Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

At Opera Malak

Nora Amin attended a Cairo revival of Oliver Twist

At Opera Malak
At Opera Malak

The difficulty in visiting the state-owned venue Opera Malak does not lie in its hidden location – a small street behind Al-Rihany Theatre, off Emad El-Dine Street. It lies in the heartbreaking scene of the house itself. 

The once beautiful place is a wreck. The space is shattered, the stage pathetic. One cannot help wondering why Egyptian stages have such a short life span. But it seems this is the Egyptian attitude towards preserving and safeguarding performance spaces. Opera Malak – such a beautiful name, does not correspond to what one encounters at the tiny door, nor to what one experiences in relation to the architecture, maintenance and general atmosphere. Nonetheless the workers exert an enormous effort to welcome the spectators and to make them feel at home. The kindness of the team underlines the authorities’ unkindness to the building. Is it the lack of a clear policy from the Ministry of Culture towards the maintenance of artistic venues? Or is it just a culture of negligence and indifference that is intrinsically connected to the daily indignities of being an Egyptian citizen? Is violence against beautiful buildings an expression of violence against the self? 

In my experience as a spectator, the impressive youth musical The Son of... can only be seen in this context of the same decline. This clever revival of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist should be interpreted not only as a critique of the discrimination, corruption and hypocrisy that afflict the life of homeless children but also as a critique of those same factors in the life of a theatrical venue. I felt that Opera Malak was an orphan just like the main character, Gaber, as homeless and neglected. At certain moments, and certainly beyond the intention of the director Mohamed El-Ashry, the house itself looked like an orphanage: the Opera Malak Orphanage hosting brilliant and creative artists who are dealing with unfair conditions of performance, empty seats,and a hidden location beyond reach. In this imaginary venue, the spectators were orphans as well, the only difference being that they were nicely treated by the venue workers. I totally identified with the characters of the children, I felt like an orphan myself, because I admired the whole concept, the scenography, the music, the singing, the acting and the direction. I even felt sympathy towards the evil characters in the play because, brilliant actors though they are, they have been equally orphaned by the system, through unequal opportunities, unfair marketing and prejudice against youth theatre.

The Son of... is written by the extremely talented playwright Sameh Osman, composed by the master of musicals Mohamed Hosny and directed by the very promising artist Al-Ashry. The cast includes Ahmed Tarek in the role of Sharhabil, the homeless narrator who sings and dances and looks like the future Gaber. Tarek sometimes insinuates that he is Gaber narrating his childhood story in flashbacks. The director employs the costume motifs and colours to create a visual bond between the appearance of adult and child. He succeeds in establishing a visual resemblance through costume design and movement in order to present the fantasies of Gaber in some scenes where he dreams of behaving as a grown-up man. In those scenes, we see two Gabers: the child who dreams and watches his dream come true, and the adult who executes the impossible fantasy. It would have been extremely adequate to have Ahmed Tarek play the adult Gaber in those fantasy scenes, because it would have invested the potential that both characters are one and strengthened the overall narrative of despair and disability. 

The actor who played the role of the criminal heading the children’s gang, Abbas, was a master in disguise. Mohamed Yehia is a performer of a rare calibre who deserves a much bigger chance for the next phase of his career. An actor who totally identifies with the character, and takes it seriously beyond the traditional fake acting related to youth plays, especially when it comes to vilain roles. Mohamed Yehia is a 33-year-old man who managed with an outstanding craft to convince us that he is at least fifty. This is not due to  makeup so much as the craft of acting and embodiment. Such talents are hidden and orphaned by a failed system that is unable to recognise or support excellence.  It was strange to know that some of the artists in the production are originally from Alexandria, the city of creativity in my own opinion, and to know how much their work there goes unnoticed by the centralised cultural system. But even when they perform at the heart of the capital the house is empty and the policy makers ignore them. Painful.

The same discriminatory ethic that shames homeless children rules our cultural life. Osman clearly criticises the happy solution offered by Dickens in the original novel, he criticises the naivety of the resolution by going back to the family house and to the rich grandfather. He does not want to leave us with a false catharsis. Therefore we become more charged against the injustice of social conventions, and we leave the house knowing that a reconciliation will not be possible until the culture changes. The magical solution is not in the discovery that the orphan child is the grandson of the wealthy family, because this in itself is a consolidation of the prejudice and not a transformation of it. The magical solution is not in the rich grandfather’s acceptance of his grandson and of his own daughter’s rebellion either. There is no magical solution. We leave the orphaned Opera Mala

with a sour feeling towards the future of our children, and towards the present of our orphaned theatre scene. I sincerely wish that all the fantastic team of the production will not end up like Sharhabil, on the margins of society and of the cultural scene, but how can they break the vicious circle that determines their fate? 

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