Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The masquerade of all masquerades

Nora Amin attended a new production of an old classic

The masquerade of all masquerades
The masquerade of all masquerades

In the theatre master Saad Ardash’s 1979 translation, Alberto Moravia’s The Masquerade is playing at Al-Salam Theatre without any adaptation or dramaturgical effort. Hisham Gomaa directed the three-hour production as an extravagant musical but without any artistic endeavour to revive the text or link it to the current mood and sensitivity of the Egyptian spectator. 

Originally written in 1941 by the Italian Moravia as a critique of the Fascist regime of Mussolini, The Masquerade uses the style of farce with a romantic flavour to reveal the masked games of all those who seek power. The play takes place in some far away Spanish ex-colony, because it cannot take place in Italy. Moravia uses the technique of the mask to release his text, he uses it just as much as he criticises his characters for using it. Yet, in a country that has just had two revolutions against dictatorship like Egypt, one cannot really swallow the camouflage. There is no need to use this technique in a reality that has gone far beyond it, and with spectators who have dared go far past the pretence. As I watched the play — a three hour-long agony — I kept wondering if the creators of the production had experienced the same reality as we, the spectators. I wondered if they had any consideration for the spectators or the social and political conditions of reception. The production seemed to be confined to a bubble, be it be a bubble of appearances in which you are too smothered by appearance to see any content, or the bubble of stardom that blinds any artist to the possibility of failure and disconnection. 

The Masquerade has excellent costumes and sets. Both the design and the execution of the set and costumes are impeccable. Yet they are used as a mask for a failed artistic experience. One cannot deal with the elements of costume and set independently, they must be connected to the overall artistic process that they serve, and unfortunately there was not much to serve here. I had a strong inclination to see those elements as a discourse parallel to the performance, as aesthetic elements that comment on the characters and the narrative, saying they are there to hide the intellectual void within. 

If in the 1940s or even the 1970s artists and writers were used to criticising dictatorship in the style of The Masquerade, it is unacceptable to pursue the same style in 2017 after two Egyptian revolutions. Mohamed Riad plays the military dictator who lost his arm in battle, and who is burning to have the beautiful and flirtatious noblewoman (played by Lekaa Swidan) for a lover. He plays games during the masquerade in order to lure her to his bed. He tries to blackmail her by threatening to put her rebel brother in prison. Besides this main storyline, there are some trivial love affairs, and some anecdotes about how this military leader rules, and how he fakes his military victories. One interesting line was the relationship between the dictator and the chief of police, played by the brilliant Mohamed Mahmoud. This line contained the complex dynamics of power between the ruler and the chief of police who is in charge of protecting him, and of controlling the protests and the conspiracies against the dictator. The chief of police is able to fake a protest, he is even able to create a false revolutionary cell to perform a false assassination attempt so that the dictator can pretend to be in danger and he the saviour. This is the only potentially interesting dramatic line in the whole production, and may be the only connection to our current reality, but apparently the director does not realise its potential dramatic power, since therefore never invests it.

Mahmoud takes it upon himself to connect with reality and the sensitivity of the spectators. He not only adopts a mode of acting that speaks to us and recognises our presence, but also goes out of his way specifically to make a funny comment that brings the performance into the current political context, pulling it out of the bubble. At the level language, Mahmoud’s colloquial Egyptian, when he improvises in order to bridge the gap between the play and the spectators, manages to create anchors in our collective experience against the old, failed regime, by using specific words that trigger the references to certain characters and events. Mahmoud made his own dramaturgical amendment of the play, and he was the only actor fully equipped to do so. With not so much glamour around him, nor stardom, he is the embodiment of the average ordinary Egyptian. He does not occupy any superior position in relation to us, the spectators. He resembles us and he sees and talks to us. He breaks the border of the fancy and extravagant production, he breaks the border of the classical Arabic spoken by all the actors and he takes down the whole masquerade. It is pathetic that we should keep waiting for the appearance of the one character who is most corrupt and oppressive. We fall in love with the actor who represents everything that we should rebel against, only because he speaks our language and connects with us. And as we fall in love with him and with his wonderful humour, we do not stop at any of the crimes that his character commits. The actor makes us swallow the horrible deeds of his character, and we end up reconciling with corruption through the help of humour and farce. I do not blame Mahmoud for this, he has done a great job in helping us to realise how easily we can ignore corruption. Otherwise, I can only salute the team of the production for being able to endure The Masquerade for more than three hours everyday. 

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