to them. At this the sweeper bursts out in fury and turns violent, causing the rich man to quail and cower, then hare off in fear.

The UAE’s Saheel Al-Teen, literally, The Neighing of Clay (a compound metaphor for the clamouring of sexual desire in the human body and also for the chafing of a horse at the bit when longing for freedom), was quite a surprise from that quarter. The curious metaphor becomes clear after watching the play. Indeed, clay is central to the meaning of this classical Arabic verse drama by Ismail Abdallah, and director Mohamed El-‘Ameri made sure it was everywhere to be seen on stage. The play tells the story of an aged, drunken sculptor who keeps his only daughter, who has inherited his talent, prisoner in his workshop and teaches her the secrets of his art in order to use her clever hands (as he has lost one arm and the other has stiffened with age) to create out of clay the statue of his dreams. The daughter, however, has other ideas. Though, like Miranda in the Tempest, she has never seen a man except her father, she clandestinely creates out of clay her own Adam, the man of her dreams, and godlike brings it to life by sprinkling it with water in a baptism ritual. As they prepare to leave, the enraged father tries to destroy this woman-created Adam, and when he fails resorts to emotional blackmail, falling on his knees in supplication and reminding her of his debility and her duty. When she still resists, he proposes a compromise: she can keep her Adam if she accepts to fix it forever as a lifeless object by throwing it into the kiln. Fire and water are locked in conflict for a while, but water wins; the godlike father is defeated and his Eve-like daughter throws him into his own blazing kiln and walks out of his dark den, his protective mock-paradise, into the daylight, with the Adam she created by her side.

Throughout the play, a number of semi-nude, clay-covered male dancers stand in the background, simulating statues created by the father, and, at several points, attack the couple on his orders. The new, muscular Adam, however, proves more than a match for them, and when the daughter finally pushes the old sculptor into the kiln and leaves, the statues fight among themselves over the grand creator’s raised, throne-like seat until one of them finally commands it and the play ends. I forgot to say that we learn from a heated conversation between the father and daughter that he had killed his wife, her mother, when she rebelled against his male authority. Though the dialogue was somewhat overwritten, a little stiff and a bit repetitive, betraying a predilection for the literary rather than the dramatic, the play was certainly daring, speaking openly of women’s sexual desires, challenging the authority of the father, iconoclastically twisting the biblical myth to make a woman the creator of Adam, and consequently of life on earth,  alluding through the murder of the mother by her husband to the historical supplanting of matriarchal societies by patriarchal ones, and finally sending the father to the hell he himself created. The set (designed by the director), though cluttered with many redundant objects and superfluous details which made it a burden on the eye and distracted the attention from the main actors, had some good points which supported the iconoclastic bent of the play. The ascending stairs leading outside into the daylight signified that the father inhabited some dark, subterranean region and contrasted with the kiln down below, which, once its door was opened, looked like the mouth of hell.

The joint Tunisian-Lebanese …Yama Kan (…Upon a Time) by Yara Abu Haydar, conceived and directed by Wahid El-Agami, was a sketchy, fragmentary play about two couples returning in secret to the old family home, where only their grandmother and a useless male relative, who seems to live completely in the past and carries a gun he does not know how to use, remain. We soon learn that the house is claimed by strangers who threaten to invade it every moment. And if it is not obvious enough that the house is a transparent symbol for Palestine, the fairy tales the granny tells can leave one in no doubt. The play ends with the whole family, including the grandmother and the man with the ancient gun, deserting their home in fear at the sound of approaching strangers. Though it was a treat to see Hanan Haj Ali on stage, the performance suffered from too much stage business and superfluous movements and too many attempts at forced humour. 

 Waseeni Al-A’raj’s play Paper Woman, freely adapted by Murad Al-Snousi, directed by Sonia, and presented by the Algerian National Theatre troupe, struck me as two plays in one. The wife of a famous novelist and intellectual, her husband lying dangerously ill in hospital, is visited by another woman who tells her that for many years she has been his secret mistress, but now intends to make the whole affair public as she is sick of living in the shadows. But the story is suddenly interrupted, as the two women sit among piles of papers recalling the past, by a long documentary sequence of clips from demonstrations and riots and still photos dating back to the years of terror in Algeria, during which many intellectuals and artists left the country and many of those who stayed were assassinated. The intrusion of this record of Algerian political history would have been justified had it affected the relationship of the two women in any way. It did not. As soon as it came to an end, they picked up where they left off, as if nothing had happened. The main twist of the play is that we are never sure whether the visitor is real or a figment of the wife’s imagination. For many years her husband has named the heroines of his novels Mariam, a name she herself suggested, as it reminded her of a childhood friend. However, as the years went by, she began to be jealous of this imaginary woman, suspecting that there must be a real person behind the name. The play ends as it opened, with the wife sitting on the floor, all alone, surrounded by piles of papers, which she flings into the air and scatters wildly about as the lights fade out.

According to an Egyptian proverb: “What you fear, you may later hold dear.” In other words, if you have misgivings about an experience, it may turn out well after all. Contrary to what I feared, my trip to Qatar was a pleasant and theatrically rewarding experience.

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