Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A Thousand and One Plays

Nahed Nasr attended the opening of the 10th National Festival of Egyptian Theatre

A Thousand and One Plays
A Thousand and One Plays

The National Festival of Egyptian Theatre (13-27 July) opened last Thursday at the Cairo Opera House in the presence of Minister of Culture Helmi Al-Namnam. In its 10th edition — dedicated to the late critic Nehad Selaiha, Al-Ahram Weekly’s very own brilliant writer — the festival has a new president, the scholar and critic Hassan Attia, and boasts (or rather suffers from) several changes. 

Directed by Osama Fawzi, the opening ceremony featured a marionette show aimed at reviving puppet theatre. A voice off stage cuts short the five marionettes’ conversation “so that the festival can start”, which Fawzi says symbolises the limited opportunities given to puppet theatre in Egypt. The festival itself, of course, doesn’t include a single puppet show. Then, following a short address by Al-Namnam, Attia introduced the new round’s innovations, speaking of “the revolutionary role of theatre”. To “break the artificial boundaries” between the Arab countries, the National Festival (founded in 2006) now includes non-Egyptian Arab guests and performances. As it turns out, this year the honourees — older figures whose contributions were made in the 1960s if not the 1950s — do not reflect the progressive character so emphatically reiterated by the festival president: directors Samir Al-Asfouri, Mohamed Shiha and Hussein Gomaa, poet and playwright Samir Abdel-Baki, actress Aida Abdel-Aziz and the Sharjah Festival President Ahmed Abu-Rahima. The UAE is the guest of honour this year and the festival includes an Emirati performance and a seminar on Emirati theatre. 

This year the opening performance, rather than being an out-of-competition play, was one of the competing productions: Aladdin, an Arabian Nights dance adaptation by the Forsan Al-Sharq Heritage Company, which was founded in 2009 by choreographer Walid Aouni and became part of the Opera in 2010. It is now headed by the play’s director and choreographer Tarek Hassan, who says that (since the play is presented in the form of a bedtime story) it is also a nod to children’s theatre. But in fact towards the end there was a very unnecessary interpolation in which the narrator stated that Aladdin symbolises the Egyptian people and Jasmine (whom he saves from her kidnapper Jaafar) Egypt. Flamboyant and well-made, with plenty of movement and colour, the show nonetheless seemed too expensive for a festival with LE15,000-35,000 awards and a limited budget (LE1.03 million, a significant improvement on last year’s LE200,000, but according to Attia still very insufficient). 

In addition to some independent and university troupes, the 30 performances participating in the festival represent all cultural institutions within the state apparatus: the House of Theatre, the General Organisation of Cultural Palaces, the House of Folk Arts and the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts as well as the Cairo Opera House and the Hanager Arts Centre. But only eight performances are from outside Cairo (last year the proportion was much higher). The official competition includes 19 shows; it offers 13 awards including a best performance award that gives the show the right to represent Egypt in festivals abroad. The jury, headed by playwright Mohamed Abul-Ela Al-Salamoni, has seven members including the former festival president director Nasser Abdel-Moneim, the well-known actress Fardous Abdel-Hamid and the Kuwaiti critic Alaa Al-Jaber.

The Selected Performances Section has been turned into a competition to be judged by the audience in an effort to encourage interaction, though it is not clear what the procedure will be for the audience to choose. A third competition — the first in its kind in the festival — involves the best critical review, to be selected by a jury of five critics. The Special Regard Section, on the other hand — which focuses on one genre of theatre each year — is dedicated to street theatre, with one Egyptian and two Iraqi performances to be performed on Al-Muizz Street in Islamic Cairo. An additional 11 state theatres are hosting performances. All festival events are open to the public and free of charge, but a new system of ticketing will be used to organise the attendance. According to House of Theatre head Ismail Mokhtar, the director of the festival, the National Festival of Egyptian Theatre is always popular with students and the young, and regularly sees full houses and repeats to satisfy demand.

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