Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Brave new shoots

Nehad Selaiha welcomes a new batch of Egyptian women playwrights who found their way to the stage this year

Al-Ahram Weekly

In recent years more and more young women in Egypt have taken to writing for the stage, finding in theatre an appropriate medium through which to air their views and make their voices heard. There have been, of course, women playwrights in Egypt before, many of whom pursued a socialist-feminist polemic. Indeed, since the 1980s, a lot of radical work has been done in theatre by female dramatists such as Fatheya El-Assal, Nawal El-Saadawi, Nahed Na’ela Naguib, Nehad Gad, Nadia El-Banhawi, and Rasha Abdel Mon’em, not to mention such playwrights/directors as Abeer Ali, Effat Yehia and Nora Amin, with the result that what had been an almost exclusively male dominated dramatic tradition, mainly concerned with public issues, began to make room for a grittier, more passionate kind of writing in which intimately personal matters become burningly political questions (for a thorough historical documentation of female playwriting in Egypt, see ‘Women Playwrights in Egypt,’ by Nehad Selaiha and Sarah Enany, in Contemporary Women Playwrights Into the 21st Century, edited by Penny Farfan and Lesley Ferris, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, Chapter 4, pp. 66-81, originally published in Theatre Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4, December 2010, pp. 627-643).

Not withstanding such history, the fact remains that compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s, more young women today are embracing playwriting as a creative option. In the year 2014 alone, seven new plays by six new women playwrights have appeared on the scene, in print or on the stage: Zil (Shadow), by Samar Abdel Ati; Al-Labo’a (She Tiger), by Dina Soliman; Hina Miqas wi Hina Miqas (Paper Dolls) by Mayada Khattab; Tartashet Shams (A Splash of Sunshine), by Nisreen Noor; and El Bab El Muwareb (Leaving the Door Ajar) and Shibbakna Satayroh Hareer (Our Window has Silken Drapes), by Marwa Farouq – all published by the International Association for Creativity and Training (I-ACT), with 3 of them (Marwa Farouq’s two plays and Nisreen Noor’s Splash) staged in fringe and regional venues – and Al-Mirayah (The Mirror) by Yasmine Imam, which was produced by Studio Emad El-Din for the 2014 National Theatre Festival (see review in ‘Festival roundup’, Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No.1211, 28 August, 2014) and  has since appeared in English, co-translated by Rebekah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry for their ‘Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts: Politics, Aesthetics, Translation,’ a collection of Egyptian plays published in the In Performance Series (No.10) by Seagull Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press in 2014.

One could also count in Marwa Radwan’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, rechristened Mac and Lee, at the Creativity Centre, Wisam Osama’s original reworking of the same play, also at the Creativity Centre, under the title Maknoon Macbeth (for the meaning of the title and a review of the play, see ‘More of the menu’, Weekly, Issue No.1203, 26 June, 2014), Yasmine Imam’s and Ayat Magdi’s collaborative dramatization of John Gray’s best-selling nonfiction book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus for Malak theatre (see ‘Back to the battle of the sexes,’ Weekly, Issue No.1227, 1 January, 2015),  or Rooh wa Gasad (Soul and Body), a performance of storytelling, featuring ten delightful short stories written and narrated/performed at the 2014 National Theatre Festival by members of Ana El-Hekaya (I am the Story) Group, founded by writer Sahar El-Mogi.

The reason/reasons behind this increase in female writing for the stage and why it is happening now need to be researched. It may be that something fundamental is shifting in Egyptian theatre, or that more Egyptian women have become empowered, or that there has been a general push over the past few years to try and improve the balance of men and women in theatre, or that, as has been claimed, there is a secret, silent social revolution underway in Egypt carried out by ‘the generation that made the 2011 revolution happen’ (see ‘Egypt’s Quiet Social Revolution,’ The Foreign Policy Global Magazine ( In any case, and for whatever reason, the trend seems set to continue in 2015, which so far has seen the staging of three new plays by new women dramatists. One of these, Rasha Faltas’s Paranoia, which premiered at El-Hanager in May, was reviewed on this page earlier this month (see ‘Blasted with ecstasy, Weekly, Issue No.1249, 4 June, 2015). The other two – Marwa Radwan’s SheCairo, which she herself directed at the Youth theatre,  and Safaa El-Beyali’s 3D, presented at Al-Tali’a theatre – are the subject of this article.

Marwa Radwan was trained in theatre at the Creativity Centre where, besides the above-mentioned Mac and Lee, she also successfully dramatized and directed Tawfiq El-Hakim’s short story Laylat Al-Zifaf (Wedding Night) in 2012. Both ventures align her with the crop of female playwrights/directors – like Abeer Ali, Nora Amin and Effat Yehia – who made their debuts in the 1990s and reveal a strong penchant for musical comedy which has carried into her first originally written play SheCairo. Explaining the curious title she admits that she mainly chose it because it was catchy and would attract readers and audiences; however, she adds, it also seemed appropriate since her play was about young women living in today’s Cairo. Though a feminist in outlook and convictions, Radwan shies away from the preachy or grimly serious and agonized approaches of some women writers and prefers a humorous, more lighthearted approach and  to make her plays more attractive to the general public.

The feminist message in SheCairo is simple enough and quite straightforward: with so much male oppression and domestic violence reported in the media and seen in one’s immediate circles, young women, who generally have strong, graphic memories, impressionable minds and a vivid imagination, are apt to become suspicious of all males and to be put off love and marriage. If men are not to remain forever single, or end up deserted or killed by their partners, they have to reform and mend their ways. Above all, they have to remember that women never forget cruelty or betrayal and can sometimes react quite violently to such forms of abuse. Grim and serious as this warning may be, it is processed in the highly attractive, popular form of a musical thriller with comic twist and plenty of dark humour thrown in. The play opens with two young women living together in hiding, having just escaped from a court of justice where they were to be tried for murder.  As they exchange confidences, their stories gradually unfold in the form of  enacted scenes from the past that show how one was driven to murder her fiancé when he betrayed her after a passionate love affair and the other saw no option to escape her husband’s ruthless tyranny but to kill him. Though they share the same guilt, the two women are basically different in character and temperament, as the writer/director takes pains to make clear. While the one played by Alhan El-Mahdi is strong, positive, artistic (she is fond of music and dancing), cheerful and liberated, Sarah Sallam, as the other, is timid, subdued, and thoroughly conventional. Under stress, however, both react in the same violent way.

In the two stories, the same actor (Sherif Nabil) plays the charming, treacherous lover and the domineering, boorish husband and, of course, meets with the same violent end in both cases. Did Radwan mean to imply that all charming, handsome men are faithless deceivers before marriage and become savage beasts when they are finally forced into wedlock? This would seem to be the case were it not for the general humorous mood of the play, the comic musical element interlacing the action and, above all, the final comic twist. When the stories of the two women are played out, suddenly the timid one reenters in the character of an elder sister, conventionally married, and meekly submitting to her husband’s tyranny, to inform the other that her fiancé is outside, waiting to take her to the altar. We discover with a jolt that all we have seen never took place except in the other woman’s mind and was possibly triggered by her approaching nuptials. When the real fiancé walks in (also played by Sherif Nabil), he is conventional, submissive, lackluster, affected and eager to please – the exact opposite of the dashing, handsome imaginary fiancé we saw earlier.  This explains the bride’s reluctance to wed him and, perhaps, why she fantasized about having a different, more exciting one, even if her subconscious mind, which has imbibed society’s warnings against handsome men being all playboys unfit for marriage, pictured him as faithless and threatened her with a dire end. And just as the passionate love affair was mere wishful thinking on her part, so was her fantasizing about her sister murdering her coarse, oppressive husband.

But though the comic discovery washes the play clean of blood and puts an end to any suspense regarding the fates of the two women, the end of the play is far from happy or comforting. While one woman submits to a loveless marriage, the other seems doomed to a life of active marital oppression.  That either of the two women, or both, may rebel one day in one way or another is very much on the cards. As director, Radwan provided the best for her play, picking wonderfully talented and quite versatile actors for the three parts, roping in Ahmed Tareq Yehia to provide the musical element, Rasha Magdi to choreograph the scenes between the young lovers in a humorous, parodic vein, and stage and costume designer Nora Sabri El-Tawil to make the best of the cramped space at the tiny new venue of the Youth theatre in the garden of the floating Fatma Rushdi theatre and to dress the actors suitably.

Unlike Marwa Radwan, Safaa El-Beyali does not seem to feel the need to conform to a feminist agenda, or write a woman’s play. In her 3D, a remarkably assured and technically adventurous first play which premiered at El-Tali’a theatre earlier this year, she concerns herself with the nature of ‘reality’ as a series of readings, or constructions of events and actions imposed by different perspectives. Contrary to what the title suggests, the play does not make use of 3D technology, or holographic projections, or virtual reality at any point, but rather uses 3D as a metaphor for the multifaceted nature of reality. To illustrate this, El-Beyali chooses three famous stories from the world and popular heritage – namely: Anthony and Cleopatra, Othello and Desdemona and Shafiqa and Metwalli – and projects different, often contradictory, but quite plausible readings of them – two of each story, in addition to the traditionally accepted inherited one – to warn the audience against taking any one given reading of history or current events as the only true or possible one and alert them to the need to examine the motives and interests of the interpreter and the tone and context of the interpretation.

The stories and their variations are presented by the same group of seven actors – Yaser Farag, Basma Shawqi, Rahma, Hagar Afifi, Hani Sirag, Medo Abdel Qadir and Ibrahim Sa’id – who feel like thirty and sweep us off our feet with their amazing energy and stunning versatility. Dressed alike, from beginning to end, in dark leotards, with a few accessories thrown in when required, they perform all the parts in the three stories and their six variations, taking turns at playing different characters and parts in different styles, ranging from melodrama to farce and burlesque, as the action hurtles from one story to the other and from one variation to the next. This required meticulous orchestration and split-second timing particularly as the action rushed headlong at a dizzying pace. El-Beyali worked closely with director Mohamed and dramatic editor Farouq El-Shazli on the arrangement of the scenes and the order of their shifting, with lyricist Abdel Mon’em Taha and composer Taha El-Hakim over the songs that accompanied the show and formed its finale to make sure they consolidates her message, and with stage designer  Wa’el Abdallah who devised an ingenious rotating set consisting of a huge sideless box, which nearly fills all the performance area at El-Tali’a’s small hall, and itself acts like the main acting area, showing the audience the same scene from different angles as it rotates. In some scenes, it was fitted with detachable steps that led to its top, which provided an additional acting area, and sometimes another much smaller box appeared on one side, serving as a boat. This set allowed the free flow of the action, without a single interruption, pause, or blackout. In addition to this, the walls of the small hall were thickly scribbled over graffiti writing in phosphorous colours, echoing the message of the play in different variations. This, however, was rather excessive and seemed like belabouring the point to a ridiculous extent. In any case, few found fault with anything else in the show and it was enthusiastically received by the critics and rapturously applauded by the public, acting as a powerful launching pad for a rising new dramatist.

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