Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Before the final curtain

Nehad Selaiha reviews the progress of the ninth edition of the National Theatre Festival

Bury The Dead
Bury The Dead
Al-Ahram Weekly

Ninth edition of the National Theatre Festival, 19 July – 9 August, 2016.

For nearly three weeks now, and despite the heat, the hassle, the crush, the cramped spaces and the occasional breakdown of the venues’ cooling systems, Egyptian audiences have been flocking to the National Theatre Festival shows in record numbers and no doubt enjoying most of them. For me, who have already seen a great deal of the fare on offer, there were few surprises and many failed expectations.

Let us begin with the disappointments so as to end up on a positive note. I had expected much of We Are All Caligula, the Opera’s second entry in the contest. Billed as a ‘fresh, contemporary dramatic rendering in modern dance of a famous classic of world drama’ – namely, Albert Camus’s Caligula, with original music, it failed to fulfill the basic requirements of either dance or drama. What marred the show was a much, too much anxious striving for the spectacular at the expense of everything else. Marshalling every bit of the extensive technical arsenal of the Opera house in terms of scenery, computer technology and visual gimmicks, director Amr Mahmoud Abdel-Fattah treated us to the whole bag of tricks. The sound track accompanying the dancers comprised the original musical score by Ibrahim Al-Amiri, plus a verbal monologue by the eponymous hero (or bloody anti-hero in this case), stitched together from different places in Camus’ play and declaimed in faulty classical Arabic, in an off-putting, ridiculously melodramatic style.

Needless to say, this distracted one’s attention from the dancers, not to mention that it reduced their work to mere simplistic illustration. Worse still and more distracting was the maddening riot of visual effects. These consisted of a plethora of video projections of Roman ruins, statues, murals and paintings as well as bits of painted Roman scenery in the shape of vaults, windows and archways that kept descending from the flies. There were also masks, several blitzes of strobe-lighting and lengths of red gauze and golden cloth. In this vertiginous maze of dazzling sights and sounds, everything was lost – the play, the choreography, the music and the dancers. This avid, indiscriminate use of the rich resources of the Opera house on the part of the director reminded me of the story of the hungry man who when suddenly faced with a sumptuous meal could not make up his mind what to choose and ended up eating everything, stuffing himself to death. It was as if Abdel-Fattah, in his first venture as director, and dazzled by the opportunity of competing in the National Theatre Festival, decided to cram everything he could in one mouthful. How he was able to digest it is quite a mystery to me. But I assure him that many in the audience could not. Indeed, the general impression of the members of the audience who were not familiar with Camus’s Caligula was complete bafflement and mystification.

That the mystification was tinged with awe as a result of the relentless onslaught of the vulgarly spectacular on the senses so as to befuddle reason was unforgivable. Every aspect of the show demonstrated a palpable lack of faith in the power of either drama or dance. It is ironical that We Are All Caligula begins with an assertion of the power of theatre to recreate the world in alternative images and ends up with an image of absolute chaos.

Another big disappointment was 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 music (by Karim Abdel-Aziz), sets and period costumes (by Ahmed Barakat) and some illustrative group dances (choreographed by Mohamed Abdel-Sabbour). As the second in a series of shows intended to dramatise the stories of historical sites in Egypt for the public, it fell far short of the earlier Al-Amir (The Prince), which took place at Amir Taz Palace last year, telling the story of its owner. One reason, perhaps, is that the character of Sultan Al-Ghuri – a man who came to the throne at sixty, levied exorbitant taxes on everything and on every kind of property, including religious and charitable endowments, to replenish his empty coffers, bribed his unruly opponents to consolidate his power, inflicted punishments of more than ordinary barbarism for suspected treason, and ended his life by losing Egypt to the Ottomans after his defeat by Selim I at the battle of Marj Dabiq – is far less sympathetic than that of Amir Taz.

Despite lame efforts by the writers (Sherif Al-Dessouki, Mohamed Morsi and Gamal Mustafa) to justify his deeds in terms of absolute political necessity and invest him with noble motives, showing him at the beginning reluctant to assume power and being literally forced to mount the throne, and not withstanding the director’s attempts to fob the audience off with stretches of Sufi chanting (beautifully delivered by Mohamed Ismail) in the hope of giving the central character an aura of spirituality, His Highness  came across as tedious historical narrative of a black period of Egyptian history that resembles an inventory of horrors, with not an ounce of drama in it, a single moment of suspense, or a shade of human interest.  

 A third disappointment was Sameh Bassiouni’s version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, presented by the Giza Cultural Palace troupe under its alternative title, The Witches of Salem. Using an earlier adaptation of the text by Gamal Yaqoot as raw material (see my review in Issue 1070 “Sounding the alarm”), Bassiouni further adapted it, removing many scenes and characters, and with them all the dialectical complexities of the text that Yaqoot’s treatment had carefully preserved. This reduced the text to a flat, bloodless propaganda sheet, ranted by flat, bloodless characters on an empty stage, save for a huge cross at the back, fixed above a raised platform carrying the judge’s armchair. That this cold, emaciated, pathetically naked show denounces religious oppression in clear, unwavering terms may excuse its faults in the eyes of the audience. Let us hope the poor actors whom the adaptation left high and dry, with no opportunity to display their skills, drew some comfort from its noble message.

The decision of the Cultural Palaces Organisation to enter The Witches of Salem in the festival’s contest instead of another Cultural Palaces production that had shared the top award with it in the annual regional contest – namely, an adapted version of Irwin Shaw’s one-act play, Bury the Dead, rechristened Thawrat Al-Mawta (The Dead Rebel), and presented by the Zaqaziq Cultural Palace – had caused quite a furor that ended with the latter show being also allowed to play in the festival, bur outside the contest. Having seen both, I do not think that either deserves to be in the competition.

Irwin Shaw wrote Bury the Dead in 1936, using the horrors of World War I to criticise the military and condemn all warfare. The surreal plot shows six dead and decomposing soldiers who have been killed in battle refusing to be buried. They reject the pleas of the burial squad, their captain, and three generals, to be good soldiers and go into their graves. The Army turns to the women in their lives — wives, girlfriends, mothers — and they are brought to the battle scene to persuade the men to be interred. But even they fail to do this and the play ends with the dead soldiers marching off stage as a hysterical general attempts to stop them by firing a machine gun. The most moving parts in the play are those in which each man describes how he died and what he hoped to experience in life before being put away. Unfortunately, these passages were melodramatically delivered in the Zaqaziq Cultural Palace production and the whole play was sunk under layers upon layers of obtrusive and quite redundant sound and visual effects.

Youssef Mohamed Youssef’s elaborate set of multiple levels, representing a low burial ground surrounded by high rocks in a desert spot, sported at the top a circle where director Mohamed Al-Adl placed a mute, black hooded figure who seemed to communicate by gesture with the generals and direct them from afar. On the lower level, a young woman in white constantly flitted across the stage and among the dead men, mutely urging them to persist in their revolt. Occasionally she led a flock of other white-clad angels in dances choreographed by Mohamed Ibrahim. Mohamed Al-Tarouti’s lighting was as elaborate as the set, displaying almost every trick in the bag, and the whole was accompanied by a plethora of sound effects and powerful music selected and arranged by Ibrahim Al-Tantawi. But while the show, like the Opera’s Caligula, had much, too much of almost everything, it lacked what really makes a performance come alive and resonate with the audience – namely, relevance.

The undiscriminating, wholesale condemnation of war, which constitutes the message of the play, is out of tune with the mood of a nation whose armed forces are currently waging war against terrorists in Sinai and on the western borders with Libya. More to the point, this message was substantially diluted into a simplistic, black-and-white conflict between good and evil, angels and devils. Some people, I am told, found in the show a sporadic and inconsistent attempt to link the hooded figure in the circle and the war generals with the US as the evil superpower that triggered the current wars in the Middle East; such a reading, however, seems to me quite forced and unconvincing.

There were other disappointments; but enough of that. Now I want to sound positive and speak of the pleasant surprises. Two of these came from The Workers Theatre Section. The first was a bold adaptation of Georges Schehadé’s L’Emigré de Brisbane (1965), presented by the staff and workers of the Continental City Stars Hotel. Islam Imam’s adaptation Egyptianised and politicised Schehadé’s poetic text, transferring the setting from a Sicilian village to an Egyptian one, making the tragic action the result of evil human machination rather than the quirks of fate, and replacing its circular structure (which begins and ends with the same coachman driving an immigrant returning home into the wrong village at night) with a linear one.

In this version, renamed Al-’Asheeqah (The Mistress), the immigrant from Brisbane who in the original play comes home to find his former mistress and their illegitimate son, but dies upon arrival, leaving a bag of money and a will that the money should go to them, has no existence in reality; the whole story of the illicit affair, the bastard son and the fat fortune left to him and his mother is presented in this adaptation as a fiction thought up by the greedy wife and nephew of the gullible, simpleminded village Omda with the purpose of dividing the villagers and setting them at each others’ throats in order to appropriate their land and possessions. The plan succeeds: the search for the immigrant’s unknown mistress and illegitimate son whips up the suspicion of many husbands, resulting in two murders, and the lure of his unclaimed fortune leads many astray, causing one more violent death. In these melodramatic events, the adaptation follows the original play with few additions and alterations. However, the whole dialogue was rewritten and new scenes were added to increase the comic dose, and build up the characters.

Yehia Sobeih’s realistic rustic set of a village square consisted of a tree, a shack and two benches, with a backdrop of painted scenery showing fields, a bit of sky and a waterwheel. Simple, even primitive as it was, it served the purpose and was in perfect harmony with the villagers’ consumes, which he designed as well. But the most striking aspect of the show was the almost professional acting of this group of amateurs. Director Amr Hassan must have worked hard with them to get such brilliant results. They were competent, confident and natural; they moved well, spoke clearly and showed excellent control of mood, and tone of voice. They were simply delightful and treated us to a gripping, absorbing, and highly entertaining ensemble performance.

The second pleasant surprise from The Workers Theatre Section was Hilm, Walla Elm? (Reality, or a Dream?), written by Mohsen Youssef, designed by Ibrahim Shoukri, lighted, choreographed and directed by Sherif Samir, and presented by the amateur theatrical troupe of Al-Ahram Organisation. A farcical political fantasia, it burlesqued in an absurdist vein the conduct of the both the super powers and Arab regimes, particularly Saddam Hussein’s, in the period immediately preceding the war on Iraq, portraying the conflict between them as a hilarious football game. The set was of the simplest, consisting of no more than a few serviceable props; but this was a blessing in view of the small size of the stage and the number of the cast. The costumes were also simple, but deliciously funny. And though most of the acting was palpably amateurish, lacking skill and polish, the actors’ zestful energy, enthusiasm and infectious high spirits made us forget such defects and thoroughly enjoy the performance.

A third pleasant surprise was Drama Al-Shahateen (A Beggars Drama) – a delightful piece of theatre by the Victor troupe which I had already seen last year at the Kimet Festival for Homeless Troupes and reviewed, together with other plays, (see my review in Issue 1239 “Temporary Shelter”). The troupe then was called the Faculty of Law troupe, Cairo University). Unfortunately for the troupe, the show was disqualified from competing in the festival when it was discovered that it was first produced in 2014. Next week I hope to tell you more about shows that I liked and disliked; but most importantly, I’ll tell you about the awards.

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