Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Stopping up the gaps

Nehad Selaiha catches up on some back log in preparation for the 8th Egyptian National Theatre Festival due on 25 August

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Since Abdel Wahed El-Nabawy took office as minister of culture in March this year, succeeding Gaber Asfour, his ministry has been in a right mess, with some annual events postponed or cancelled, only to be restored after protests, and some vital projects, formerly approved by ministerial decrees, indefinitely put on hold. The result was that preparations for the 8th edition of the annual Egyptian National Theatre Festival did not start till last week when the said minister, after a lot of dawdling and shilly-shallying, finally gave the official go ahead under mounting pressure. As a result of the minister’s procrastinations, the festival will begin ten days later than last year’s, opening on 25 August and closing on 5 September 2015. But may be it is just as well. The fact that the closing ceremony will coincide with the tenth anniversary of the 5 September Beni Sweif holocaust, which claimed the lives of over 60 theatre artists and critics in 2005, has prompted the festival’s organizing committee to turn the event into a celebration of the memory of those theatre martyrs, giving their names to the festival’s top awards. Most of the shows you will see in the festival, be they in the contest or on the fringe, have been covered on this page in the months following the last edition; there are a few, however, that, for one reason or another, I missed writing about at the time they were aired. Fortunately, it being Ramadan, when most theatres shut their doors, leaving the scene free for concerts, musical, folkloric and storytelling performances, I now have the time to catch up on some of this backlog.

One production I was particularly sorry not to have written about at the time was Al-Tali’a theatre’s Hona Antigona (Antigone Calling), which ran from 27 March to 27 April. In that show, director Tamer Karam, true to the style of production he has developed and honed over the past few years, picked up a classical source, adapted it to suit his purposes and make it speak to our times, gave it a vaguely historical setting and presented it in a quasi-ritualistic form that combines features of the ancient Greek theatre and the oratorio. Describing the beginnings and development of this theatrical mode in the Weekly two years ago (in ‘Theatre at last,’ 9 November, 2013), I wrote:

‘The germ of this choral epic drama formula which uses classical texts or sources as material to be newly tailored came into Karam’s head when, while a student of philosophy at Ain Shams University, he used a chorus of fellow students in a university production loosely based on both George Bernard Shaw’s and Jean Anouilh’s treatments of the story of Joan of Arc in 2008. Though he joined the Theatre Institute in the Academy of Arts upon graduation, he continued to develop, refine and hone this formula, working with the same group of students and graduates and directing them at his old university in adaptations of Shakespeare’s King Lear (2009) and of Goethe’s Faust and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus knocked together (in 2010). … He strayed from this formula in only one production for the state theatre organisation … in May 2011. In the following year, however, he was back with his chorus of old colleagues, diligently experimenting with his favourite formula in an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu, which was soon followed by Ghinwet Al-Leil (Night Song) — an equally free adaptation of Yasin Al-Daaw’s Atyaf Hikayah (Phantoms of a Tale) — itself a dramatisation of Ayyoub Al-Masri, an Egyptian folk ballad which resets the Biblical Job and his trials and tribulations in the Egyptian countryside and provides him with a faithful, beautiful, long suffering wife called Na’sa.’

Though Karam’s version of Macbeth, which he directed in the same choral epic style in 2013 at Al-Hanager, won him the Best rising director award in last year’s National Theatre Festival, it fell short, in my view (as I noted in the above mentioned review), of the play’s true tragic heights since the production’s broad epic style does not allow for the detailed psychological realism needed to fully communicate Macbeth’s ‘moral conflict and depth of existential anguish’ and focus the play’s ‘central theme of self betrayal and consequent moral degeneration.’ This style is best suited to Greek tragedy, which by its very nature, as Roland Barthes has perceptively noted, does not admit of psychological realism or inner conflicts. This explains why Karam’s staging of Sophocles’s Antigone in this musical, epic, semi-ritualistic style at Al-Tali’a theatre earlier this year has proved the most satisfactory of all his experiments in this style so far. Indeed, it was Greek tragedy that inspired Karam to evolve this theatrical mode in the first place and it was about time he carried it back to it sources.

Though billed as an adaptation that merges Sophocles’s treatment of the Greek myth with that of the French Jean Anouilh’s, Hona Antigone (Antigone Calling) owed nothing to Anouilh’s play save the comic scene of the guards watching over the rotting corpse of the defeated Polynices, which, I suspect, Karam (ill-advisedly, it seems to me) introduced merely as comic relief. The production could have done without this kind of obtrusive levity. Walid Ghazi’s outstanding musical processing of the classical Arabic translation as an oratorio (minus the orchestra), with most of the lines chorally sung or rhythmically recited by the cast to the accompaniment of tuneful humming and live drumming, leaving only some of the soliloquies and violent confrontations to be declaimed in true epic style, made for a stirring, novel aural experience. Its brisk, cascading rhythm, immaculate tempo and the exquisite orchestration of the vocal delivery of the chorus and main actors made it simply overwhelming.

It was complemented on the visual level by Mahmoud Sabri’s austere and versatile set of a single, huge, white structure in the shape of a step pyramid that dominates the stage against a background of a changing sky and a few bare trees and opens at the bottom in the final scenes to reveal a cave inside that becomes Antigone’s tomb, by the strict harmony of colours in Marwa Munir’s costumes, with red, black and white for the principal protagonists and grey for the chorus, perhaps to indicate their helplessness in standing up to Creon’s tyranny and stopping the tragic march of events, by the director’s sensitive lighting plan, punctuated with blackouts superbly timed to heighten emotions, enhance the dramatic effect of an action, or induce suspense, and by Mohamed Abdel Sabour’s frugal, but well-imagined choreography. It was left to Karam’s superbly disciplined and multi-talented cast, led by Alaa Quqa as Creon, Hend Abdel Halim as Antigone, Mohamed Naser as Haemon and Rehab Khalil as Ismene, to weld these elements together and bring them to life in a thrilling, wonderfully uplifting and profoundly moving performance. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this vibrant, musical protest against tyranny and absolute rule snagged more than one major award in this year’s festival.

The same cannot be said of the Youth Theatre’s production of Hassan Ahmed Hassan Variations on a Folk Tale, a cautionary play about honour-killing rechristened Wedad after the name of its female victim. The story is simple enough and rather hackneyed. An aged widow living with her farmer son resents the arrival of his bride to share his affections with her as well as their rural home. When the farmer brings home news that a close friend of his has just killed his wife upon seeing her alone with a man at home, the mother sees her opportunity to disrupt her son’s  marriage and sets about raising his suspicions about his wife’s character with stories about faithless wives interspersed with old saws and proverbs about the fickleness, wiliness and insatiable lust of her own sex. The son’s newborn suspicions are aggravated by his bride’s grief for her murdered neighbour, her assertion that the man could have been mistaken and her suggestion that rather than kill his wife, the friend should have just divorced her. Thanks to the constant interventions of the mother in law, the wife’s efforts to clear the atmosphere and her tenderness and solicitude towards her husband only succeed in building up the tension between them and augmenting his suspicions, carrying them to a frenzied pitch that can only find relief in killing her.

Tamely directed by Osama Magdi, with a perfectly traditional set by Shahenda Ahmed, traditional costumes by Heba Magdi and a batch of traditional tunes stitched together by Ahmed Abu El-Yazeed, and with next to no interference with the text, except for the introduction of a few jovial dances by the bride and groom, the production had little to recommend it save the vivid, lively performances of Manal Zaki as the spiteful, malicious mother and Ahmed Magdi as the innocent, tender but tragically credulous, gullible husband. Between the two, Liqa’ El-Sirafi had little room to display her talent as the wife, the character after whom the play was retitled, and was simply the pallid, innocent victim of melodrama.

Watching Wedad, I could not help remembering Sa’id Soliman’s intelligent adaptation of the same play when he staged it at Rawabet in 2012 under the title Al-Shal (The Shawl). In that adaptation, Soliman transformed the living mother in the original text into a ghost haunting the son, thus making her into an immortal, immanent presence and a concrete metaphor for the power and authority of a patriarchal tradition that, though unreal and belonging to a dead, long outdated past, still dominates our lives and can actually kill. The change introduced by Soliman, as I noted when I reviewed the production, ‘also intensified the conflict between the individual and his heritage by locating it in the husband’s mind, gave the realistic original a haunting, visually exciting, expressionistic dimension in performance and allowed him to fully exploit the versatile talent of May Reda [who played the wife] by making her double as both the young wife and the dead mother’s ghost.’ In that production, the eponymous Shawl was imaginatively used as an oppressive traditional cover, rejected and discarded by the young wife at the beginning, as an emblem of the dead mother and a sign of her ghostly presence, and finally as a lethal rope that strangles the wife. ‘As a mutable sign,’ I said in the same review, ‘it dominates the performance; and though it takes different aspects and serves different functions, it always enforces Soliman’s feminist, anti-patriarchal message. By imaginatively turning the shawl into a sign of patriarchal oppression, Soliman meant to identify it with the veil forced on Muslim women in conservative societies, including Egypt. In other words, The Shawl encoded a political statement denouncing the rise of the Islamists to power and its imaginative artistic composition and clean, fine execution made the message easily decipherable’ (see ‘Back in force.’ Ahram Weekly, Issue 1116, 27 September, 2012). What a difference a really creative director with an inventive imagination can make to a modest play!

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