Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Fooling around

Nehad Selaiha watches a misguided attempt at dramatic burlesque

Fooling around
Fooling around
Al-Ahram Weekly

Any one familiar with the current Egyptian theatre scene cannot fail to note a marked penchant for burlesque among young theatre-makers. Indeed, one can speak of a whole trend that can be traced back to the 1990s in such youthful productions as Tariq Sa’id’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1995) and Khaled Galal’s Shakespeare One, Two (1998), The Hamlet Junction (1999) and A Mid-August Night’s Dream (2002). Recent notable examples that have drawn a lot of publicity and proved extremely popular with both the critics and the public include Ein Shams University’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Mohamed El-Saghir, which won the top award for Best Production of the year at the 3rd edition of the National Theatre Festival in 2008 and was revived earlier this year by the Youth theatre company at the small Floating theatre in Giza, an all-female burlesque of Hamlet, also by the Ein Shams University troupe and also directed by El-Saghir, aired at the 6th National Theatre Festival in 2013, as well as several short burlesques of Tawfiq El-Hakim’s Laylat Al-Zifaf (Wedding Night), Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Shakespeare’s Macbeth presented by budding directors at the Creativity Centre in 2014.

With varying degrees of originality, inventiveness and imaginative flair, Egyptian burlesques, as represented by the above examples and others, generally conform to the Western tradition and definition of the genre. They are theatrical compositions, usually embroidered with popular music and songs and often risqué in style, intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner and spirit of serious classical works, ludicrously treating their subjects and mocking their theatrical styles and conventions. The text is usually a pastiche of the original text, other sources and new material, and though most of them employ slapstick farce, topical humour, and cross-gender acting, the comedy largely stems from the incongruous and absurd juxtaposition of the classical subjects, in realistic historical dress and settings, with the modern activities portrayed by the actors.

It’s a well known fact that for a burlesque play to work, the audience has to be thoroughly familiar with whatever is being parodied. This explains why all Egyptian burlesques, with a few rare exceptions, target Shakespeare’s works, particularly the four tragedies, plus Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer. Unfortunately, in the latest attempt at the genre – Arlecchino wa Al-Ekleel (Arlecchino’s Laurels) by the independent Guevara theatre troupe, currently hosted at Al-Ghad theatre, this golden rule, or, rather, sine qua non of every burlesque was not observed. Rather than target a well-known classic, it took for its subject a virtually unknown play by a relatively new writer that had a brief run at Al-Tali’a theatre in 2007 and was never aired on television (though it won a joint award for best rising playwright at the National Festival that year) and, therefore, could only be known to the most regular and most diligent of theatre-goers. Moreover, the chosen play, Osama Noor El-Din’s Ekleel Al-Ghar (Laurels), an intelligent, highly imaginative reworking of the revenge-tragedy formula that exploits its vast potential for theatricality to dramatize a serious theme with a topically relevant political message, has an intricate, convoluted, almost labyrinthine plot impossible to summarize for the benefit of the audience at the start of the show.

Noor El-Din’s Ekleel Al-Ghar is set an imaginary city of antiquity called “Ono”, a name that recalls the ancient  Egyptian university of “O’n” (“Ain Shams”, or “Eye of the Sun”, present day “Heliopolis”), suggesting a metaphoric link between the two places, with the glorious history of the real “O’n”, providing a kind of ironic mental backdrop that sharply offsets the dismal state of affairs portrayed on stage. Whereas “O’n” had been a seat of wisdom and learning, especially in astronomy, engineering and medicine, boasting the oldest university in the world and priests of the calibre of Imhotep, the architect of Zoser’s Step Pyramid, the fictional “Ono” is a stagnant pool of ignorance and poverty, ruled over by ruthless, tyrannical kings who come to power by the will and through the machinations of Harmen, a wicked, lecherous charlatan masquerading as a sage who pretends to carry out the orders of the stars and numbs the people with superstitions and rituals. Of these, the most grotesque and brutal are the rites of passage which mark the change of power and involve cutting out the tongue of the dying king; a rigorous test of physical endurance for the pretenders to the title which entails standing up motionless for days and nights on end, without sleep, food or drink, hurling insults and curses at one another to while away the time until all but one collapse; the winner’s consumption of the dead king’s (by now rotted) tongue; his slaughtering of all the failed contestants; and cleansing himself with the blood of a freshly slain virgin. To expand the metaphor of “Ono” beyond Egypt to embrace the whole of the middle east, the author foregrounds the Sabaean religion, or star-worship, which probably originated in “Saba’” (Sheba), in Southern Arabia, and gives his characters names which vaguely suggest other old civilizations in the region.

In this intriguing setting, Noor El-Din’s convoluted tale of savage passions, morbid obsessions, and gruesome acts unfolds. For twenty years, Banda, a widow and mother of three grown sons, has harboured a murderous hatred for Tsigore, the current king. He not only killed her father to usurp his throne, indirectly causing her mother’s death of grief, but also dishonoured and betrayed her when he promised to spare her husband’s life if she gave in to his lust then killed him after she did. Moreover, the shameful encounter resulted in a child which she secretly delivered in the temple and begged the high priest, Harmen, to rid her of it. Realizing the power the child gives him over both its parents, Harmen entrusted it to old, childless Hepano, the city’s undertaker, to bring up, telling Banda and Tsigore it had died. When the play opens, twenty years later, the bastard child has blossomed into beautiful Swaida, the loveliest and purest damsel in the whole of Ono and the lover of Ibor, Banda’s eldest son.

During those twenty years, Banda, despite her poverty, managed to have Ibore educated by the temple priests and trained in all the martial arts, as befits a future king and avenger, and has offered daily oblations to the temple to curry favour with Harmen and get him to use his power with the stars to bring about the downfall of Tsigore and the restoration of her family’s former glory. But it is not the stars that Banda has to thank for her defiler’s downfall and slow, painful death. Incensed by the Tsigore’s attempt on his life and his growing insolence and vanity, Harmen kills him on stage, in a somewhat lurid manner, by burning some deadly plants and making him inhale the poisonous fumes. To torture him further, he reveals to him as he dies the secret of his bastard child, the only one he ever had thanks to the debilitating potions Harmen has secretly plied him with for years to render him impotent. When Banda walks in to gloat over the prostrate figure of her partner in sin, he deals her a last, vengeful blow by telling her that his death will not blot out the past since it lives on in Swaida.

Though shattered by the revelation, Banda will not allow anything, not even her motherly feelings, to stand in the way of her ambitions and accepts to become Harmen’s mistress when he offers to manipulate the deadly competition for the throne in favour of Ibore and rid her finally of the past by picking Swaida as the sacrificial virgin. The only problem seems to be Ibore himself. An idealist and dreamer like Hamlet, plagued with a terrible feeling of ennui, and thoroughly disgusted with Ono, its cowardly, spineless people and all the mumbo jumbo which passes for religion, he takes refuge in alcohol and becomes a notorious drunkard. Would he accept to have a go at the crown?

Surprisingly he does, seeing it as a chance to possess the power to shock his people out of their long stupor and awaken them to the necessity of rebelling by carrying tyranny to unprecedented monstrous extremes. His logic is that only when people have been pushed to the outermost limits of human endurance will they rebel, and he applies it with grim determination. When his younger brother Mario and a few comrades rebel against him, and ask him to step down or die, he demonstrates to them the futility of their endeavour by challenging the masses to join the rebels; when the masses run away to safety, leaving their champions to their fate, Ibore declares that “a revolt mounted by a few brave men on behalf of a lot of fools and cowards is doomed to fail”. Only when all the people rise against him will he accept death, knowing he has achieved his goal. No coup d’état can bring about real change or do away with tyranny, the play seems to argue in the light of modern Egyptian history; only a popular revolution in which everyone takes responsibility for their freedom can do it.

As ruler, Ibore vividly recalls Albert Camus’ Caligula and the differences between the two characters are as interesting as the parallelisms. Both are sensitive people turned tyrants in a quest for freedom which alienates them from all mankind and finally destroys them. But while Caligula sought freedom from the human condition which he saw as absurd, Ibore had in mind freedom from religious and political oppression. Both force the hands of their assassins, making their death a kind of “superior suicide”, in Camus phrase; nevertheless, while Caligula dies defeated, Ibore emerges at the end of the play as a sacrificial figure whose death redeems his people.

In burlesquing the play, director Omar El-Shahat and his troupe drew heavily on the Comedia de l’art  tradition, providing a frame-play for the burlesque in the form of a third-rate band of travelling actors, dressed as clowns and claiming to have just come back from Italy where they studied that genre. The play begins with them invading an imaginary stage and getting its female caretaker to allow them to use it for their play and also to assist in the acting by taking on several parts. In this frame-play, the setting and story of the original Laurels are roughly and perfunctorily verbally outlined and the parts are distributed among the actors and tailored to suit the major commedia dell’arte characters of Harlequin, Pantaloon, Columbine, Pierrot and the Clown. What follows are a series of comic sketches linked together by narration in the form of songs, usually in the rap style. In these sketches, in which the clichés of melodramatic acting in old Egyptian movies are constantly parodied and slapstick farce runs riot, the Caligula-like Ibore is rendered as an overgrown, grumpy, fractious, whimpering baby, hugging a feeding bottle, Banda becomes a licentious, dissolute trollop, Tsigore is reduced to a dunce and clumsy nincompoop, the priest Harmen ridiculously replicates the typical black-clad wizard of fairytales, and the beautiful, virginal Swaida is metamorphosed into a vulgar, brazen hussy. However, since the majority of the audiences who flock to Arlecchino’s Laurels usually know nothing of the original Laurels, the performance can hardly be called a burlesque. Moreover, by dressing and painting the faces of the actors as clowns and adorning the empty stage with larger than life reproductions of historical illustrations of commedia dell’arte figures, the comedy can hardly be said to spring from any juxtaposition of classical subjects, in realistic historical dress and settings, with the modern activities performed by the actors.

Rather than a burlesque, Arlecchino’s Laurels is a musical farce in the commedia dell’arte tradition, with elements of parody, pantomime and vaudeville. It would have done well to leave Osama Noor El-Din’s play alone since it served no purpose in the play except as a tenuous thread on which the sketches were strung and, if anything, often confused those unfamiliar with the original text and obstructed the flow of the comedy. A simple fairytale or popular legend would have done better for the purposes of the show. However, as a first venture, Arlecchino’s Laurels, which was first launched last year at two fringe festivals (Afaq, or Prospects, and the Egyptian Society for Theatre Amateurs’ Arab Theatre Festival) and was featured in the 8th edition of National Theatre Festival this year, augurs well for this new independent troupe and its founder and director Omar El-Shahat. It has a number of exceptional comic and musical talents and the entire group act with verve and energy as a harmonious ensemble. I expect a great deal of them and am already looking forward to their next project.

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