Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Weighing delight and dole

Nehad Selaiha finds the opening of the 8th Egyptian National Theatre Festival simple, somber and emotionally charged

Weighing delight and dole
Weighing delight and dole
Al-Ahram Weekly

Finally, the National Theatre Festival opened on Friday, 4 September, two weeks later than previously planned.

Originally, the opening was set for 20 August so that the closing ceremony of the 2-week event would coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Beni Sweif fire, which claimed the lives of over 60 theatre artists and audiences on 5 September 2005. The idea was to turn the opening celebration into a kind of memorial service for the victims of that catastrophe. The delay was caused by the Minister of culture’s incomprehensible dawdling and shilly-shallying over signing the budget, which forced the board of organizers to rethink the opening date.

Still keen on marking the 10th anniversary of the Beni Sweif holocaust, the organizers agreed that they could do just as well by shifting the commemoration to the opening ceremony, which was therefore set for 5 September. However, they hit a snag: the big hall at the opera which was to host the opening of the festival was not free on that day; it had been long pre-booked for another event but was free on the 4th. This left the organizers with only one option: to open the festival on 4 instead of 5 September and hold a memorial ceremony on the following morning at the Supreme Council for Culture, which also hosts the festival’s two seminars – on ‘Production Strategies and Mechanisms in the Egyptian Theatre’ and ‘Challenges Facing Theatre at Present’ – on 6 and 7 September.

Furthermore, and in line with the practice established a couple of years ago of naming the festival awards after distinguished theatre artists, three of this year’s awards were named after Beni Sweif martyrs: playwright Mohsen Misilhi, director Saleh Saad, and dramaturge and critic Hazem Shehata. Out of the rest of the nineteen awards the festival will give this year (compared to last year’s fifteen), only six are named after living artists. The others carry the names of long and recently dead theatre figures, like director/actor Karam Metawe’, who died in 1996, and playwright Fatheya El-Assal, who left us last year. The tradition of honouring the dead while celebrating the living is a long-established one in all Egyptian festivals, including this one.

This year, however, the losses were too fresh and raw not to cast a deep shadow over the opening ceremony. While we drew comfort from the dedication of this year’s edition to the memory of theatre, cinema and television star Khaled Saleh, who shortly before his death on 25 September last year helped the festival out by donating LE.60,000 towards the acting awards of, the death of Nour El-Sherif, after whose name the best actor award was named this year, on 11 August, followed by that of director Hani Metaweh, whom we expected to see on stage among the living honorees, on 28 August, was a compounded blow under which we were still reeling. In the presence of Nour El-Sherif’s nearest and dearest, his life-long partner, Poussie, and his daughter, Sarah, of Hani Metaweh’s daughter, Nehad, of Hassan Mustafa’s wife, Mimi Gamal, not to mention the families of many of the victims of the Beni Sweif disaster, it was difficult to hold back one’s tears.

The short inaugural show, featuring a sequence of colourful, vivacious dances, accompanied by a song of defiance and hope for the future, and punctuated with brief scenes from Shakespeare and some local plays, was cheerful enough; but the fact that it was conceived and directed by Gamal Yaqoot, one of the Beni Sweif fire survivals, was a fresh and painful reminder of the wealth of talent we lost in that disaster. It was only when playwright Lenin El-Ramli, theatre critic Hassan Atiya and stage-designer Samir Ahmed stepped on stage to receive the festival’s trophies in recognition of their distinguished careers that my sorrow was relieved. I felt truly joyful that the vast contributions to theatre of these dedicated artists were at last officially acknowledged and honoured by the state. It would have been better of course had this recognition carried some financial reward, especially since the minister of culture, as if to make up for delaying the festival, agreed to more than double its budget this year. But such a tradition has yet to be established.

The increase in budget will mainly benefit the award-winners who will get double the money their predecessors received last year. It also allowed the organizers not only to add two new awards – for best dramaturgy and publicity/poster design, but also to treble the usual scenography award of LE.15000 and split it, in response to repeated demands – into three different awards for set, costume and lighting design. The increase in the value of the awards was unexpectedly coupled with a decrease in the number of shows in the contest from over forty last year to only thirty five this year. This, naturally, met with great opposition from all parties since it meant for each reducing the number of shows they could enter in the competition and, thereby, their chances of snatching an award.

The fiercest opposition came from the state-theatre organization whose quota was reduced from eight to five. All its nine companies clamoured to compete and the process of selecting the fittest was long, deeply contentious and extremely offensive, involving critics, artists, theatre managers and the head of the state theatre himself. Finally, however, the state theatre organization was allowed one extra slot out of the quota of the workers theatre, since no performances came forward from that area. Of the other three slots, one went to the Cultural Palaces organization to raise its quota from five to six, and the other two went to the university theatre section, raising its contribution to four productions. Indeed, the university theatre deserves a bigger quota, as I found out working on the selection committee this year. However, there is no getting away from the fact that over the years, successive festival juries have forcefully pressed for a reduction in the number of competing shows, arguing that it was inhuman to ask them to watch three, and often four performances in succession every evening for the whole duration of the festival. With only two performances per evening, the jury will have a more relaxed schedule and, hopefully, more time for careful deliberation

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