Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The bus and the contrary

Introduces dramaturgy by Prohelvetia

Yellow Days

To conclude its theatre and dramaturgy project, Prohelvetia (the Swiss Arts Council) held a five-day programme of performances at the Jesuits Cultural Centre in Fagallah, downtown Cairo. The project had started two years ago with a series of workshops on the concept of dramaturgy in relation to specific Swiss plays selected for the purpose by the Swiss dramaturge and director Erik Altorfer. The process continued by bringing new approaches to the Swiss texts by young Egyptian directors and dramaturges. The project also included a workshop on scenography and helped stage designers and scenographers understand dramaturgy while inviting dramaturges for a glimpse of scenography.

Last Journey

The project carried the title of “Saeed-turge”, an invented word fusing “Saeed” (or “Upper Egypt”) with “turge” (from “dramaturge”). Such linguistic fusion was not for granted, it was rather expressive of the shift that Prohelvetia has recently made towards better outreach for its programs, decentralising its cultural activities and filling the gap of artistic pedagogical services outside Cairo. The prominent theatre director and dramaturge Abeer Ali who, side by side with the Swiss Erik Altorfer, is also the Egyptian artistic leader of the project is an old enthusiast of decentralisation; she fervently served this ambition during her work in the training department of the General Organisation of Cultural Palaces.

Between 31 January and 4 February 2017, the stage of the Jesuits Centre gathered together five performances created by young theatre directors coming from different cities of Egypt: Until We Prove the Contrary by Mohamed Ossama Atta, The Yellow Days by Bishoy Adel Makram, Crossroads by Sherif Mahmoud, The Last Journey by Bassem Reda Elkarmoot, and The Accident by Ahmed Fouad Saber. Not only was it astonishing to see the same Lukas Barfuss play, The Bus, in three different dramaturgical and directorial versions, it was also very inspiring to relate the interpretation that each dramaturgy employed to the original local environment where the director is based. While Bassem Reda Elkarmoot chose to follow the original text all the way through to the end, Sherif Mahmoud decided to stop before the last scene, and Ahmed Fouad Saber opted for an entirely different choice, which is to start the play after the end of the events of the original text.

The Bus is an incredibly rich text, and we owe this brilliant choice to Erik Altorfer, who knows perfectly how to trigger unique dramaturgical initiatives and how to inspire artists from diverse cultures to appropriate foreign texts. In many dramatic situations through the history of Egyptian theatre and cinema we have had a bus stop or a bus journey or a broken bus (Seket Elsalama or “Safe Journey” by playwright Saad Eldine Wahba, for example) or a plane wreck in the middle of the desert (Al-Bidaya, or “The beginning” directed by Salah Abo Seif), a boat lost at sea, etc. The situation of a vehicle transporting people allows for a diversity of characters, fatal conflicts and an near unity of destiny. It also allows facilitates a fundamental metaphor that cannot be missed by the audience: the journey of the bus is the equivalent of the journey of our lives. Nevertheless, the bus of Barfuss focuses on the timely issue of religious beliefs versus fanaticism in relation to the tolerance and the acceptance of the other. As rare as it is to tackle those issues on the Egyptian stage, it is also quite rare to see the role of the young Erika who aspires to “deliver the message of the Lord” in the context of Islamic piety. To watch Erika being played in Egyptian religious terms brings a totally different colour to the original Swiss Erika and provokes us to a profound analysis of how cultural exchange and cooperation pushes the borders between the self and the other.

One cannot help thinking and re-thinking what it really means to transform a foreign play to one’s own language and dramaturgy. We cannot ignore that the most fundamental transformation is that of re-interpreting the meaning, of appropriating the text and the plot, of the attempt to “own” the text. In this sense one can comfortably say that we’ve seen Egyptian plays during the theatre week organised by Prohelvetia. Nevertheless the Swiss component is still strongly visible, though no longer in the foreground, and I consider this a huge success for Prohevletia. For it is in the possibility and freedom of appropriation and of the transformation-delegation of ownership, that true cultural dissemination and co-creation lie.  Prohelvetia has managed to break the classical political hierarchy in the cultural policy of exchange.

The bus and the contrary

To my eye, the five performances were connected by a hidden dramaturgy. It is the dramaturgy of choice and programming, the choice of the performances’ order. The programme started with Until We Prove the Contrary (originally written by Olivier Chichiari), followed by The Yellow Days (originally by Daniela Janic), then three consecutive versions of The Bus. I imagine that if the productions of The Bus were inserted in between the other two productions, the overall impression of the week would have been different. And if we had started the week with the Bus productions and ended with The Yellow Days, the result would also have been different. It is crucial to look at two of the productions based on different texts and compare the political content. If we compare Sherif Mahmoud’s Crossroads and Beshoy Makram’s Yellow Days, we can easily have an overview of young Egyptians’ thoughts regarding religion and secularism. While Sherif is based in Alexandria on the north coast, Beshoy is based in Minya in the south (upper Egypt): one has part of his culture rooted in the traditions of Islam among others; the other has his cultural practices connected to his Coptic tradition. One has deliberately and consciously injected the original text of Barfuss with an invented character, “the Iraqi Ismail”, a refugee planning to bomb the bus upon arrival to the spa; the other has appropriated the play of Janic, in cooperation with his dramaturge Mina Nassef, in order to reflect the tribal, not to say religious conflict in Minya that is almost presented as a civil war on stage.

One cannot ignore the high artistic quality of the direction of Bishoy Makram, especially his very impressive work with the main actress who showed unprecedented dedication. The performance carried the breath of his hometown, yet it ended on a note of despair where everybody is killed. Going back to Sherif’s suicide bomber makes me wonder if those who were killed in Beshoy’s dramaturgy are victims of the same fundamentalism of Ismail In Sherif’s version of The Bus. Ismail seems to be the most gentle and kind towards Erika, although he is ready to kill everybody. In Sherif’s thought there is no contradiction between being kind and being a murderer. In a hypothetical insert, Sherif shows a little scene insinuating a different ending of the play by having Ismail bomb the bus just to attract attention to Erika’s tragedy. It seems at a certain point that Erika and Ismail are two sides of a coin in Sherif’s imagination. All these lines are cleverly tied together when Ismail suddenly stops the bus, gets off and is lost in the forest. What remains after this simplistic end is a very controversial point: does the Egyptian dramaturgy accuse Arab refugees of being potential suicide bombers?

It was a big challenge to set all the performances in the same locations, with almost the same physical conditions, yet the house was full every day, showing how the success of each performance encouraged the audience to retur to create their own narrative day after day at the Jesuits Centre. “The Bus and the Contrary” is a model of cultural cooperation and exchange, it is a successful example of the fusion of pedagogical initiatives (in the form of workshops in different theatre disciplines), full theatre productions allowing career development and professional programming and outreach. Now the lucky Swiss Arts Council have an additional strong asset in addition to their wonderful administrative and creative team: the diverse theatre productions that create a repertory ready for development and dissemination.      

The writer is author, performer, choreographer and theatre director. Founder of the Egyptian Project for Theatre of the Oppressed and its Arab network. Founder of “Our Stories”, an initiative of personal storytelling in popular cafés.

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