Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A failed recipe

Nora Amin reviews Emil Shawki’s revival of a classic play

A failed recipe

While the 10th National Festival of Egyptian Theatre celebrates Nehad Selaiha, Emil Shawki’s new production of Al-Assal Assal (or “Honey is Honey”) celebrates a journey of 30 years since Samir Al-Asfouri’s original production, based on the same script.

On the stage of the Miami Theatre in Downtown Cairo, Al-Assal Assal wel Bassal Bassal (or “Honey is Honey and Onion is Onion”) has become Honey is Honey. I watched this cabaret piece, based on the poems of Bairam Al-Tonsi, within a theatrical script of Al-Asfouri by way of a warm-up before boarding the boat of the National Festival. If the National Festival is a gathering of the best Egyptian theatre productions of the year, then Honey Is Honey is a representation of how the Egyptian stage has developed since the first staged version of the play at the state’s Taliaa Theatre (the “Avant Garde” stage). Two panoramic views were to be set in contrast: the quantitive panorama of a year’s productions against the qualitative rainbow of the development of a single script over 30 years of time. 

As a teenager I had watched the original version directed by Al-Asfouri. The Taliaa Theatre was the real leader of the Egyptian stage back in the 1980s. Before directing Honey is Honey and Onion is Onion, Al-Asfouri had effected a revolution in Egyptian theatre via his leadership of the Taliaa. It was a period of re-shaping the Egyptian stage, and of adopting a rebellious political tone that sounded extremely true and sincere beyond any compromise with the regime. 

When Al-Asfouri staged the poems and lyrics of Bairam Al-Tonsi in the style of political cabaret, the result was a superbly entertaining Egyptian musical comedy that clearly took the side of the political opposition. This oppositional flavour is most evident in the direction and the performance, in the way that the performers deliver the piece to the spectators. The actors have the power to deliver their lines and roles in a rebellious manner or in an apologetic manner, they can channel the message and the criticism as a staged protest, or they can frame them as mere tools to create a façade of fake political criticism. The same script can be delivered as a “revolution” against corruption or as a tool of the corrupt to insinuate their generosity in hosting their own criticism. It all depends on the performance.   

A failed recipe

State-owned theatre venues had already taken the initiative to re-stage the most successful productions of their repertories, hence the recreation of Honey Is Honey. But this new version looked so dusty that one could not stop recalling the original piece. The spectators of my age had the refuge of memory to soothe the void that emerged continuously behind the seemingly entertaining façade. But people who were much younger had to face the dusty stage reality as the only possible offering of their time. In my opinion the comparison between the teams of the old and new productions will not help us to understand the situation, or to analyse the reason for this failure. 

A more effective analysis might come of paying attention to the context of the creation, the political and historic conditions, and the changing role of theatre in connection to authority. In the original version we had great actors, such as Ahmed Halawa, Maher Selim, Youssef Ragai and Fouad Zayed, while in Emil Shawki’s version we can identify only Mofid Ashour as an excellent stage actor who can fill the stage with his presence and expertise. But Ashour is alone as an actor, we do not get a sense of an ensemble playing together, and so the notion of cabaret remains incomplete. Fatma Ali is a star when it comes to singing, she has the sweetest voice you can hear, a voice that carries the Egyptian imprint of happiness and misery and of endurance, yet Fatma too remains alone in the foreground questioning the necessary equilibrium between the acting mode and the musical mode. 

I am certain that the artistic team and the director performed their tasks in all honesty and sincerity. I am also certain that the Egyptian spectator now is totally different from the Egyptian spectator of the 1980s. The spectators of 2017 have staged two revolutions, they have confronted corruption directly and physically, they have surpassed the tools of metaphor and parody, breaking the barrier of fear and transforming the culture of hypocrisy and of insinuation. 

A failed recipe

To re-stage Honey is Honey in 2017 while taking out the rest of the original title (Onion is Onion) is already a sign of the intention to remove the harsh taste, the harsh criticism. It is like saying that honey is sweet and stopping there, but we actually are living through the onion that was cut out of the title and probably from the message, and starting from that moment everything in the performance was set to be dusty, compromising, apologetic and pale. 

The recipe does not work. The only way to compete with the success of the original Honey and Onion is to change it. I am convinced that it was impossible to repeat the same version of the production, because on the one hand there is no such thing as repetition, any attempt at repetition is in itself a transformation and on the other hand any creative process should take into account the history of events and changes that took place over the course of 30 years. To re-stage a repertory piece is primarily to re-visit it in the light of the current context, to analyse its original success and to learn from it, not to think that copy-pasting it would make it work forever. In 2017 we no longer need to hide our political criticism behind the parody of another era, as Girgis Shoukri points out in his award-winning book of theatre criticism, Going Out in Theatre Costumes (2015): our Egyptian stage needs to live up to the level of theatricality of our revolution. 

I sincerely hope that the National Festival of Egyptian Theatre will over the next few days show us a selection that demonstrates progress in Egyptian theatre since last year, a progress that hopefully goes beyond the façade and beyond the mask of a false catharsis. I guess that it is a wish compatible with the edition dedicated to Nehad Selaiha, an intellectual and revolutionary cultural leader who would not have been at all pleased to attend an opening ceremony in which the documentary screened (a production of the National Centre of Theatre) which mentions the revolution without stating its name.

Again, the recipe does not work.

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