Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The fairytale wins

Nora Amin is still to review National Theatre Festival plays, but this week she analyses the awards


photo: El-Sayed Abdel-Qader
photo: El-Sayed Abdel-Qader

The 11th National Festival of Egyptian Theatre worked better as an overview of the Egyptian theatrical movement in 2017-2018 than a theatrical competition. Many have reiterated the necessity of distinguishing the festival’s two roles, claiming it should be one or the other, but in reality the two roles need not undermine each other. The emergence of winning productions need not obscure the bigger picture. What needs reflection, rather, is how the jury is composed and assigned, what bylaws guide its decisions and how the competition is designed.

Indeed such reflection seems necessary for moving forward with the festival with a view to it making a better impact on the theatre scene. In my opinion, the festival’s role is not simply gathering and filtering productions (the filtering process also requires review), mirroring what’s there. The festival is also of extreme importance in terms of representation (that it ends up “representing” Egyptian theatre now) and guidance. First, the power of selection acquires the power of representation: though you have no clue what was left out, you think what we see “represents” Egyptian theatre. Secondly, the productions selected to perform and those that eventually win prizes are an indication to artists – whether they are selected and whether they win or not – of what kind of theatre they should be making.

Thirdly, the National Festival being a state-controlled project, not to be naively separated from state discourses on the arts, the prizes, especially the two most prestigious – best production and best director – might insinuate what the state’s cultural establishment favours in terms of theatrical expression. This is not to suggest that the jury’s decisions are in any way dictated – this year’s jury is made up of upstanding names of impeccable ethical as much as artistic credentials – but if the majority of its members incline towards a given taste or ideology, that may well be the one that chimes with the party line as it were.

Be that as it may, I believe that awarding both best production and best director to Snow White, a musical for youth and children by the state theatre, can be seen as a disgrace to our theatrical reality. With all due respect to the artists who made Snow White, there are at least two points to be made. The first is that “Snow White” is a trademark owned by Disney Inc., and covers everything apart from literary works, and so this production very probably constitutes a copyright infringement punishable by law. The playwright-director Mohsen Rizk makes no mention of his source (in the Brothers Grimm 1812 fairytale, for example), though the publicity clearly states that it is “authored and directed by Mohsen Rizk”. Nor did the state theatre consider giving the piece a different title, which is the most blatant breach of international law. When such a production wins the two highest prizes, this may well be a green light to emerging theatre artists to commit the same mistake. It looks like festival is legitimising, even promoting copyright infringement as good practise.

The second point is that this is a play for youth and children, which suggests that no adult plays were up to par. This could certainly work as a strategy to raise awareness of Egyptian theatre’s failures, but surely there were productions that could have been awarded the prizes along with a statement by the jury spelling out those failures, so as not to frustrate and discourage artists. Indeed in terms of its design the competition should maybe introduce a separate section with a separate jury for youth and children’s productions, because while other distinctions (such as dance vs. drama, the provinces vs. the city, independent-amateur vs. professional-state, etc.) are irrelevant to evaluation and may indeed dismantle the theatre movement by generating animosities and false hierarchies, categorising a production by the age of its intended audience is a legitimate process practised all over the world.

The best choreography, by contrast, is not in the least controversial, since The Castle of Death was literally competing with itself in terms of choreography, although it remains one of the weakest productions of the Cairo Opera House Modern Dance Company. But it had no real competition. The production – to be reviewed on these pages – also won best lighting and set designs, while most of emerging artist prizes went to productions of the Higher Institute of Theatre (the Academy of Arts), which clearly overlooked the exceptional power of university theatre in this year’s round. Of these, the one prize that cannot be questioned is the prize for best original theatre script, which Mahmoud Gamal truly earned for his original play Prison by Choice.

Yet the several prizes to emerging artists going almost every year to the students of the Higher Institute of Theatre send out the message that those are the only ones eligible to be “emerging artists”, and that university theatre should not be seriously considered. In reality, many of the artists who have been enriching our theatrical life were never graduates of the institute. As vital as it is to our theatre education and development, the institute should never become an authority to decide who is an artist and who is not. Nobody should.

Between the Cairo Opera House prizes to the institute’s emerging artist prizes, there are a few exceptions that create equilibrium, such as Mahmoud Gamal and Samia Atef as best actress in a supporting role. But no matter how you look at it, Snow White remains the festival’s most flagrant message. One striking thing is whiteness in a land shaped by Nile and sun. Not only is it whiteness, it is specifically snow whiteness. When will child audiences in Egypt be liberated from the recycling of racist images of beauty? Till when must we teach our female children that they cannot beautiful unless they are white? And till when must we deliver theatre that is disconnected from our realities as much as global critical discourses? Can this fairytale of the most beautiful white girl in Germany or America be relevant to our Egyptian children? Can it be iconic of our Egyptian theatre? And what message does a fairytale convey about the education of children already besieged by superstition, oppressive pedagogy and disempowerment? Aren’t we guiding them towards irrational solutions and disconnecting them from reality, hence disempowering them as future adult citizens?

Unfortunately, the fairytale wins. It wins over critical thinking, creative discourse, and most of all over the willpower of the young individual who is taught to delegate her destiny to magic.

Of course is understandable and acceptable to deliver art that carries all kinds of fantasy, this is actually part of the freedom of creation and expression, yet when we come to the area of arts and education for children we find ourselves with much more responsibilities and restrictions, especially when we are at a crucial moment in a society in crisis, one that seeks development for its future and is gradually building alternative strategies for school education. Then the state theatre’s responsibility towards children and youth arts and education appears in a very specific context and ambition; and this hardly allows for Snow White. In a world theatre process that is currently analysing the impact of colonial and postcolonial mental structures on performance, criticising old practises and advising on new strategies, our Egyptian theatre ought to be working towards the decolonisation of structures and values, liberating minds, and empowering identity in progressive ways.

Still, the National Festival has played a brilliant role in mirroring our productions in 2017-2018. I am especially grateful that I’ve followed this round, which has provided me with a better and more profound understanding of our theatrical realities. Nonetheless it is time to restructure the festival’s sections and competition, which I suspect is an easy task. It is also time to revisit the bylaws that regulate and guide the jury’s mission, including discussing possible restrictions on awarding the same prize to the same artist more than twice in order to give others a chance instead of emphasising the idea that this person is the only one in Egyptian theatre who can win. But before the mission comes the composition, as I am totally convinced that the jury should be more diverse in terms of age, ideology and artistic orientation, and gender. If we have eight jury members, they should represent all ages from 20-something to 60-something, and four at least should be female.

Otherwise we are setting the example that only the elderly and the academic have the experience to judge, and therefore we suggest that this is the kind of theatre we want to reproduce, a theatre of the past, a theatre of authority where democracy is limited to one discourse, or a theatre of the 60-somethings where the best actor and the best actress are replicas of the types of man and woman the patriarchal system consolidates.

Beware that the mirror has two faces.


National Festival of Egyptian Theatre Awards

The 11th National Festival of Egyptian Theatre concluded its activities on 3 August 2018 at the Cairo Opera House with the prize giving ceremony.

This year the jury invented a special certificate for best pronunciation of a classical Arabic text on stage, which went to the production of the Hanager Arts Centre, Night Traveller, written by the late poet Salah Abdel-Sabour.

The prize for best article in theatre criticism, a new prize honouring the name of the late critic, scholar and translator Hazem Azmy, went to Bassem Adel and Ahmed Al-Sherif.

The jury (composed of Ahmed Halawa, Samy Abdel-Haleem, Mostafa Selim, Girgis Shoukry, Atef Awad, Naglaa Abdel-Hamid, Abdel-Rahman Al-Dessouky, and headed by Samira Abdel-Aziz) awarded the festival prizes as follows:

Monadel Antar and Sally Ahmed (The Castle of Death) for best choreography

Amr Abdallah (The Castle of Death) for best lighting design

Amr Abdallah (The Castle of Death) for best set design

Naima Agamy (Snow White) for best costume design

Waleed Alshahawy (The Iliad) for best music composition

Hamdy Zidan (Still Wondering) for best script based on a non-theatrical text

Mahmoud Gamal (Prison Upon Choice) for best original play

Alaa Alkashef (Studio), best emerging playwright

Rana Khattab (The Beggars’ Drama), best emerging actress

Mohamed Nasser (The Beggars’ Drama), best emerging actor

Mohamed Alrokh (The Beggars’ Drama), best emerging director

Amgad Alhaggar (Give In), best actor in a supporting role

Samia Atef (The Last Hour), best actress in a supporting role

Alaa Kouka (Night’s Traveler), best actor in a leading role

Marwa Abdelmoneim (Snow White), best actress in a leading role

The cast of Give In, the jury’s special prize for best collective performance

Mohsen Rizk (Snow White), best director

The Beggars’ Drama, second best production

Snow White, first best production

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