Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Nour Al-Sherif: On the boards

Nehad Selaiha reviews Nour Al-Sherif’s career in theatre

Al-Ahram Weekly

Of his generation of graduates from the Theatre Institute in the sixties who went on to become film and television stars in subsequent years, Nour Al-Sherif (born Mohamed Gaber Mohamed Abdallah) was the most devoted to theatre, boasting twenty-one acting parts (all as a lead except for two) and directing five plays. While still a student, he played a tiny silent part in Galal Al-Sharqawi’s production of Mustafa Mahmoud’s play Al-Zilzal (The Earthquake) and was picked out by director Saad Ardash, one of his teachers, to say a few lines in a 1963 stage adaptation by Naima Wasfi of Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi’s popular novel Al-Shaware’ Al-Khalfeyah (Back Streets). His next stage appearance was in Noaman Ashour’s play, Waboor Al-Teheen (The Mill), which Naguib Sorour directed for Al-Hakim Theatre Company in 1965. In that same year he thought he had struck it rich when he was cast as the eponymous hero in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by director Kamal Eid. This, however, was to prove a Fata Morgana when the production was given up due to problems within the World Theatre Company sponsoring it.

He got his real break as an artist not in theatre, but on the big screen when, on the recommendation of comedian Adel Imam who had seen him play a scene from Hamlet during a summer camp in Alexandria, he was cast as Kamal, a major role in a film version of Qasr Al-Shawq (Palace of Desire), the second novel in Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy, directed by the master of melodrama in Egyptian cinema, Hassan Al-Imam. The following year he was signed for another major role in a television series, Al-Qahira Wal Nas (Cairo and its People) which continued for two years, making him a familiar face and building his fame and popularity. This, however, did not keep him away from theatre. In 1968, he starred in an Indian play for children called The Flying Prince, staged by theatre director Ahmed Zaki at the Puppet Theatre. It was probably around that time too that he was directed by comedian Fouad Al-Mohandes in a play called Zawg fil Masyada (A Husband Trapped), of which I can find no record except his mention of it, without any dates, in a tribute to Al-Mohandes on his death in 2006 (see:

Though the 1970s was the richest decade in Nour Al-Sherif’s cinematic career (one filmography lists no less than ninety movies), he did not neglect theatre. Between 1971 and 1979 he took the lead in six major plays by the most prestigious writers of the day – namely: Samson and Delilah, a political parable about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, using the old biblical figures, by Palestinian playwright Muin Bseiso, directed by Nabil Al-Alfi, 1971; El-Iyal El-Tayebeen (The Good Boys), a political comedy by Ali Salem, directed Hassan Abdel-Salam, 1972; Now the King is Dead, a political verse drama by Salah Abdel-Sabour denouncing tyranny and absolute rule in a mythical setting, directed by Nabil Al-Alfi, Al-Talia Theatre, 1974; Sitt Al-Mulk (Lady on the Throne), an existentialist drama in which the historical figure of the notoriously  eccentric (often described as ‘mad’ 11th Century Fatimid ruler of Egypt, the Caliph Abu Ali Mansur Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah (literally ‘Ruler by God’s Command’), who mysteriously disappeared in the Mokattam hills on the night of 12/13 February 1021, is projected as a complex, existentialist hero, tormented and driven insane, like Albert Camus’ Caligula, by impossible longings and quests and dreams of immortality engendered by absolute power, directed for the National by Abdel Ghaffar Ouda in 1978; Bakalorios fi Hokm Al-Sho’oub (A degree in Governing Peoples), a political satire on military rule by Ali Salem, produced in the private sector and directed by Shakir Abdel-Latif, 1978; and Al-Faris wa Al-Aseerah (The Knight and the Captive Princess), a tragedy by Fawzi Fahmi about the atrocities of war, loosely based on the Greek myth of the fall of Troy and the capture of Andromache but introducing new, original characters,  directed by Awad Mohamed Awad for the National in 1979.

The memorable characters Nour Al-Sherif took on in these plays and their richness and variety do more than amply demonstrate the magnificent range of his talent; they testify to his commitment to serious theatre at a time when the social turmoil produced by the sudden shift from a socialist economic policy to a laissez-faire one inundated the stage with cheap and silly commercial shows. Indeed, throughout his life, Nour Al-Sherif remained a truly committed artist and enlightened, progressive intellectual who was invariably guided in his artistic choices and decisions by his beliefs and convictions, never compromising them. By the 1980s, however, his will and determination to fight the tide of commercialism in theatre seem to have flagged. The decade began auspiciously with a furious burst of theatrical  activity in the first two years, resulting in 1982 in his forming a private theatre company with playwright Ali Salem and presenting a triple bill of that author’s composition, entitled An Evening of Laughter, with Nour starring in all three plays – Al Mutafa’el (The Optimist), Al-Mu’alef fi Shahr Al-Asal (The Author on his Honeymoon), and Al Kateb wa Al Shahaat (The Writer and the Beggar) – besides directing the first two (Ali Salem directed the third). In that same year too, he gave a superb tragic-comic performance at the National in Fawzi Fahmi’s Li’bet El-Sultan (The Sultan’s Game), an intricate play-within-a play featuring a troupe of strolling players performing a piece about the political conflicts and intrigues in the court of the Abbasid Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, which Nabil Al-Alfi directed.

Then followed a theatrical hiatus which lasted for a full eight years. Though critically acclaimed, the private theatre venture was a financial disaster and had to be given up and the state theatre did not offer him any parts worth considering. As he said in an interview, the whole atmosphere seemed inimical to serious theatre.

In 1990, however, director Galal Al-Sharqawi lured him back to the boards with a satirical play about the fraudulent dealings of the so-called ‘Islamic investment funds’ which came to light after a government crackdown in 1989, causing a public scandal with vast political reverberations. Until the government crackdown, these funds had been mushrooming all over the country, replacing secular banks to the detriment of the national economy, and ended up robbing hundreds of thousands of Egyptians of their life savings. Al-Maleem bi Arba’ah (Four Pennies for One), by Abu Al-Ela Al-Salamouni, was perfectly tuned to Nour Al-Sherif’s socialist sentiments and secular leanings.

The following year found Nour Al-Sherif swinging from the private, commercial sector to the Academy of Arts and from hilarious comedy to searing tragedy. In that year, the Academy founded its own theatre troupe and chose for its inaugural work Albert Camus’ Caligula. In my review of the production in this paper on 19 December, 1991, I said: ‘Saad Ardash directed this dramatic enterprise and picked out Nour Al-Sherif to take the leading role. Curiously, the obvious clash between the conservative timidity and traditional reserve of the former and the passionate rebelliousness and romantic abandon of the latter worked, producing a theatrical experience of real fervour. As the scenes cascaded, we were tossed along with the actors among the turbulent waves of Camus’ black humour, searing wit and violent, mad despair. Our lifeline was the magnificent Nour Al-Sherif who swung with the dexterity of a veteran trapeze artist, between the extremes of a passionate thirst for immortality and the powerful frustration of a decimating nihilism.’

In 1992 he was back to comedy and the private sector, starring with comedian Mohamed Awad and his wife Poussie in Youssef Auf’s Kont Feen Ya Ali (Where Have You Been, Ali?) under the direction of Isam Al-Sayed. In 1994, he went back to directing after a hiatus of thirteen years. For the first time, he would be only a director; he wanted to experiment and work with young artists, and so, Al-Hanager Centre was to be his destination and the scene of his new venture. His choice of Muhakamat Al-Kahin (The Trial of the Priest), a short story by Bahaa Taher set in Pharaonic times was not surprising. He had long had a keen interest in Egyptology and was a renowned lover of antiquities, heading the Egyptian Museum Lovers’ Association. He once told the renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass that ‘he would like to do more films on Pharaonic themes because he sees Egyptian history as a rich source of material’ (see ‘Dig days: Nour Al-Sherif, Weekly, Issue No. 644, 26 June). The secular bent of the story, which exposes the use of religion as a cover for the lust for political power, and shows the priests of Amon plotting and fighting tooth and nail to preserve their position of authority under Akhenaten, must have appealed to him. But though he roped in a gifted playwright, Mohsen Misilhi, to write the stage version, with help from Abdel-Rehim Kamal, the highly stylized production came across, as I noted in my review of it in the Weekly on 24 March, 1994, as a series of rigid, laborious tableaux vivants, reproducing scenes from the paintings found in ancient Egyptian tombs and on Pharaonic monuments. But perhaps this was exactly what Nour Al-Sherif wanted and strove for. As he told me then, what he had in mind “was not a dramatisation but a faithful rendering of the literary text in audiovisual terms using the medium of theatre.”

His passion for ancient Egypt overpowered him again in 1998, prompting him to stage a musical adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Struggle of Thebes, a novel about the conflict between the Ancient Egyptians and the Hyksos. The spectacular, star-studded production was presented on the stage of the Sound and Light show at the pyramids as part of the celebrations of the silver jubilee of the 6 October victory over Israel. I did not see it myself, but Zahi Hawass described it in the same column above as ‘One of the greatest pieces’ Nour had directed, and went on to say: ‘It is a stunning musical with unforgettable scenes. His wife Poussie played the part of a princess of the Hyksos who falls in love with Ahmose, and when Nour, as a priest, recited Akhenaten’s hymn to the sun, he did it with passion.’

1998 also found Nour at the National, starring as a modern Everyman in an Egyptian version of the medieval morality play, written and directed by Hani Metaweh and rechristened Ya Mesafer Wahdak (Lone Traveller). Describing his performance in this paper, in a review of the play entitled ‘Into the Undiscovered Country’ and published on 19 March, 1998, I wrote: ‘Nour Al-Sherif was a magnificent presence on stage. I hesitate to use the word ‘actor,’ because for him acting comes as naturally as breathing. Though a star, and a super one at that, he glided through the show like a benign spirit, never pushing himself forward, never upstaging anybody, and always helping everyone to give their best. Like a maestro, he wanted his players to perform with all the zest and vigour they could command, while carefully orchestrating them to preserve the delicate balance between the varied moods of the play and its total effect.’

Nour Al-Sherif made three more contributions to theatre in the third millennium, all in the first five years. In 2002, he starred in Fahmi Al-Kholi’s production of Sherif Al-Shoubashi’s Jerusalem Shall Not Fall (his debut as dramatist), a political play of the agit-prop type, made up of two parts, with two different sets of events and characters, two contrasting heroes (both played by Nour Al-Sherif), three locales (Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad) and two rival dynasties (the Abbasids with a caliph ruling from Baghdad and the Fatimids with another ruling from Cairo). In my review of the play (“And the rest is silence” (Ahram Weekly, Issue 571, 31st January, 2002), I wrote: ‘Political plays with a clear message can be deadly dull and boring; but they are never that with Nour Al-Sherif around, taking the lead. His presence onstage adds depth to any words he utters, giving a very credible illusion of complexity and profundity even to the obviously simplistic or glaringly mundane. His superb style of acting, sophisticated and finely-honed, invariably communicates a warm sense of conviction, of touching, wide-eyed, often bewildered innocence, but tinged with a tone of subtle irony and an elusive whiff of bitter resignation. It is a style that has often worked wonders with otherwise unpalatable fare.’

In the same article, I went on to say that ‘Of course the burden of Jerusalem fell squarely on Al-Sherif’s shoulders’ and that though it bristles with passionate tirades that no actor can resist, Nour never raised his voice once throughout the play, showing instead repressed emotion reflected in the deep tones of his voice, as well as in the elegant economy of every movement and gesture.’ Nour Al-Sherif’s next stage appearance in 2004 was also in a political musical called Ya Ghoulah ‘Einek Hamra (literally, to tell an ogress to her face that she has bloodshot eyes), written by Karam Al-Naggar and directed buy Hassan Abdel-Salam; and his performance in this rather simplistic and highly rhetorical and oratorical representation of the negative effects of globalisation and a new world order dominated by the United States can be described in the very same words I used with regard to he performance in the Jerusalem production. Once more his fervent, muted acting gave a bombastic text the power of conviction.

For his next, and what was to be his last, stage appearance, Nour Al-Sherif, by a strange coincidence, chose what was to prove Alfred Farag’s swan song too (he died in 2006) – namely, Al-Amirah wal Sa’louk (The Princess and the Vagabond) – and directed it himself at the National in 2005, playing the eponymous vagabond. And what a wonderful choice that was! The Princess and the Vagabond is the profoundest, most intriguing, most wistful and most technically ingenious of all Farag’s Arabian-Nights-inspired plays, and it was to be for both Farag and Nour Al-Sherif their final crowning victory in theatre – a rare gem to crown all previous jewels. In my long review of the production I said: ‘Nowhere else – not even in Al-Tabrizi – has Farag achieved such a masterful fusion of dream and reality, fantasy and illusion, blurring the dividing lines between them in the true spirit of the Nights, or of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or used this technique with such efficiency to question the nature of time, art, reality and the human condition. …That… [Nour] fell in love with the play, as he writes in the printed programme, is evident in the production. In every scene it seems to revel in the text’s intricate, imaginative course, its breathtaking shifts, twists and turns, and to joyfully celebrate the power of the artistic imagination and its miraculous ability to transcend the barriers of place and time and recklessly voyage through the past and future and the realms of the fantastic. Love is a great disciplinarian; and since Nour loved the play, he strove to match its author’s eloquent economy and impeccable sense of timing and to translate his exciting imaginative flights into enchanting visual and aural compositions. The temptation of excess was an ever present danger since the play easily lends itself to being turned into a musical. In the hands of another director, it would have been stuffed to bursting point with songs and dances and rambled on for hours. Such a policy, notwithstanding its commercial merits, would have completely swamped the intriguing uncertainty of the text and its quizzical charm (‘Back to the Nights’, the Weekly, Issue No. 755, 11 August, 2005).

The Princess and the Vagabond was, with regard to theatre, a swan song for both Alfred Farag and the enchanting Nour Al-Sherif and neither of them could have chosen a better.

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