Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mother Africa

Nora Amin reviews a fable of colonisation and destruction

Mother Africa

After three years of preparation and waiting, Mohamed Abul-Seoud’s Mother Africa is finally running at the Hanager Arts Centre. Written, designed and directed by Abul-Seoud, Mother Africa brings back to the Egyptian stage the fantastic narrative and mood of a fable centred on the old continent. Abul-Seoud employs all the traditional tools of a fable. He creates animal characters that guide us through the imaginary story. The lead role is the cat Mago who is also somehow the narrator and the star of the show. Abul-Seoud creates genuine visuals that are projections based on his own paintings, which served as the aesthetic foundation of the whole theatrical adventure. He creates a text that is poetic in Egyptian Arabic, and manages to reproduce the universal tradition of fable in authentic tones. 

Mother Africa is a piece Abul-Seoud has worked on it for almost four years now, producing paintings and exhibitions to present the visual material of the production and provide a kind of teaser. One of the most prominent and leading figures in Egypt’s independent theatre movement, Abul-Seoud is famous for his signature scenography as well as for being the author-director of his generation. It is seldom that you’ll find a theatre director who is also a playwright, a scenographer and a painter. Abul-Seoud has declared Mother Africa to be his artistic dream at this point in his career. The creator of versions of The Crucible, Lear and Phaedra — all groundbreaking theatrical productions of their time — has decided to embark on the journey of criticising capitalism, colonisation and the destruction of Africa. A poignant political piece is thus staged by its own author as a myth, a fantastic narrative in which animals introduce us to the monstrous face of the human race.

Mother Africa

Framed into three different consecutive theatrical styles — poetry with visuals, then musical theatre, then dramatic theatre — Mother Africa presents a series of symbols within the imaginary world of the jungle and the animals’ coded roles before it reveals its realistic political criticism of world corporations manipulating the old continent via fundamentalism and tribal conflict in order to take control of its wealth and prevent it from developing. The production shifts from the imaginary fable that addresses universal wisdom to the political interpretation of the continent’s tragedy with clear references to the ongoing struggle against capitalism, which fuels continued colonisation masked as globalisation. 

One might wonder how Abul-Seoud moves so easily from fable to political theatre, but his scenography and his “fabulous” projected paintings serve as a catalyst for moving from one style to another. In the same manner he is able to suddenly present musical theatre and use at least one third of the performance for a musical style that combines dance, backstage live singing and recorded music. Yet when the performance moves from the musical style to a dramatic dialogue with actors unfolding a plot, it feels as if the density and intensity of the theatrical act is suddenly deflated. The enthusiasm and vitality of the audience in the house drops and the finale comes out of focus, lacking the impact of a theatrical climax. 

Mother Africa has an excellent cast, with all the lead roles being stars within their characters. The music composer Baher Gamal has done a great job by partnering with Abul-Seoud in the sound design and musical drama of the production, yet he needed to maintain his stamina to the end scene. Such a long awaited production also deserved more dance training for the actors. The dance scenes that were meant to be performed in unison lacked precision and timing, reminding of the fact that faith and talent are not the only guarantee of stage success, since rehearsals and repetition count just as much. 

The winner of a Sawiris prize for best play, Abul-Seoud needs to take a second look at his text. Now that the full production is staged, he can look anew at his text through the lens of a theatre director, and preferably eliminate half an hour of the two-hour performance. Mother Africa needs to remain a fable despite the seductions of direct discourse, it needs to retain its aesthetic identity beyond the conventions of realistic drama. In its poetic imagery, animalistic characterisation and visual mythology reside the artistic excellence of its creation and the authentic signature of its maker. 

Mother Africa

The Hanager Arts Centre is reclaiming its history of independent theatre, it is again welcoming the generation that founded Hanager hand-in-hand with Hoda Wasfi in order to fuse the gap between past and present. Needless to say such an endeavour requires full financial support which is still lacking due to the traditional bureaucracy. Mother Africa could have been better served had it been released earlier with the necessary technical requirements. As it is ongoing budget cuts for productions at Hanager can be seen as the gradual slaughtering of the artistic excellence of productions, and the element of pressure restricting the imagination of artists and theatre-makers. It can almost be considered a parallel or equivalent narrative to the exploitation of Africa in the performance: a case of world dynamics manipulating Egypt’s economy in such a way as to change state policy towards funding the arts.

The vicious circle is the same everywhere, and everything is connected. Globalisation is destroying our forests in order to construct railways to carry the weapons of our own destruction. World corporations are destroying our culture and restricting our artistic production. Our continent is fighting back, our art at Hanager embodies the story as a fable because it is too painful to portray otherwise. 

Let us salute Abul-Seoud and his wonderful team for trying to pay tribute to the collective popular imagination in reference to Africa. This is as important for the revival of the African imagination and its visual and poetic imagery as it is for the revival of Mohamed Abul-Seoud’s legacy and the whole journey of independent theatre at the Hanager Arts Centre.

add comment

  • follow us on