Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

A salvage operation

The sixth edition of the Egyptian National Theatre Festival (27 March-9 April) began as a deeply divisive event but ended on a happy note. Nehad Selaiha tells the full story from inside

A salvage operation
A salvage operation
Al-Ahram Weekly

After a two-year suspension, the Egyptian National Theatre Festival made a turbulent comeback, whipping up a lot of controversy. On the opening night, on 27 March, 2013, significantly chosen to coincide with the annual World Theatre Day and the re-launch of the Egyptian Centre of the International Theatre Institute, dozens of peaceful protesters stood outside the gates of the big hall of the Opera house, where the ceremony was held, hoisting posters and handing out printed circulars, all denouncing the festival before it even started. Gradually, their numbers swelled, and when they were barred, together with many late arrivals, from admission to the hall for fear they would disrupt the proceedings, they turned abusive and violent and literally besieged the hall, keeping most of those inside prisoners for a long time after the end of the ceremony and forcing some to resort to back and side doors to escape the fray.

Curiously, those protesters were not religious fundamentalists or members of the extreme right; they were young theatre practitioners from the mainstream and the fringe! You would have thought that after a 2-year suspension, and in view of the alarmingly growing hostility to the arts, particularly the performing arts, under the current regime, they would be triumphantly jubilant that the festival was held at last. Why weren’t they? The distributed circular holds the key to this conundrum. It clearly listed their objections and grievances. The first item objected to the timing of the festival as the country was going through ‘a very critical phase’ in its history. That this ‘critical phase’ is likely to continue for God knows how many years ahead and that suspending the festival till it ends is tantamount to abolishing it altogether seem to have escaped their notice. Equally myopic and offensive was the implicit definition of theatre as simply entertainment, only fit for times of social harmony, stability and leisure. A quick look at the history of theatre would have told whoever wrote that item that theatre thrives on conflict, that it flourishes most in times of deep crisis and stormy transitional periods when it becomes a force of change, ‘an act of positive consequence …. [that] can directly intervene in the creation of history,’ to borrow the words of Carol Martin.

Some of the following items (they run into 8) have more credibility and weight and express legitimate objections and just grievances. Foremost among them were the objections to the decisions of the Festival board to withhold the financial awards in this edition due to the miserable state of the country’s economy and the strained resources of the ministry of culture (a hard blow to struggling theatre makers and self-funding independent troupes) and, even more exasperating, to appoint a single 5-member committee (4 critics and an actor/acting teacher) to select the performances eligible for the competition rather than ask each theatre producing sector to internally nominate its own candidates within the limits of the agreed quota – a procedure followed in all the previous 5 editions. The latter decision – though well-intentioned and designed to avoid the problematic of dividing theatre-makers into professionals and amateurs and appointing a selection committee for each category, as the board of last year’s aborted festival misguidedly proposed in an unprecedented discriminatory measure – was nevertheless an extremely ill-advised one. Not only did it seem a throwback to the notorious practice of centralizing power and decision-making in the hands of a few – a practice associated with Mubarak’s reign and rejected in Tahrir Square – it also forced the selection committee to choose performances on the strength of video recordings, often of very poor quality. However, with scores of performances to sift through, the majority of them dating back to 2011 and 2012 and, therefore, difficult to re-stage, and with very little time in which to do the job, the selection committee could do nothing else. And so, one mistake inevitably led to another.

As a result, while some very good shows that applied to participate in the event were unjustly excluded, a few undeserving ones were admitted, and 2 decent recent ones were offered to perform 2 days each during the festival, but outside the competition – an offer which they understandably rejected. Moreover, of the 29 selected works, 6 withdrew at the last minute, mostly because they could not raise the necessary funds to restage their works, did not have time to regroup the cast or replace unavailable members with new ones, or did not approve of the space allotted to them by the organisors. However, with all its faults, the 6th Egyptian National Theatre Festival was a success and had many positive points. Foremost of these was the choice of jury. For the first time in the history of the festival, indeed, in the history of any of any festival in Egypt and the Arab world, this year’s jury had a female majority: out of the 9 members, 5 were women, including the jury head. This was a significant gesture in view of the current attempts by the ruling powers to erode the hard-won rights of women, shut them out of the public space and deny their vital role in society and the Arts. Moreover, of these women, 3 – actress Salwa Mohamed Ali, independent theatre director Effat Yehia, and choreographer Karima Mansour – are in their early or late forties and, therefore, considerably younger than the youngest jury member in any earlier edition. Scenographer Aida Allam, in her fifties, and yours truly (in my sixties) made up the rest. Of the male members, playwright Bahig Ismail and director Mahmoud El-Alfi are in their early seventies; composer Nabil Ali Maher is in his fifties and theatre scholar and critic Hazim Azmi in his forties. It was a refreshing composition that represented different generations and sensibilities, introduced into the arena new faces and talents, and recognized (through Effat Yehia and Karima Mansour, each of whom has founded her own independent troupe) the free theatre movement as an essential force in the contemporary theatre scene in Egypt, putting independent theatre-makers on the same footing as those employed by the state.

In the first meeting, the jury immediately set about correcting some of the mistakes made by the festival board, pressing hard for the restoration of the financial awards, even in a diminished form, and finally getting the ministry of culture to cough up LE.5000 for each of the 17 awards listed in the festival statute. It also strongly argued for the creation of new, financially backed awards in the next edition for best dramaturgy, best performance by a rising troupe, best rising choreographer, best rising scenographer, and best rising composer. Pending that, it decided to present in this edition’s final ceremony, side by side with the established awards, testimonials of exceptional merit in different branches. Two further testimonials of worthiness were also awarded to both the archdiocese of Shobra Al-Kheima, for founding a private academy for the performing arts to nurture new talents, and to the troupe of the cultural home of Port Foad, in Port Said governorate, for braving fierce public opposition to their coming Cairo with their You’re Still Free, following the criminal court verdict last month in the notorious case of the football massacre at Port Said stadium on 1 February last year. The jury also tried in their recommendations to undo some of the harm done by the selection committee, advising the festival board to revert to the original practice of dividing the task of selection among the different producing sectors and allow all the productions that were excluded this year to have another chance and apply for participation in next year’s competition, provided they do not predate July 2012. Another recommendation urged the ministry of culture to reopen all the closed theatres and create new, well-equipped performance spaces and demanded that the state theatre sector allow independent troupes to play at its venues when not in use by its different companies.

In that first meeting too, the jury firmly decided not to be swayed by any considerations of age, status, or fame and to resist any attempt to influence its decisions. Strict objectivity, as far as this is humanly possible, was its guiding principle, and though this has angered some big guns in the profession, it has won the respectful approbation of the majority of theatre people. Out of the 23 competing entries, 9 were independent productions, 5 came from the state theatre organization, 2 from the university theatre, 5 from the Cultural Palaces organization, 1 from the commercial theatre sector, and 1 from the Cultural Development Fund’s Creativity Centre in the Cairo Opera grounds. The State theatre productions featured such popular classics as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Eugene O’Neil’s one-act play, The Rope, Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, in a new adaptation set in an Egyptian village and renamed Al-Beit (The House), as well as Saadalla Wannus’s frequently staged Hanzala, a rewriting of Peter Weiss’s grotesque, satirical comedy How Mr. Mockinpott Was Cured of his Sufferings, which sets the action in an Arab country, and the widely acclaimed Leil Al-Ganoub (Southern Night) by Shazli Farah, directed by Naser Abdel-Mon’im. In the awards, however, they all fared badly with the exception of Southern Night, which won Best Director for Naser Abdel-Mon’im, Best Choreography for Radwa Hamid (jointly with Mustafa Huzayen), a special jury testimonial of exceptional merit for the quartet of actresses who played the main parts (Wafaa El-Hakim, Doaa Ti’eema, Sherihan Sharabi and Samia Atef), and a testimonial of promising talent for the child actor Hazim Abdel Qadir. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only won Best Leading Actor for Alaa Quqa, jointly with Tareq El-Dweiri, and The Rope got a Best Rising Actor for Mohamed Adel, jointly with an actor from an independent troupe.

I have already said what I think of both The House and Southern Night in my summing up of the 2012 Egyptian theatrical scene, entitled ‘Swimming against the tide’ and published in this paper on 3 January, 2013 (it can be accessed on the net at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/815/23/Swimming-against-the-tide.aspx). The Rope and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, though decently performed and expensively staged (with meticulously realistic sets, the former’s extremely bleak and rugged to fit the setting in a poor family’s work shed by the sea, and the latter’s all white, to contrast with the dark characters inhabiting it, and extremely elegant to suit their social status), were at best mildly entertaining, at worst cold and distant, drumming a moral message that no one in the audience needed or seemed to care for. Alaa Quqa starred in both; but while his performance in The Rope seemed studiedly elaborate and artificial, his George, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, carefully copied Richard Burton’s in the famous 1966 American film version of the play and was consequently more convincing. Hanzala, though much noisier and more colourful, was no less tedious, rehashing the old theme of the downtrodden little man, oppressed and betrayed by everybody, with all the clichés and familiar routines of a traditional slapstick farce.

The 2 university theatre productions tried to play it safe by sticking to Shakespeare. The Ein Shams Girls College’s Ya (Oh) Hamlet was simplified, reduced Shakespeare played for laughs. It naturally had an all-women cast and was directed by Mohamed El-Saghir (who works for the state theatre) in his (by now familiar) burlesque style, with weird, colourful wigs, clowns costumes and make-up, and tin cans and wooden spoons for drums. It was a brave effort by the girls, but this parodic approach to Shakespeare, first introduced in Egypt by Khalid Galal in his Shakespeare, One, Two in 1998 and faithfully copied by his students at the Creativity Centre afterwards has grown stale over the years and palls rather than delights. The troupe of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Mansoura were more ambitious and tried to knock both Hamlet and Macbeth in one play called ‘Hamleth’. Claudius was merged with Macbeth and Gertrude with his Lady, and both were transported to Scotland and thrown upon ‘the heath’, there to meet the weird sisters in a quasi-ritualistic mime and dance sequence. However, El-Sa’id Mansi, who did the adaptation and directed, failed to sustain the merger throughout. After this overture, the performance proceeded as a more or less straightforward rendering of Hamlet, with a few lines of Macbeth intermittently thrown in here and there in a disconcertingly forced manner. Mansi did not have to go to all this trouble to tell us the obvious fact that Claudius resembles Macbeth in his guilt and ambition. Besides, Mohamed Qatamish’s all fiery red set was painful to gaze at for nearly 2 hours and made me see red for the rest of the evening. Perhaps I should add here another student show, which though not a university theatre production, was created by students in the department of directing at the Creativity Centre. ‘Ard Khaas 1 (Special Performance 1), which consists of four 10-minute plays by 4 different directors – Hani Abdel Naser, Yusra El-Sharqawi, Wisam Osama and Marwa Radwan – won 2 testimonials of merit for good directing and ensemble acting (see my review, ‘Business as usual’, in Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 1108, 25 July, 2012).

Of the Cultural Palaces entries, 2 stood out. The first, Al-Qabbari Cultural Home’s Nisaa’ Al-Naar (Women of Fire), was another Egyptian version of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, adapted by Shazli Farah and directed by Riham Abdel Raziq. It deservedly scooped the awards for Best Rising Director (jointly with Mohamed Gabr), Best Supporting Actress (which went to Abeer Ali for her performance as the Nanny), and Best Rising Actress (for Salwa Ahmed who played one of the daughters). The second was a production by Kafr Saad’s Cultural Palace of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, designed and directed by Khaled Tawfiq. It won Best Scenography, Best Performance by a Rising Troupe, and came very close to winning the top award for Best Performance. I have already written extensively about both shows in my article ‘Welcome visitors’, published in this paper in Issue 1114, dated 13 September 2012, and, therefore, will move on to the other  3 shows. The Beni Sweif National Company’s production of Abu El-‘Ela Al-Salamouni’s classic Ascent to the Citadel was ‘correct’ in most respects, but thoroughly tame and uninspired – more of a stage play-reading than a performance. Al-Zaqaziq’s Cultural Palace’s Macbeth adopted a primitive expressionistic style, gave us 2 Macbeths, one in a black military suit, the other in a white one, replaced whole scenes with clumsily choreographed movement sequences, had music in the background all the time, used a garish, tatty set and was, in short, a complete disaster. A lesser disaster was Port Foad Cultural Home’s You’re Still Free, in which director Ahmed Yusri Hassan and his adaptor, Mahmoud Al-Leithi, joined hands to make a thorough mess of Lenin El-Ramli’s popular classic Inta Horr (You’re Free).

Like Waiting for Lefty, La Musica Independent Troupe’s passionate production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which ‘offered a profound critique of the kind of democracy peddled in Egypt today’ – as I said in my extensive review of the performance in this paper on 10 January 2013 (available on the net at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/942/23/A-timely-play-for-Egypt-today.aspx) – was a strong candidate for the Best Performance and Best Director Awards and ended up with the jury’s special testimonial of Best Dramaturgy for Nora Amin, who also directed; the Best Leading Actor Award for  Tareq El-Dweiri as Dr. Stockmann (jointly with Alaa Quqa), and the Best Supporting Actor for Emad El-Raheb as Aslaksen. The jury’s special testimonial of Best Choreography for a Rising Troupe went to Hamada Shousha’s Krapp, the Game and Godot – a movement and dance piece with a minimal verbal text. The performance draws at once on Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame and Waiting for Godot, bringing their characters together and combining their godforsaken worlds into one. Shousha’s set (an empty stage with only 2 metal ladders and a wheelchair) together with his atmospheric lighting suggested a subterranean, dark region, where lost souls are doomed to roam forever – a kind of cold, icy hell where the characters can only recollect the past in bits and pieces. Shousha’s inspired choreography was finely executed by his 5 actors/dancers, and together with his evocative musical soundtrack created a series of poignant, finely shaded visual images.

Four more independent troupes won top awards: The Last Box by the Hakawi (Stories) troupe – a series of sketches about personal relationships, focusing on social hypocrisy, taboo subjects and fear of scandal – got Best Original Musical Score for Ahmed Rageh, Best Rising Dramatist for the late Atef Salah Yehia, and Best Rising Actor for Gaber Mahmoud (jointly with Mohamed Adel in The Rope); the Alexandrian Holm (Dream) troupe, who staged Abu El-‘Ela El-Salamouni’s Taht Al Tahdeed (Under Threat) – a tragedy in one act about a mentally unstable sculptor who drills a sense of guilt into his wife, driving her finally to suicide – got Best Leading Actress for Iman Imam; 3 Performances and 1 Troupe, a delightful and moving one-hour pantomime that celebrates the magical world of theatre, presented by a troupe called Malameh (Features), won its director and choreographer Mustafa Huzayen the Best Choreography Award, jointly with the choreographer of Southern Night; and last, and best of all, 1980, Wi Enta Tale’ (1980 Upwards) by Studio Al-Brova troupe, which won Best Performance. The text – a witty, richly imaginative, relentlessly economical and captivatingly intimate piece of dramatic writing – combines an amazing lightness of touch with profundity and distills poetry and humour out of the most mundane material. Using the personal experiences of the members of the troupe and their daily frustrations and sufferings, Mahmoud Gamal wove them into a series of brief, metaphoric sketches, consistently witty and alternately comic, reflective and poignant. Mohamed Gabr’s direction displayed a similar economy and delicacy of touch as the text, and his scenography was simple, effective and uncluttered. Both the author and director richly deserved the awards they won: Best Playwright for Mahmoud Gamal, and Best Rising Director for Gabr. 

The performances and awards in this festival tell us a lot about the current theatre scene in Egypt. They tell us that there is a strong trend away from plays with leading and supporting roles and a growing inclination for the ones that demand ensemble acting; that women have a strong, effective presence in the Egyptian contemporary theatre, not only as performers, but as directors, dramaturges, writers and choreographers; that all-women, or predominantly-women casts are gaining in popularity, which means that women performers, contrary to the prevalent idea, can, and like to work together constructively; that there is a wealth of theatrical talent and good theatre outside the capital; that the independent theatre is increasingly gaining ground and seriously proposing itself as a viable alternative to the state theatre; and, finally, they tell us: there is hope yet.

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