Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Pooling the best

Nehad Selaiha previews the forthcoming edition of the annual National Festival of the Egyptian Theatre

Pooling the best
Pooling the best
Al-Ahram Weekly

9th Egyptian National Theatre Festival, 19 July – 8 August, 2016.

The countdown to the launch of the 9th edition of the Egyptian National Theatre Festival has begun. The selection committees in all sectors have finished their work of sifting through nearly a hundred shows and the final list of entries they have come up with is quite long, totaling thirty-seven productions that supposedly represent the best that has been produced in the Egyptian theatre all over the country in the past twelve months. The menu is rich and widely varied and promises to cater to most tastes. But it is going to be hard work if you want to sample all the items, particularly in the hottest months of the year. A huge appetite and plenty of energy are required. Let us hope the members of the jury this year (directors Sanaa Shafeh and Kamal Eid, actor Ashraf Abdel-Ghafour, playwright Ibrahim Al-Husseini, critic Mohamed Samir Al-Khatib, choreographer Sameh Saber, designer Noha Barrada and composer Ahmed Al-Haggar) and their head, veteran actress Samiha Ayoub, have lots of stamina and a good digestion.

The thirty-seven productions will be spread over three weeks, from 19 July to 8 August, at several venues, including, Al-Hanager, the Creativity Centre and Al-Talia, Al-Ghad, Metropol, the Balloon, Al-Falaki and possibly Malak theatres. The opening and closing ceremonies will take place, as usual, at the big hall of the Opera house in the presence of the Minister of Culture and will feature the usual number of honorees, who include this year, among others, playwright and Shakespearean translator/scholar Mohamed Enani, veteran critics Fawzeya Mahran and Farida Al-Naqqash, seasoned actor Abdel-Rahman Abu Zahra and one of the pioneers of folk theatre, director Mohamed Al-Shafei. 

Now for the menu and some tips. Of the nine state-theatre companies, only three – the Youth, Al-Ghad and Al-Talia – will feature in the competition, contributing the whole five-show quota of that sector. The Youth Theatre is entering two: The first, Al Fanar (The Lighthouse), is a poignant psychological portrait of a tortured mind intriguingly presented under the  guise of an intensely complex two-hander which ends in violence and total insanity (see my extensive review in Issue 1279 “A curious flip-flop”). The second, which I also reviewed on this page on 26 November last year, is a pruned musical rendering of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Trial of the Donkey’s Shadow, adapted and directed by Mohamed Gabr. Another version of this play, by the troupe of Ahmed Bahaaeddin Cutural Home in Assiut will be presented in the festival, but outside the contest. It is one of three highly meritorious regional works which did not make it to the final list of contestants but were allowed by way of compensation to play on the fringe. The other two are: Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead, by Al-Zaqaziq Cultural Palace, directed by Mohamed Al-Adl, and Agatha Christie 1937 rarely performed play, Akhnaton, by the National Troupe of the Asyut Governorate, directed by Osama Abdel-Raouf. 

Al-Talia Theatre Company, which last year scooped most of the top awards with its adaptation of J. B. Priestley’s The Rose and Crown, rechristened Rooh (Soul), hopes to do nearly as well this year with Said Soliman’s Al-Insan El-Tayeb (The Good Person) – ‘a ritualistic folk opera, deeply immersed in Sufism, where the central theme is the death of spirituality in a reactionary, patriarchal society, deeply entrenched in the tradition of male hegemony and dominated by a brutal, consumerist, materialistic culture’, as I described it (see my review in Issue 1299 “A pilgrim’s progress”). Al-Ghad Theatre’s two entries, Inbox and Gamila, I also reviewed on this page, describing the former as a Baudrillard-inspired critique of the hegemony of information technology in the modern world and the latter as an updated, Egyptianised version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that ‘tries to redefine and lay new bases for the relationship between men and women’ (see my review in Issue 1286 “Updating the Bard”).

Outside the State Theatre Organisation, though still under governmental control, Al-Hanager, The Cultural Development Fund and the Cultural Palaces Organisation are represented in the competition with nine productions. Of these, I highly recommend Al-Hanager’s Zombie and the Ten Sins. Written and directed by Tarek Al-Dweiri, with Nashwa Muharram as co-writer, it draws on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984, interweaving words, themes, images and characters from both with other material and poetry by Lebanese poet Wadih Saadeh to create a nightmarish vision of a soulless, ruthlessly repressive society, ruled over by an authoritarian alliance of religion, politics and capital. ‘In this monstrous world,’ as I said in my review of the play, ‘love is forbidden, history is falsified and personal memories are erased in favour of manufactured narratives that serve to preserve the status quo’ (see my review in Issue 1287 “An antidore to despair”). Curiously, the other Al-Hanager entry, Abeer Ali’s Al-Ramady (Grey), is a dramatisation of Orwell’s 1984 and its stage imagery, as far as the set, lighting and video projections are concerned, vividly evoke those in Zombie. Al-Ramady, however, fails to do justice to the horror of Orwell’s novel and dilutes its serious import. Its forced attempts at black humour (usually of a scatological kind) are thoroughly tedious and its perfectly illogical optimistic final scene, in which all the actors shed off their grey garments to appear in brightly coloured casual wear and prance around, is ridiculously facile and almost offensively flippant.

Of the Cultural Development Fund’s two entries in the competition I can safely recommend Hani Afifi’s elegant, visually innovative and highly amusing production of Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule – one of his Lehrstücke, or ‘Teaching plays’, in which he investigates the class differences between rich and poor by showing a merchant and a coolie caught in the gears of the merciless logic of class warfare, with the poor coolie inevitably losing out. Translated by Abdel-Ghaffar Mekkawi, it was rendered into the Egyptian vernacular by Hisham Ismail and rechristened Zaii El-Nas (Like Everybody Else). The second entry is Mohamed Morsi’s His Highness, a site-specific story-telling cum performance piece about the life and reign of the Mamluk Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri, staged at the historical site of Wikala of Al-Ghouri with fitting music and period costumes. It is the second in a series of shows intended to dramatise the stories of historical sites in Egypt for the public. The first took place at Amir Taz Palace last year, telling the story of its owner, though he was never fated to set foot in it. Amir Taz won no prizes in last year’s festival. Hopefully, Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri will fare better.

The entries of the Cultural Palaces Organisation display the same paucity of locally produced dramatic texts manifested in the products of the Cairo-based theatres. Out of their five-show quota, only Leil Al Ghona wel Dahab (Night of Singing and Gold), written and directed by Ahmed Abu Kheneiger and performed by the local troupe of the southern border town of Shalateen on the Red Sea, stages an original Egyptian play. Another entry, Dhil Ragel (A Man’s Shadow), by Al-Monsha’ah Cultural Home in Sohag, directed by Khaled Atallah, is an adaptation by Osama Al-Banna of Yehia Al-Taher Abdallah’s novel The Ring and Bracelet. The other three use foreign texts. Beer Al-Saqaya (Drinking Well), by the Matrouh Governorate National Troupe, directed by Ashraf Al-Nubi, is an adaptation by Hosam Abdel-Aziz of Shakespeare’s MacbethAqniat Al-Malaeka by Al-Tazawok Theatre Club, directed by Rifaat Abdel-Alim, is a slightly reduced version of Masks of Angels by Greek playwright Notis Peryalis; and Al-Saherat (The Witches), by the Giza Cultural Palace, directed by Sameh Bassiyouni uses Arthur Miller’s The Crucile with minimal alterations.  

Like Durrenmatt’s Trial of the Donkey’s Shadow, Miller’s Crucible kept cropping up in different versions among the works reviewed by the selection committees. Besides the productions already chosen, there were at least two more of each by other regional and university troupes. Part of the attraction, I suppose, lies in the big cast both require, which allows most of the usually numerous members of such troupes to have a bite of the cake. However, the final list of selected university theatre shows features no witches and no donkeys. Out of the twenty-nine productions that applied to enter the contest, the selection committee picked out two productions of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths: the first, a straight forward rendering of the text by the troupe of the Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University, directed by Mahmoud Gamal; the second, an adaptation that grafts excerpts of famous Egyptian poems, mainly by Salah Abdel-Sabour and Amal Donqol, onto the text, by the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University, directed by Mohamed Hassan.

Peter Weiss’s The Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, a 1967 anti-colonial documentary drama attacking Portuguese imperialism in Angola, was given a powerful, rousing production by the troupe of the Faculty of Engineering at Port Said University. Performing under the direction of Mohamed Al-Malaki, the troupe turned this atrabilious tract on the evils of Portuguese colonialism into a riveting mimetic dance cum choral song expressing pain, fury, death and rebellion. Another strong entry in the university theatre section is a daring musical stage version of Elif Shafak’s lyrical, imaginative novel, The Forty Rules of Love, presented by the troupe of the Faculty of Law, Ain Shams University. 

Adapted and directed by Mohamed Fouad, this dramatisation of The Forty Rules of Love uses only one of the two parallel narratives in the novel, concentrating on the one set in the thirteenth century, which depicts the encounter and subsequent relationship between the famous Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi and his spiritual mentor, the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz, which ends with the murder of the latter, and completely ignores the contemporary story of the unhappy American housewife who, inspired by Rumi’s message of love, finds the courage to transform her life. Displaying an array of colourful, medieval characters, including Rumi’s wife, sons and adopted daughter, as well as clerics, whores and drunkards, and staged with period costumes and lots of stirring Sufi songs and Mevlevi dances, the adaptation comes across as a dramatic, compelling, exuberant performance. Like the novel, the performance offers an engaging vision of a gentle, non-judgmental Sufi path to Islam that rejects religious fundamentalism and embraces poetry, music and dance.

Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which boasts several adaptations under different titles on the Egyptian stage, the most famous of which are Naguib Sorour’s Malik Al-Shahateen (King of the Beggars), Alfred Farag’s Atwa Abu Matwa (Atwa, the Jackknife) and Izzat Abdel-Wahab’s Operette El-Shahateen (The Beggars Operetta), is another interesting production in the university theatre section. Performed by the Tanta University troupe under the direction of Al-Said Mansi, it has the virtue of staging Brecht’s original text without cuts or alterations. It is a pity that it could not also incorporate Kurt Weill’s original musical score in the production. The only time this was done was years ago in a production at Bibliotheca Alexandrina directed by Mohsen Helmi.

Brecht has yet another play in this festival, in the NGOs and Civil Societies section, and one that, unlike the above mentioned two, has never been performed in Egypt before. Sponsored by the Jesuit Nasibian Studio and directed by Ahmed Shebl, Brecht’s The Informer, a savage indictment of the dehumanising climate of fear under the Hitler regime, will have its Egyptian première. In the same section, I highly recommend the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Shakespeare’s Women in which six of Shakespeare’s heroines – namely, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Titania, Desdemona, Juliet and Ophelia – led by the Dark Lady of the Sonnets   put him on trial. Written by Sameh Osman, who interweave excerpts of the plays into his text, it is beautifully designed and eloquently choreographed by Monadil Antar and seamlessly directed by Mohamed Al-Tayeh. Originally produced to mark 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it was seen in Alexandria earlier this year, together with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s other entry in the festival, Mohamed Mekki’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the independent theatre section, some shows are well worth seeing. Al-Qayd (Shackles), by the Anaconda theatre troupe in Qena, written and directed by Mohamed Moussa Mohamed, is an embittered, critique of inherited traditions in Upper Egypt from the point of view of a woman. Sherine Hegazi’s Ya Sem (Go to Hell) is an innovative modern dance show with a solo female drummer and uses both belly and stick dancing to evolve a challenging feminist message. I also highly recommend Dalia Baiouni’s Kawalees, a play about the struggles of women theatre makers in Egypt (see my review in Issue 1301 “A theatrical case history”). You should also look out for the Opera house two dance-theatre entries: Monadil Antar’s Al-Bassaseen (The Spies) and Mahmoud Mostafa’s Caligula. See you there.

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