Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Cairo’s travelling players

From the streets to the carriages of the Cairo metro, the Sonata Theatre Company has been entertaining the capital’s public with sketches and other entertainments, writes Omneya Yousry

Al-Ahram Weekly

The dream of standing on stage has haunted them wherever they go, the inspiring decor, lights, and audience of fans inspiring young actors determined to make their reputations performing in theatre plays.

But the difficulties one group of young actors in Egypt faced nearly prevented them from achieving their dream. Rather than abandon it, they took to the streets of Cairo, headed for the capital’s metro stations, and used them as stages for their plays. The public was already there, meaning that it was just a matter of bringing the plays and the actors to Cairo’s commuters.

The young people are members of the Sonata Theatre Company, which left the world of the ordinary theatre for the challenging world of Cairo’s streets in 2014, becoming, in their words, a group of “travelling players.”

“Sonata” was the name of the company’s very first play at the Assiut University Theatre, and it became the name of the company as well.

“Sonata means solo,” Emad Elwani, the 33-year-old founder and director of the team said. “It took a lot of effort to come up with the travelling actor idea,” he added, saying that he had come from Assiut to Cairo after receiving his engineering degree to present shows different from those now put on in today’s private-sector theatres.  

“Freelancing artists or bands in general face many obstacles in Egypt, mostly because of the lack of opportunities and venues in which to put on performances,” Elwani said. “It is possible for freelance groups to participate in festivals organised by the official cultural bodies, but they have no places of their own outside them, meaning that they have no option but to rent private studios at their own expense for rehearsals, which can be prohibitively expensive.”

Elwani said the metro could be a fertile soil for a potential theatre that the group wants to grow. “Since most of the audience, the metro passengers, have not attended the theatre throughout their lives and are only familiar with drama on TV, they generally love the idea. People often have to spend a lot of time waiting in metro stations for their trains, so we thought we could relieve the boredom by performing sketches from a play, in the first case Al-Farafeer by the late Egyptian writer Youssef Idris,” he said.

Elwani said that despite the different social strata in the metro, the company had been able to address them all and to find things that would appeal to them. Finding an appropriate place for Sonata to put on plays was not the only obstacle the group faced, however, as there were also concerns over security. “I would like to get an official license to perform in the metro, but I don’t know how this could be possible,” he said.

The good news is that the company found a way to perform on a real stage at the Ramses Hilton Theatre in Cairo, where the group has even been able to hold rehearsals and carry out a 21-hour workshop in order to prepare a full performance of Al-Farafeer in a contemporary treatment. The production was put on in July and was the first full-length play to be performed in Cairo by the company after its successes in Assiut.

The company is made up of five main actors, Ahmed Al-Sharkawi, Ehab Mahfouz, Mahmoud Khalafawi, Abdallah Saad and Habiba Abu Jamea. It sees itself as following in a long tradition of travelling players going back to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the shift of Roman power to Constantinople, where mime, scenes and recitations from ancient Greek and Roman tragedies, comedies and other entertainments were very popular.

Later, small nomadic bands of actors travelled around Western Europe, performing wherever they could find an audience. Traditionally, actors often did not have a high status in society, and traveling acting troupes were often viewed with distrust. This is something that the Sonata Company has also had to change.

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