Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The art of screaming

Nora Amin discusses monodrama and acting at the front line

The art of screaming
The art of screaming

Writing about the growing wave of monodrama performances in the Arab region, and more specifically in Egypt, has been on my list of priorities; I am finally doing it at the same time as the first edition of the Monodrama section at the Sharm Al-Sheikh International Festival for Youth Theatre (SIFTY).

The growing trend of one-man/woman shows can be explained by the lack of financial support for theatre productions in general, and more specifically for the independent theatre scene. It can also be explained by the predilection for mobility and touring, which is easier when the size of the cast is limited. In most cases the reasons behind the sudden growth of this trend will be economic. This is not to criticise the genre, but to understand the new dynamics that rule the world of theatre production. In Egypt alone there several festivals for monodrama, in the United Arab Emirates there is the oldest festival of the kind at Al-Fujairah and there are many smaller and younger monodrama festivals across the Arab world. Monodrama festivals too are less costly than other theatre festivals. And the received impression of a monodrama is that it is small, without much of set: almost any space is possible and technical requirements are limited. Quantitative estimates rate monodrama as manageable with some companies able to produce it with almost zero budget, or by pooling resources. One gigantic challenge wins over all previous categorisations, however: acting.

The craft of acting in the genre of monodrama is in the foreground to the point of being the main if not the only element shaping and presenting the aesthetic experience. Acting is the performance. And the challenge is for director and actors to deal with the magnified dimension of the craft, taking into consideration that the performance amounts to a discourse on acting as much as its initial narrative. In the recent years I have watched monodramas that are mainly performed by women, except one that was produced in the United Arab Emirates and presented at the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre in 2016. It remains a mystery for me why the majority of monodrama productions are performed by women; why do male actors shy away from the genre? Isn’t there enough diversity in monodrama to accommodate the talents we have? Or does the genre speaking to female artists in way that it doesn’t to their male counterparts?

On the one hand, it is easy to see the power of the male artists in the performing arts scene as an element of the ruling patriarchal system and culture. Theatre is not disconnected from our societal and social systems, nor is it a paradise beyond the politics of power, authority and order. Maybe this is why many actresses seek refuge in monodrama, in order to defeat the ruling system of the male hero. In this sense the genre looks like a tool of confrontation, and a space to compensate for the absence of a powerful female stage presence. Monodrama might be a medium of liberation. There is no doubt that the singular presence of the female body on stage in itself constitutes an artistic and political discourse. The central and focal female presence becomes a way of reversing the existing hierarchy of power within the outside reality. Nevertheless the question remains: what do women present within this exceptional space of freedom and self-empowerment?

Coffee Dregs, written and directed by Hisham Zain El-Din, and performed by Marwa Karouny, is a Lebanese monodrama production based on a story by Haytham Al-Tofaily. It works as a good example for examining the relation between female stage presence stage as an aesthetic voice of revolt, and the acting craft as a mode for translating and embodying this voice. There is no doubt that the actress and the director have good experience in theatre, they have all the necessary tools to create a field of positive expectations within the spectators, and they have the stamina to address political issues as reflected in the script. In spite of this, and in spite of all the good intentions behind the creation of the production, Coffee Dregs remains a model of an acting craft that stands at the opposite of freedom and empowerment. The acting goes in the direction of delivering a speech rather than communicating emotions, moods, fluctuations of thought or inner conflicts. The actress and director do not present the psychological world, social status and profound inner struggles of the character as much as they shout slogans about the failed political system, the oppressive patriarchal society and the commercial culture of consumption, while the audience’s expectations were more directed towards finding an understanding and human bonding with the character instead of being recepients of her continuous screaming. At a certain point, the loudness of the screaming feels as if the audience is being accused or blamed or educated, it becomes indistinguishable from the tone of the authority, the authoritarian discourse practicing its superiority. The nature of delivering a speech is basically different from delivering a monologue, connecting emotions and moods is not screaming slogans, embodying a character is not delivering a direct message. Acting is not about showing off the capacities of a vocal apparatus. 

Watching Coffee Dregs I was waiting as a spectator to hear the young critical discourse because the performance was part of a successful youth festival: SITFY in its third edition. I was expecting to connect to the struggle of women in Lebanon, to witness a flourishing female presence on stage while criticising failed systems and de-humanisation of women. Although the performance is charged with political discourse, the acting craft designed by the director does not serve the cause of artistic revolt, it remains hostage to the kind of traditional acting that reproduces the same false discourse the performance sets out to criticise. My hope was to see an artistic revolt that lives up to the political slogans of the character. My hope was to enjoy the liberation of the female presence on stage through an acting style that breaks the classical and political chains shaping the voice, diction and enunciation of our female actresses. The aspired-to scream of confrontation and resistance did not find its place in the performance, the young spirit of the actress and of the festival were chained within the old theatrical discourse. We witnessed the chaining. The language of performance was totally dominated by the loudness of the speech, the screamed speech, and not by the nature of the scream, of what grounds it in revolt. 

Monodrama is dangerous territory. It might seem easy to handle, it is less economically demanding and lighter to travel with, but it will put you right at the front line when it comes to the examination and criticism of the acting craft. Beware.

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