Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

CIFCET highlights

Nehad Selaiha reports on some of the foreign fare served at the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre

CIFCET highlights
CIFCET highlights
Al-Ahram Weekly

With only sixteen guest productions from foreign and Arab countries, the CIFCET this year was substantially smaller than most previous editions prior to its five-year Hiatus. In the days before the word ‘Contemporary’ was added to the title, the festival annually hosted over double that number on average. There were compensations, however, not least of which the more relaxed viewing schedule that allowed the avid theatre-lover to see all, or nearly all the foreign offerings and may be squeeze in some of the Egyptian ones as well.

More importantly, the festival as a whole made up in terms of daring intrepidity, artistic quality and thematic variety for the marked numerical shrinkage.

Of the sixteen guest shows, I managed to catch thirteen; there was a time when I could do better, but age will have its toll. These included two solo performances – An Elegy for the Fifth String from Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates, and The Last Night in Madrid, from Moldavia. Now, as I often reiterated on this page, I am not particularly partial to monodramas and often find them boring. This time, however, there was the attraction of theatrically reliving the experiences of two real historical figures and watching what each work makes of them. An Elegy (written by Mofleh Al-Udwan, directed by Feras Al-Masri, with set design by Said Al-Harsh, lighting by Mohamed Al-Marashda, costume and make-up by Mohanad Al-Harthi, sound by Rashed Abdalla Rashid, live lute playing by Amer Mohamed, and performed by Abdalla Massoud) is based on the life of one of the most famous singers, lute-players, composers and teachers in the history of Arabic music – namely, Abul-Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie. He is better known in history as Ziryab (blackbird), and was so nicknamed on account of his extremely dark complexion, the clarity and beauty of his voice and the sweetness of his character.

Born in Iraq about 789 AD, Ziryab studied music under Ishaq Al-Mawsili, the chief singer and musician at the court of Haroun Al-Rashid and one of the founding fathers of Arabic music. Though Al-Mawsili was the person who introduced Ziryab to the Caliph, he got jealous at the praise showered on his pupil. Fearing that he might soon replace him in the Caliph’s favour, he ordered him to leave Baghdad on pain of death. After passing through Egypt and Tunisia, Ziryab eventually arrived in Cordova, in then Islamic Spain, in the year 822, where he achieved fame and fortune, becoming an influential figure in the court of Abdel-Rahman II. One of his first projects was to found a school of music, which accepted talented pupils from all social classes and encouraged experimentation and innovation in musical styles and instruments. Indeed, since his days in Baghdad, Ziryab had been trying to improve and refine the lute, eventually adding the famous fifth string, and his innovations established his reputation as, in the words of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, “the founder of the musical traditions of Islamic Spain.” Ziryab’s sway extended to other areas and he is reported to have been his generation’s arbiter of taste, style and manners, influencing the way people dressed, ate and groomed themselves. He is even credited with having replaced the heavy metal drinking goblets used then with crystal glasses and the clumsy, large and heavy spoons with lighter, daintier ones.

This is the story that Al-Fujairah’s Elegy substantially tells in the form of recollected memories that follow more or less a chronological order, diverging from historical facts in only one detail concerning the final years of Ziryab’s life. Historically, Ziryab died about 857, five years after the death of his patron Abdel-Rahman II and his numerous children kept his musical inventions alive, assuring their spread throughout Europe. In An Elegy, Ziryab tells us that he has fallen victim to virulent attacks by religious fanatics who ban the practice of music and the arts as sinful and condemn his elegant way of life and aesthetic refinement in food and dress. We see him alone and deserted from beginning to end, reliving the past in memory and lamenting the spread of bigotry and philistinism. Of course fanatics have existed in every age, and it is possible that even in Andalusia some of them may have attacked and vilified Ziryab as they did the philosopher Averroes some three hundred years later, causing his exile and the burning of all his books. However, the introduction of this historically unverified detail into what is generally a historically accurate narrative was undoubtedly made in the interest of topical relevance considering the spread of different forms of Islamic Salafism in the Arab world.

An Elegy tells a good story and commendably turns it into a comment on our benighted present, a defence of the arts and an enlightened attack against the forces of darkness. In unraveling the story, however, the show suffered from a degree of superfluity, excess and naiveté and displayed some serious flaws. The first scene, for example, was ridiculously misleading. On the empty, stage save for two wooden step ladders and a small, round dinner table, with a wine-red cover, actor Abdalla Massoud, tall and portly, dressed in black trousers and white shirt, with a broad, red waistband, spends some minutes laying the table with meticulous care and filling the crystal wine-glasses. This done, he drapes a neatly folded white napkin over his left arm, steps to one side, then freezes for a full three or four minutes in a still, expectant pose, his body facing us frontally and his head turned to one side where a light issues, suggesting an open outside door, looking every inch like a waiter at an expensive restaurant waiting for customers. This misleading initial scene was probably meant as an allusion (somewhat heavy-handed in this case) to Ziryab’s famed fondness for beauty and elegance and his refined table manners and eating habits.

 Though talented, disciplined and agile, Massoud was a definite miscast. Fair-skinned and massive in build, he looked more like a benign pugilist, or a sleek, well-fed bodyguard – nothing at all like the dark-skinned, long-haired and probably much thinner freed slave that Ziryab was. Moreover, the part needed an actor who could sing and play the lute; instead, the actor here only lip-synced to Andalusian-style recorded songs and pretended to strum the strings of a lute while a professional lutist, hidden in the wings, supplied the tunes. Worse still, in his eagerness to enliven the narrative and guard against tedium, or perhaps to display the litheness and physical prowess of the actor, notwithstanding his bulk, the director saddled the show with a complex, excessive and quite hectic movement design, involving repeatedly climbing up and down the ladders, bestriding them at the top, tilting them down and dragging them around like onerous burdens, or cowering underneath them. Often the movement was entirely pointless, redundant and confusing, distracting one from the interesting narrative. I guess the director meant the movement to visually express the hero’s moods and the ups and downs in his life. Excess, however, defeated the noble purpose. Still, the story was good, the music sweet, the lighting superb and the motives behind the making the show highly laudable.

The other solo show, the Moldavian Eugene Ionesco Theatre’s Last Night in Madrid (directed by Vitalie Drucee, designed by Titania Bobisco, and starring Ala Mensicov), was also based on real people and real events, though closer to us in time. Using as text one of Brian McAvera’s eight honest, brutal, erotic, graphic, and occasionally grotesque  and humorous dramatic monologues, published together under the title Picasso’s Women, the show gives voice to Jacqueline Roque, the muse, second wife and last woman in the great painter’s life. Born in 1927 in Paris, she was only two when her father abandoned the family. Jacqueline never forgave him. Her mother raised her in a cramped concierge’s lodge near the Champs Elysées, working long hours as a seamstress. Jacqueline was eighteen when her mother died of a stroke. She married a French colonial official in 1946, travelled with him to Africa and divorced him upon their return to France four years later. She met Picasso in 1952 at the Madoura Pottery Studio in Vallauris where she worked as a sales assistant and where Picasso created his ceramics; he was seventy-two and she only twenty-six. After a tempestuous courtship that lasted till 1961, they finally married, almost against the will of the old, promiscuous, selfish painter. Their marriage lasted until his death in 1973, during which time Picasso created over four hundred portraits of Jacqueline, more than any of his other women.

Picasso was a difficult man and a faithless, abusive lover. As Siobhan Hegarty wrote in The Independent on 21 October, 2007, “Picasso was a sadist who abused his women – wives, lovers and muses alike; beating one until she was unconscious and taking pleasure in holding a lighted candle to the face of another. Promiscuous all his adult life, Picasso viewed women as sexual objects there to meet his sexual needs. He wooed them, adored them and abused them in turn and, when he tired of them, discarded them cruelly.” Jacqueline, however, was finally able to tame him and keep him all to herself, which gave her a reputation for being a scheming dragon, manipulative, avaricious and conniving.

“While it is readily acknowledged that she protected him from the students, tourists, dealers, admirers, scholars, movie stars and madmen who wanted to meet the great man,” as Richard Dorment noted in the Daily Telegraph on January 14, 2004, “Jacqueline has been accused of attempting to ensure that none of his illegitimate children had access to their father or his fortune”, and in fact “closed the gates of the Chateau de Vauvenargue to them during Picasso’s funeral.”

In any case and whatever her motives, it is obvious that Jacqueline loved Picasso to the point where she had no existence apart from his. “During his lifetime,” in the words of Dorment, “this profoundly submissive and obsessional woman spoke openly of Picasso as God, addressed him as Monsignor, and often kissed his hand. By the time of his death on April 8, 1973, she had already taken to the bottle, but now her drinking became worse and she would sit in a darkened room, sobbing, or address a photograph of her husband as though he were still alive. In 1986, still racked with grief over the loss of Monseigneur, as she called him, Jacqueline killed herself with a pistol at Notre-Dame de Vie, their castle in Mougins, becoming one of many Picasso intimates to die tragically.”

McAvera’s Jacqueline monologue interweaves all this material and more, together with all turbulence, violence, sexuality, tears and anguish that characterised the early stages of this relationship, as well as the domesticity, humour and marital tenderness in the face of approaching death that imbued the final years. Drawn with sympathy and tenderness, but also with grim, unrelenting honesty, she is portrayed as an insecure, possessive woman who gloried in the important visitors to Picasso’s home – more impressed with Gary Cooper than she was with her husband – but would not let anyone get too near the aging artist, protecting her prize and fighting a constant running battle with his previous mistresses and his own children. The monologue reveals how she gloried in conquering and domesticating the great master and tried to control every aspect of his life while submitting herself to any indignity and ill treatment he dished out. In one particularly moving passage, she describes how she could not believe he was dead and climbed into bed with him to keep him warm. The final impression we have of her is of a recklessly passionate and possessive woman severely damaged and psychologically maimed by a sadistic genius.

In the Moldavian performance, the monologue unfolds in a simple set, with a backdrop that looks opaque but becomes transparent when lighted from behind. On this backdrop, slides of Picasso’s paintings of Jacqueline are sometimes projected. A rocking chair on one side, some pottery on the other, a small, low table at the back, carrying a glass and a bottle of wine, and a short step-ladder next to it, carrying the few costumes the actress uses in the course of the show, complete the set. Beginning with Ala Mensicov wearing a long, dark winter coat and slumped in the rocking chair, holding a shotgun and meditating suicide, the monologue ends with her withdrawing behind the screen at the back and shooting herself in a soft pool of light. In between, Mensicov gives a stunning, vibrant virtuoso performance, packed with raw emotion, subtly allowing the personality of the woman to slowly emerge and come to life. Mensicov held us spellbound as she recreated the past, sliding from mood to different mood and from one memory to another with perfect ease and control, baring her soul and drawing the abuse she suffered at Picasso’s hands in vivid strokes. As critic Iman Ezzeddin accurately said, Mensicov produced “an effect of murderous naiveté, thrilling to watch and built round a core of poignant, baffled introspection.” It was a performance of immense power and poignancy and showcased the striking versatility of a truly great actress.

From plays based on real people and real events to documentaries is a short step. But more of this next week.

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