Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Updating the Bard

Nehad Selaiha compares two attempts at updating Shakespeare by two young women directors

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Some weeks ago I watched a boisterous, farcical burlesque of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, subtitled “Film Arabi” (An Arabic Film), at the Creativity Centre in the Opera grounds. It was Yusra Al-Sharkawi’s graduation project in direction after three years of training at that centre. Performed in modern dress, with an abundance of sequin dresses, spangled jackets, shiny satin shorts underneath flimsy skirts, the play was transposed to a sleazy joint in modern-day Cairo, with a set realistically and meticulously dressed to look as one. Macbeth and the other principal male characters – all stalwart Scottish warriors – were transmogrified into gangsters, with Duncan as the arch thug, while Lady Macbeth mutated into a loudmouthed, shrewish, vulgar slut and the three witches were reduced to two and downgraded to third-class dancing girls-cum-harlots. True to the source of inspiration blazoned in the subtitle, the performance was crammed full with the all too familiar clichés of Egyptian gangster movies in terms of language, gesture, movement, facial expressions, articulation and voice modulation and seasoned with a good sprinkling of the raucous so-called ‘electro-shaabi’ or ‘Mahraganat’ music that appeared in the wake of the 25 January revolution accompanied by dancing.

I found little enjoyment in Macbeth:Film Arabi. Burlesques of Shakespeare have been done at the Creativity Centre on a regular basis in recent years with varying degrees of success, so much so that the form seems to have exhausted itself and grown quite hackneyed.  The trend was mainly (though by no means solely) started and made popular in Egypt by director Khaled Galal, the founder and head of the Centre, in the late 1990s with such memorable productions as Shakespeare One, Two (1998), The Hamlet Junction (1999) and A Mid-August Night’s Dream (2002). Others soon followed suit and some of his disciples, students and even imitators occasionally produced work that matched his own in terms of originality, inventiveness and imaginative brilliance. Compared to such works and even to previous burlesques done at the Centre, Macbeth: An Arabic Film fell far short, displaying little ingenuity and next to no wit. The humour was clumsy, heavy-handed and vulgar and the whole thing was graceless and insufferably tedious. You can understand my reluctance when a month later I was invited to see another adaptation of a Shakespearean play by another Creativity Centre graduate. Fortunately, however, Marwa Radwan’s Gamila proved quite a different kettle of fish.

Though billed as an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, Gamila (Beauty) – a title that ironically recalls the story of Beauty and the Beast – turned out to be in fact a new composition inspired by Shakespeare’s play, or, rather, by its general idea – namely, the battle of the sexes, initial dramatic situation and major characters. Like many of her generation, Radwan, a budding feminist writer and director is deeply dissatisfied with the old, traditional model that governs the relationships of men and women in conservative, patriarchal societies. This was palpably clear in her musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, rechristened Mac and Lee, at the Creativity Centre two years ago and her originally written SheCairo, which she herself staged at the Youth theatre last year. Reviewing the latter production at the time I wrote: ‘The feminist message in SheCairo is simple enough and quite straightforward: with so much male oppression and domestic violence reported in the media and seen in one’s immediate circles, young women, who generally have strong, graphic memories, impressionable minds and a vivid imagination, are apt to become suspicious of all males and to be put off love and marriage. If men are not to remain forever single, or end up deserted or killed by their partners, they have to reform and mend their ways. Above all, they have to remember that women never forget cruelty or betrayal and can sometimes react quite violently to such forms of abuse.’ (see Issue 1252 “Brave new shoots”).

In Gamila, however, Radwan does not stop at protests and warnings; she goes a step further and tries to redefine and lay new bases for the relationship between men and women. Here, Gamila, the updated version of Shakespeare’s Shrew, Katharina, is a modern young woman who, like the young woman in the earlier SheCairo has been put off men by a lover’s betrayal, but this time the betrayal happens in real life and is not just fancied as in the former play. Besides Kate, Radwan keeps her sister Bianca, their father Baptista, Petruchio and Bianca’s lover Lucentio, rechristening them Leila, Uncle Wa’el, Abed and Ahmed consecutively. These characters are transported from Padua to present day Cairo and live in one of the new, posh compounds that have sprung round the city in the last two decades for the benefit of the wealthiest strata of society.

Mahmoud Gharib’s stage design of two smart, modern villas facing each other across the stage, with the shuttered façade of a high-class café tucked away at the back between them and shaded by a red and white striped awning, looked gay, elegant and airy under the lighting of Amr Abdallah. At first sight you feel that you have stepped into a neat, slick, cheerful, cosy world, not unlike the one you come across in glossy, highly priced home-design magazines. On top of the café, a large screen serves both as its sign and to display video projections of indoor scenes. Marwa Ouda’s stylish, classy costumes befitted the social standing of the characters and reflected in their colours and design the same spirit of romantic abandon and reckless, youthful gaiety.

Shakespeare’s plot was drastically simplified as befits a musical comedy – the genre opted for in this play, and, indeed, in all Radwan’s plays so far. Leila, a charming, vivacious university student, is in love with Ahmed, the warm-hearted, high-spirited boy next door and they want to marry. However her father, a spry, funny old man in disheveled clothes and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, will not consent to the marriage until his older daughter, Gamila, a dazzling beauty but also a quarrelsome, violent-tempered, embittered man-hater, has married. Abed, Ahmed’s friend, the dandy Don Juan of the neighbourhood, steps in to help him. Looking very dapper in a stylish, casual getup, he bets with his friends on making Gamila fall in love with him. To keep near her, he and his friends rent the café next door, owned by her father. After many clashes and confrontations between the pair, played in a farcical vein, and many pranks, gambols and antics by Ahmed and his friends, he decides to spy on her by having secret video cameras surreptitiously placed inside her bedroom in order, as he says, to know her better and discover the ‘keys to her heart’.  

The images the cameras supposedly transmit to his mobile phone are projected on the screen on top of the café for the audience to see and show her sleeping angelically like a child, hugging some sort of cuddly thing (I could not quite distinguish what it was). The images tell him that her aggressively hostile behaviour and offensive, abusive language is a mask that hides a deep sense of insecurity and an aching need for tenderness. These images and what they tell him act like Cupid’s arrows and he genuinely falls in love with her and this affects his whole behaviour towards her. It is only then that he succeeds in getting close to her and drawing her out. He learns that her moroseness, abhorrence of the male sex and her verbal and physical belligerence grew out of a deep sense of betrayal that has soured her life and made her lose faith in people and human relationships. It is at this point, before the young people pair off in couples heading for the altar, money being no problem, that Gamila, Leila and their lovers and friends (who number ten in all, five males and five females) spout off at length about what love and the relationship between men and women should be like. Tenderness, respect and fidelity are the key words.

If you find such a neat wrap-up of the battle of the sexes that completely eschews all financial obstacles bit shallow, facile, or simplistic, it would be your own fault. You are not to look here for depth and complexity in either thought or characterisation. You are not to worry too much either over the spying and secret cameras business which flagrantly condones the violation of the individual’s right to privacy and constitutes a betrayal and grievous offence even when done in a good cause. The play was designed as a rollicking, juvenile frolic, a carefree joyous romp, an escapist musical romance. Taken on its own terms, it can be great fun. A large portion of the dialogue was put to music by Ahmed Tareq Yehia, who also contributed some lyrics of his own. His lively, brisk music was accompanied by sprightly, vivacious dances, choreographed by Munadil Antar and performed, like the songs, by the delightfully young and zestful versatile cast. They were charming, charismatic, humorous, and played with plenty of joie de vivre. Ultimately, Gamila is a joyous celebration of youth, its beauty, vitality, passions and high spirits.

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