Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Back in action

Nehad Selaiha hails the return of the magnificent Yehia Al-Fakharani to the stage

Back in action
Back in action
Al-Ahram Weekly

It was at the end of February this year that I finally mustered enough courage to revisit the National Theatre. It had been closed for six years undergoing restoration after a disastrous fire destroyed on the evening of 27 September, 2008. The restoration process had been long drawn, tediously slow, and full of delays, snags and hitches and had all but completely stopped during the political turmoil and social turbulences that followed the 25 January uprising in 2011. Finally, however, it was declared completed and the theatre was officially reopened on 20 December 2014.

The opening took place amid heated controversy over some technical and architectural aspects of the restoration work, particularly the construction of a new, modern-style glass façade for the administrative building adjacent to the theatre, which, in the view of many, horribly clashed with the original Islamic style of the historical building. There were also complaints about defects in the fire-fighting system and the restoration costs which had spiraled from an original estimate of LE55 to LE105 million. To dampen the occasion further, the production that was to grace the opening – a musical documentary about the life of enlightenment pioneer Rifa’a El-Tahtawi, based on two plays by No’man Ashour and directed by Isam El-Sayed – was not yet ready and a Tanoura dance show was presented instead, together with many speeches.

Much as I missed that beloved haunt that had been a cherished part of my life for over forty years, I stayed away from the opening. I was frightened off by press reports and photos of the renovated building. And even when Bahlam Ya Masr (I am Dreaming, Egypt), the documentary that had been intended for the opening ceremony, finally premiered nine days later (on 29 December), and though it featured Ali El-Haggar, one of my favourite singers, in the lead as El-Tahtawi, I still kept away. It was not until a month later, when the play was about to end its run, that I finally dragged myself there. And, O, how I cried at the sight of that awful glass façade! I really broke down and shed real tears and vowed never to set foot there again.

Nothing happened to tempt me to break my oath for the next five months. Thanks to the Ministry of Interior, the theatre was closed in early March until such time as a security zone, fenced in with iron railings and gates, was installed round the theatre. It reopened on 13 August with a revival of an old operetta that has been in the repertoire of the Egyptian theatre since 1931. Leila min Alf Leila (A Night of the Thousand Nights), for which, Beiram El-Tonsi (1893-1961) wrote the libretto and Ahmed Sidqi (1916-1987) the musical score, was first performed in 1931 at the old Opera house (destroyed by fire in 1971); it was subsequently revived at the National in 1958, at Mohamed Farid Theatre in 1972, and at Al-Gomhoreya theatre in 1994, with the inimitable, irresistibly charismatic Yehia Al-Fakharani in the lead.

Yehia Al-Fakharani also stars in the current new production of Leila min Alf Leila at the National; and who could resist Al-Fakharani in any play, let alone a vintage piece and an old favourite? This was a temptation that would make even a saint break her vows. Of course I went, and not once, but twice on two successive Saturdays. Each time, the theatre was packed, with many walking away from the box office obviously chagrined at being told that the play was fully booked for the next two weeks at least. Like Al-Fakharani’s last play at the National, Shakespeare’s King Lear, which was a phenomenal critical and box-office success in 2001 and ran for four successive seasons, Leila min Alf Leila, though a very different kind of play, looks set to become such another smash hit. So far it has netted over half a million pounds in a fortnight though the seats are reasonably priced, ranging from 30 to 100 pounds.

One of nearly twenty operettas written by El-Tonsi between 1919 and 1960, no mean achievement for a poet who was exiled for over eighteen years of his life (from 1920 to 1938) for his political satirical poetry, and whose life in exile was extremely harsh and arduous, Leila min Alf Leila draws on the settings, characters and atmosphere of its namesake and has the same nostalgic charm.  It tells the story of a hapless, old beggar, Shehata (the Arabic word for begging), who lives with his grown up daughter, Nagaf (in Arabic, ‘crystal lamps’), after he lost a beloved son, Sobeih, who died in infancy, and a beloved wife whom he thinks was kidnapped, but who really eloped with a daredevil brigand named Gawan. Shehata, however, is far from a pitiful, helpless, sentimental figure; he is drawn as a witty, robust, earthy character and charming knave, who often resorts to trickery to supplement his income, delights in women and wine (as his scenes in the vizier’s palace demonstrate), and is capable of nursing a grudge for many long years.

One day, Shehata accidentally bumps into Gawan outside a mosque; he is now a wealthy man, who has come back to Baghdad disguised as a merchant to look for a son he had by Shehata’s treacherous wife, who was kidnapped by rival bandits when a child. This meeting proves a turning point: Shehata realizes that he has to be as rich and powerful as Gawan if he is to wreak revenge on him and, so, resorts to theft, is caught and dragged before the corrupt vizier, Al-Mu’tasir (literally ‘the extortionist’ in Arabic), who has just then received a summons for questioning from the new upright Caliph, Abdalla, who recently succeeded his careless, dissipated father. The vizier who has decided to have the new Caliph killed in order to take his place is desperately looking for a daredevil assassin to do the job and decides that the glib, resourceful Shehata is his man. He strikes a bargain with him: the beggar is to kill the king and, in return, the vizier will save his life, marry his daughter and put his old enemy Gawan in prison.

Unbeknown to Shehata, the new Caliph, disguised as the son of the Caliph’s head gardener, has fallen in love with his daughter Nagaf and proposed to her. This is revealed to us early on in the play, in an idyllic scene for which El-Tonsi wrote a charming duet. Shehata, however, goes to the royal palace disguised as a Moorish sorcerer according to the vizier’s plot and manages to stab the Caliph while pretending to display his art to him. Luckily, the young ruler is wearing a metal vest and this saves his live. Shehata, naturally, is promptly dispatched to prison to be executed the following morning for attempted regicide, but not before he has told the Caliph who had put him up to it. The vizier, on the other hand, is sent home with an order to present himself the following morning for investigation.

In prison, Shehata meets with the jailed Gawan who is about to be released, kills him, wears his hood and cloak and takes his place on the litter that carries him out of prison. He makes his way to the vizier’s palace in haste, and is just in time to save his daughter, who had been dragged there, from being raped by the vizier. Ironically, before his death, Gawan had furnished Shehata with the means to overpower the vizier’s might. He had unwittingly revealed to Shehata that the ornament he wears round his neck is one half of an amulet, the other half of which he put round the neck of his infant son before he was kidnapped so that they may recognize each other should they ever meet again and no matter how changed in looks they may appear. Without realizing what a godsend this ornament will soon prove to be, Shehata appropriates it and wears it round his neck. In the vizier’s palace, when just about to be overpowered by the guards, Shehata providentially notices that the vizier wears the other half of Gawan’s amulet and makes the most of this discovery. He reminds the vizier of his long lost parents, the day of his kidnapping and the halving of the amulet. The vizier remembers all, believes Shehata to be his father and kneels down before him asking his forgiveness. And what do you expect but that Shehata should promptly kill him!

As a thief, conman, failed regicide and double murderer, Shehata cannot be let off scot-free even in a musical comedy that requires a happy conclusion. But though Shehata’s life is spared, (the young Caliph cannot very well spill the blood of his prospective father-in-law, if only for his lovely daughter’s sake), his punishment is really harsh: he is banned from the city for life and ordered to join a caravan heading for the holy land, there to make the pilgrimage, repent of his sins and hopefully die in peace. However, he has the comfort of knowing that his daughter will marry the Caliph and live happily ever after. The painful scene in which Shehata, a really affectionate, doting father, is dragged off the stage in tears, without being allowed to say goodbye to his daughter and without hope of ever seeing her again, is extremely sad and casts a dark shadow on the scene of festive nuptials that ends the play.

I have summarized the plot of Leila at length to give you an idea of what a convoluted web of intrigue and disguise it is, and what a multi-faceted acting/singing part Al-Fakharani, as Shehata, has taken upon himself. It may not be Lear; but it is as nearly demanding and, curiously, faintly resembles it in certain aspects. Like Lear, Shehata, though not a deposed king is, at least initially, an aged, impoverished, shamefully  wronged and cruelly betrayed man; like Lear too, he is deeply attached to a gentle, young daughter, not unlike Cordelia, who takes care of him. The faint resemblances and fleeting echoes between the stories of Shakespeare’s Lear and El-Tonsi’s Shehata may be explained by the common roots of both in folktales. I suspect, however, that I would never have noticed any similarities between the two characters if Al-Fakharani had not played both. Al-Fakharani has such a striking, overpowering presence that one never forgets a performance he gives; his performances remain vivid in one’s memory, never fading, and, therefore, seem to flow into each other, with every new performance carrying shades and echoes from earlier ones and being enriched and expanded by them beyond its immediate contours. As the beggar Shehata, Al-Fakharani not only renders every facet of the character with amazing clarity and clever nuances, managing the different shifts and transitions between them smoothly and with subtle artistry, but also invests the part with something of the tragic pathos of his royal counterpart in Shakespeare’s play, as he rendered it more than ten years ago.

As an operetta, Leila required that Al-Fakharani sings, or, rather, tunefully delivers some of his lines, and he did it beautifully. But it was left to Heba Magdi and Mohamed Mohsen – two new, excellent professional singers who formed a charming, handsome couple – to really bring out and impress upon the audience the charming lyricism and dramatic power of Ahmed Sidqi’s composition. What a pity Sidqi’s musical score, interpreted and orchestrated by Mohamed El-Mogi for this production, was not played and sung live. I especially missed the chorus. The physical presence and live voices of a chorus would have given more life to the group and crowd scenes and lifted the whole performance to new heights. It might even have diverted our attention from the uninspired, tediously conventional and rather haphazard choreography of Farouq and Mohamed; aesthetically unpleasing and obtrusively redundant, it was an unsightly, useless adjunct that cried out to be removed. You could easily put these dances in any other play and no one would notice.

Mohamed El Gharabawi’s huge, extravagantly decorative, heavily detailed and excessively ornate sets were another burden on the eye and seemed designed to distract it away from the performers. Visually, the best scenes were those in which the lighting dimmed on the sets and a spotlight picked out the performers, especially as they were accurately, beautifully and harmoniously costumed by Na’ima El-Agami. With Yehia Al-Fakharani heading an excellent, carefully picked cast that included, besides the two main singers, brilliant comedian Lotfy Labib, as Gawan, the talented Diaa Abdel-Khaliq, as the suave, sophisticated, dangerous vizier, and Salma Gharib, as his jealous, frustrated wife, and with Na’ima El-Agami’s eloquent, attractive costumes, Leila min Alf Leila needed no bulky sets, and, indeed, would work very well on a bare stage.

Mohsen Hilmi’s idea, I guess, was to stress the provenance of the operetta as a folktale and capture something of the charm of the Arabian Nights by drawing on its rich heritage of illustrations in the stage design and costume. Indeed, the performance often felt like a children’s picture book of fairytales. And why not? The idea is legitimate and would have worked well on a much bigger stage than the National’s. On a bigger stage too, and with a bigger budget, Mohsen Hilmi would not have hesitated to use live music, a large chorus, more extras and better-quality choreographers; but he had to accommodate the production to the space and budget limitations, and these cramped his style. Still, notwithstanding any faults, Leila min Alf Leila is a big achievement and a real treat and will continue to draw audiences and display the ‘full house’ sign for many seasons to come.

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