Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A Midsummer in a coffee shop

Nehad Selaiha enjoys a citified version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Cairo University

A Midsummer in a coffee shop
A Midsummer in a coffee shop
Al-Ahram Weekly

Arden, an Egyptianised version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Dina Amin for the English Department Drama group, Cairo University, 12 May, 2016.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems the most popular among amateur and university dramatic groups and keeps surfacing in a variety of strange, sometimes wild, but uniformly hilarious   versions, usually performed in the vernacular. The latest of these was a rollicking, jazzed up, modern-dress, modern setting production mounted by the English Department of Cairo university at the theatre of the university hostel on the 12 of this month in honour of the 400 anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. 

Like all the previous productions of this prestigious department in recent years (and they include among others: Tony Devaney Morinelli’s The Sins of the Mother, An Evening with Salwa Bakr, which presented dramatisations of short stories by that writer, Saadallah Wannus’s The Elephant, O King of All Time, Alfred Farag’s Marriage on a Divorce Notification, Wendy Wasserstein’s Third and Fatheya Al-Assal’s Women’s Prison), A Midsummer was directed by the extremely gifted and dedicated Dina Amin (who teaches drama at that department and is a professional director in her own right), with organisational help and support from fellow staff member Nadia Al-Guindi, the founder and head of the English Department Cultural Society of Cairo University (EDCS), of which the drama group is an offshoot. 

This production, however, marks a departure in Amin’s directorial policy. While in the earlier productions she staged for the EDCS drama group she solely undertook the dramaturgical work on the original text, usually confining it to judicious cuts to sharpen the dramatic focus and reduce running time, in A Midsummer she collaborated with her young cast and crew over this version of the play, allowing them a larger creative input. Starting with the idea of staging a drastically reduced, wholly urbanised Egyptian version the play and setting it in a trendy Cairo coffee shop, she chose Mohamed Enani’s classical Arabic translation, had it rendered into Egyptian colloquial Arabic by student/actor Adham Sayed, then gave the cast a free hand with the dialogue to rephrase it into the kind of crazy lingo spoken by the youth of today and familiar on Facebook.

In collaborative work of this kind, it is difficult to say who came up with which idea. The end result, however, was ingenious within its limits. Pruning down the text to the scenes that take place in the forest, plus one scene from the last Act, the adaptation lopped off Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus and Philostrate, knocked together all the spirits and fairies into one human character who works as a waitress in the cafe and cut down the number of the ‘rude mechanicals’ to four. Moreover, the scenes that were kept were reduced to their basic gist and outline, throwing all the poetry out of the window. Such ruthless treatment of the play would most certainly enrage purists and conservatives and those who appreciate Shakespeare first and foremost as a poet. It is not, however, without precedents and, as is the case with all such adaptations, should be received and judged on its own terms and merits.

Rechristened Arden, this take on the Dream does not pretend to be a production of the original play; it is rather a reading of the play through the eyes of an unromantic, disenchanted younger generation who find no attraction in fairytales and have no patience with poetic flights. It begins with Hermia (here called Hala) telling Helena, or Hadeer, very briefly on the mobile of her father’s opposition to her marrying Lysander, or Youssef, and their decision to elope and marry in the house of a relation. The place of assignation, she tells her, is the Arden coffee shop. Hadeer promptly calls Tamer (Demetrius in the play) and divulges the secret. This opening scene takes place on a darkened stage, with a spotlight on each of the two actresses. When the lights come up, they reveal the inside of a coffee shop, furnished in the oriental style, with several water pipes, or narghiles, scattered around and with the name “Arden” emblazoned in blue light on the black backdrop.

Those narghiles, which form a feature of many posh coffee shops in Cairo and are smoked by many young people, become the instrument of transformation in the play. Instead of Oberon’s magic purple flower the juice of which Puck squeezes into the eyes of Titania, Lysander and Demetrius to “make them madly dote/Upon the next live creature” they see, Mr. Baron, the café owner and modern, Egyptian equivalent of Oberon, instructs his loyal waitress, Batta, who takes the place of Puck in this adaptation, to secretly mix the tobacco in the water pipes with a hallucinatory herb in his possession. Thus drugs take the place of magic.

In dealing with the scenes of the ‘rude mechanicals’ too, the adaptation displayed imaginative inventiveness, deftly weaving the occasion for the performance into the play. The mechanics became aspiring actors in a third rate independent troupe hosted by the café owner to perform scenes from a play by Shakespeare on the 400 anniversary of his death. Consequently, instead of “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/ And his love Thisbe; … Merry and tragical”, they rehearse and perform scenes featuring Titania, Oberon and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thus burlesquing the main play and celebrating in this mirroring the theatricality of Shakespeare’s theatre. 

Arden strikes one as a play by young people for young people. This was obvious not only in the enthusiastic reception of the play by the predominantly young audience, but also in the zest and obvious delight of the actors in their parts. As one has come to expect in all Dina Amin’s productions, she got the most and best out of her young cast. While Shahenda Ahmed as Titi, the black-clad, sophisticated, overbearing and short-tempered co-owner of the coffee shop and wife of Baron, the quartet of lovers (Ahmed Moataz, Reem Samir, Ahmed Yehia and Shorouk Abdel-Salam) and Sayed Abdel-Megid, Salem Reda and Mahmoud Hilmi, as the harassed director of the theatrical troupe and his actors, gave competent performances, other actors went beyond mere competence, adding vivid details and a touch of creativity. Adham Sayed’s Bottom, here called Boram (a vulgar slang word for ‘clever and resourceful’) was delightfully whimsical and quite original. Marina Georgy, who played Puck, presented a delightfully, sharp, pert, earthy and garrulous version of that jinni and formed with Wegdan Said, as the dandy, soft Oberon, dressed in a flannel top and flowered shorts, a delightfully contrasting servant-master duo. As the other waitress, Futna, who incorporated all Titania’s fairies in this version in one character, Hend Magdi gave a good imitation of a rough, gullible, grasping and slow-witted working-class female. 

 Accompanied by Iman Salaheddin and Bahi Tamer’s live music, this youthful, daring adaptation of A Midsummer was pure mirth and proves that even in almost primitive conditions and with next to no budget, a creative, dedicated and resourceful director can create exhilarating theatre. After all, the kind of theatre Shakespeare wrote for was in the material sense a ‘poor theatre’ that did not rely on sophisticated sets and complicated stage machinery and technical equipment. The human element in theatre is what ultimately matters; and it is this element that Dina Amin and Nadia Guindi care for and work to nourish and develop. Indeed, in the space of a just few years, and despite many obstacles and challenges, these two wonderful women “have effected an amazing qualitative leap in the intellectual and artistic standards of the student performances staged at Cairo University.” I said this on this page in 2012 and fervently affirm in now. May they long continue the good work. 

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