Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Final curtain

Nehad Selaiha rounds up the eighth Egyptian National Theatre Festival and discusses the awards

Final curtain
Final curtain
Al-Ahram Weekly

If you have seen the Egyptian version of J. B. Priestley’s The Rose and Crown (originally a modest television play about an assortment of characters who come face to face with death incarnate at a small North-East London pub), rechristened Rooh (Soul), which has been running at El-Tali’a theatre to full houses since June this year, or have read my review of the production in the Weekly on the 18th of that month (see http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/12539/23/A-hymn-to-life.aspx), you will not be greatly surprised to learn that it has been voted by the jury of the 8th Egyptian National Theatre Festival the best production of the year. What has astonished many and dismayed some was the fact that it will go down in the history of the festival as the show that has garnered the most top awards ever. I doubt if in the forthcoming years another show will win as many. Besides Best Production, it has also won the awards for Best Dramaturgy (jointly with Men and Women); Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor (jointly with the male lead in Antigone Calling), Best Supporting Actor, Best Rising Director, and Best Music (jointly with The Stranger) – a total of eight top awards.

While the Best Production award was arguably well deserved and the ones for Best Dramaturgy and Best Supporting Actress were incontrovertibly so, the rest of the awards seemed somewhat misplaced and whipped up controversy. Significantly, all discussions of the awards and differences of opinion over who should have got what were limited to only the three productions that already got most of the Festival awards. Besides Soul, the other two were El-Tali’a’s Antigone Calling (for review, see: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/12741/23/-Stopping-up-the-gaps.aspx), which scooped three awards for Best Director, Best Actor (jointly with Soul), and Best Rising Actress, and Ein Shams University’s Al-Ghareeb (The Stranger), which scooped four awards for Second Best Production, Best Playwright, Best Music (jointly with Soul) and Best Lighting. In short, fifteen out of the Festival’s twenty awards went to three shows, leaving only five (for Best Set, Best Costumes, Best Choreography, Best Rising Actor and Best Poster Design) for the other thirty two contestants to fight over.

The Best Rising Actor Award, which went to Mohamed Ali for his performances in two Cultural Palaces productions (Peter Shaffer’s Equus, in which he played Alan Strang, the teenager who blinds six horses with a hoof pick, and Albert Camus’s The State of Siege, in which he played the young rebel, Diego, who defies the authority of the Plague) was unanimously applauded; and so were the Best Choreography Award, which  predictably went to Monadil Antar’s stage adaptation of Ahmed Murad’s popular novel, The Blue Elephant, for the Opera Modern Dance Company and the Best Poster Award, which deservedly went to the other Opera House production, Women from Egypt, by the Knights of the Orient Dance Company. By contrast, the sharing of the Best Set award between El-Tali’a’s 3D (for review, see: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/12609/23/Brave-new-shoots.aspx) and the Theatre Institute’s disappointing production of Peter Turrini’s Shooting Rats raised some eyebrows. However, when it comes to surprises, nothing could beat the Best Costumes Award, which went to Hannibal – originally a low-budget student production (from Ein Shams University) co-opted by the private sector (the Rotana Hosapeer Productions), smartened up a bit  and presented under its name.

Equally outrageous and quite aberrant in my view was the Jury’s decision to give one of its three special awards to the pallid, vapid lyrics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a state theatre production that removed Shakespeare’s play into the world of pantomime, cartoon films and illustrated comics and presented the romantic quartet as decorative pasteboard and the rest of the characters as Disney dwarfs or mere circus clowns (for review, see: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/13280/23/Prime-time-theatre.aspx). Of the other two Special Jury Awards, one went to the cast of the Creativity Centre’s After Night for their ensemble performance under the guidance of director Khalid Galal, and the other, for theatrical inventiveness, went to the Guevara Independent Theatre Troupe for their Arlecchino and the Laurels – a meta-theatrical burlesquing of Osama Nur El-Din’s tragedy Ikleel El-Ghar (Laurels), performed by itinerant actors in the style of the Commedia dell’arte. Both were well merited.

But whatever one may think of the merits of the awards, there is no escaping the glaring fact that fifteen of them went to only three productions. This would immediately suggest that either these three productions were extraordinarily outstanding, or that the general standard of the rest of the shows was so poor that they seemed so. Neither implication is correct; Soul, Antigone, and The Stranger were superb in many respects and extremely captivating, each in its own way, but they were by no means singularly so, or the only ones worthy of notice. Delightful and versatile as Fatma Mohamed Ali’s performance was in Soul, many thought that Reem Hegab’s solo performance as the suicidal, psychotic young woman in El-Hanager’s Paranoia – an impassioned, visceral and powerfully physical performance that never lets up in intensity even in its quietest moments – justly qualified her for the Best Actress Award (for the Paranoia review, see: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/12418/23/Blasted-with-ecstasy.aspx).

Other remarkable productions in the festival that should have shared in the awards include: Sahra Melouki (A Royal Soirée), a radiant production of Sa’dalla Wannus’s Sahrah Ma’a Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani (A Soirée chez Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani) that gives the piece an overt political slant by drawing parallels with the present (for review, see: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/12667/23/Did-the-pioneers-go-wrong-.aspx); the highly popular Men and Women, inspired by John Gray’s best-selling nonfiction book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (for  review, see: Nehad Selaiha rounds up the 8th Egyptian National Theatre Festival and discusses the awards.); Ahmed Foad’s version of Sartre’s No Exit, performed by his Sufi independent troupe (for review, see: ‘Budding talent’ in http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/10720/23/Budding-talent.aspx); and Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt), El-Hanager’s revival of Mohsen Misilhi’s quasi historical play Bab Zuweila, or City Gate (see ‘Conquerors and performers’ in http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/10104/23/Conquerors-and-erformers.aspxle).

Of the new productions that I had not seen before the festival some stood out and were extremely gratifying. These I hope to describe at some length in future articles whenever they have a rerun. For the time being a brief mention will have to do. The Cultural Development Fund’s contribution to the festival was Al-Amir (The Prince), a site-specific story-telling cum performance piece about the tragic history of the owner of the historical Amir Taz Palace, performed on site, in the palace’s courtyard, with period costumes. Collaboratively written by Sherif Desouqi, Mohamed Morsi and Mohamed Abdel Hadi, it was directed by Mohamed Morsi, designed by Ahmed Barakat, choreographed by Mohamed Abdel Saboor, with music by Karim Abdel Aziz. The Sudoku Independent troupe’s version of Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute (or The Friendly Whore as it might be translated from La Putain Respectueuse, which is the original French title), retitled Ferash Igbari (Going to Bed Under Compulsion),  was also a brave attempt and quite daring. El Ma’bad (the Temple) Independent troupe’s The Last Supper, written and directed by Ahmed El-Attar, was also a valuable contribution to the festival. Designed by Hussein Baydoon, with music by Hassan Khan and lighting by Charlie Astrom, it evolves as an acerbic, ruthless satire on the absurdity, hollowness and apathy of modern upper-class society in Egypt. In a bare, grey room, the members of an upper-class family sit to dinner at a long glass table, chattering about business, shopping and fashion, abusing the common people as cockroaches, bickering among themselves, squabbling over trifles, pacifying their rowdy brats and tormenting their servants. The dinner consists of a seemingly raw calf’s head on a serving plate that gapes at the audience and an embalmed duck or goose. But the family is religious with all, as we see two of its members performing their prayers on a rug downstage at the beginning. Cleverly written, its acrid humour draws a lot of laughter, but the laughter is hollow and chills the heart. El-Attar’s bleak vision is untempered by not a single drop of the milk of human kindness. Though Sayed Ragab, as the wooden, quietly menacing and coldly supercilious army general, was nominated for the Best Actor Award, he walked away with nothing.

Curiously, the rest of the shows that gave me the most pleasure came from the university theatre. Indeed, one remarkable feature of this edition of the festival was the preponderance of university theatre productions and their fine artistic quality. Of the festival’s thirty eight entries (thirty five in the contest and three on the fringe), five come from Ein Shams University in Cairo (Mahmoud Gamal’s The Stranger, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Mikhail Roman’s Smoke, Mustafa Sa’id’s The Last Banners of Andalusia, and Mahmoud Gamal’s Hannibal);  one from Mansoura University (Sa’d El Naggar’s Life is a Circus), one from the University of Banha (Yves Jamiaque’s Don Quichotte), one from the Suez Canal University (Abanoub Nabil’s Period, and Back to the Day Before Last), one from Al- Mustaqbal private university in New Cairo (Mustafa Selim’s Hamlet for a Million), and one from the University of Alexandria (Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade), making up a total of ten productions.

Nine of these were in the contest and only one (the Marat/Sade) on the fringe. Moreover, one of the ten productions – namely, Ein Shams University’s The Stranger – snatched no less than four top awards. A clever re-working of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia by Mahmoud Gamal, The Stranger sends Orestes upon his return home, and  before he meets his sister, on a perilous tour of his father’s kingdom that transforms him from a prospective avenger into a revolutionary leader. Directed with great ingenuity by Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, with an imaginative, versatile set (by Mustafa El Tohami) that could be dismantled and re-assembled in different ways by the actors at a moment’s notice to create simultaneous representations of different locations, or effect scene changes,  and which, at certain points, with the help of Abu Bakr El-Sherif’s lighting, functioned as a concrete metaphor, and with original, stirring, atmospheric music by Mahmoud Waheed, played live and accompanied by choral chanting, the performance, consistently well acted and eloquently choreographed (by Ayman Mustafa), matched the poetic power and emotional impact of Mahmoud Gamal’s text. Indeed, there were times, whether in the palace scenes where the king’s oppressed subjects doubled with amazing self-control as ornamental statues, or during Orestes’s journey through the kingdom, when the stage image (to which Heba Magdi’s well designed and well matched costumes contributed not a little) spoke volumes and had an overwhelming poetic and emotive power. Many, and I among them, thought The Stranger deserved more prizes than it actually got, particularly one for its director. But, as one member of the jury ruefully told me, several Best Director awards were needed in this festival.

Another distinguishing feature of this edition was the emergence of a new crop of gifted, competent playwrights, which meant less dependence on foreign texts or adaptations. Out of the thirty-eight plays performed in the festival, twelve were original compositions by new writers – 3D, by Safaa El-Beyali; Ibn Aroos (the name of a legendary folk hero), by Yasin El-Daw; A Thousand Disasters, by Abdou El-Husseini; Paranoia, by Rasha Faltas; Hardabees (Topsy-turvy), by Nagui Abdallah; The Last Supper, by Ahmed El-Attar; Hannibal, by Mahmoud Gamal; The Stranger, also by Mahmoud Gamal; The Last Banners of Andalusia, by Mustafa Sa’id; Period, and Back to the Day Before Last, by Abanoub Nabil; Hamlet for a Million, by Mustafa Selim; Life is a Circus, by Sa’d El-Nagger; and Master of Time, by Farid Abu Si’dah. If you add to these Sa’dalla Wannus’s two plays, Soiree and Rites, Mikhail Roman’s Smoke and Mohsen Milsilhi’s Bab Zweila – all regarded as classics of Arabic drama no, and the four collectively/collaboratively written texts featured in the festival (Al Amir, After Night, Women from Egypt, and Underwear, the number of original Arabic dramatic texts/scripts performed in the festival tots up to twenty – an unprecedented number in any previous edition. There was of course a substantial sample of world drama, ranging from Shakespeare to Beckett and from Sartre and Yves Jamiaque to the Cuban Jose Triana, the Austrian Peter Turrini and the British J. B. Priestley. However, the 8th edition of the Egyptian National Theatre will be particularly remembered for its crop of new Egyptian plays and writers and also for having put university theatre on a par with that of the professional mainstream.

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