Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1409, (13-19 September 2018)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1409, (13-19 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Feminine vagaries

From 1 to 10 September Nora Amin attended as a guest of honour the Al-Sawari International Theatre Festival in Manama, Bahrain. It was an opportunity to explore the history of the festival, its present round and the Egyptian contribution

The Dormant Feminine

The Al-Sawari Theatre company, an independent platform, was created in 1984 by Abdallah Al-Saadawi, who had just returned from the United Arab Emirates, where he had also worked in theatre, to launch his artistic career as a theatre director in Bahrain. Al-Saadawi was largely inspired by the works of Antonin Artaud and Grotowski, and he wanted to bring a new dimension to Bahraini theatre in which the physicality of the performer could be present and invested, and performances could step out of the theatre buildings onto the streets and public space. He founded Al-Sawari Theatre company with young and emerging talents who did not have access to professional theatre at the time. Among them was Khaled Al-Rowaei, who ended up becoming the board director and artistic director of the company and the festival. 

Al-Saadawi’s approach was avant-garde compared to the classical and textual styles of theatre in Bahrain, in fact it was pioneering throughout the Arab region. His signature style became apparent on the regional and international levels at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET), where his company participated several times and always went home with at least one prize. The 1990s witnessed a certain fascination with Al-Saadawi’s work by a range of Arab communities. Egyptian spectators of the 1990s — of whom I was one — thought of his work as a model for an Arab theatre that embraces both the image and performer’s physicality. Al-Saadawi became a kind of icon for alternative Arab theatre. He found his special imprint in ritual, one can see this very clearly with his production based on the tragedy of Al-Hallaj, which remains an archival memory of Sufi ritual on stage during the showings of the CIFET. Yet almost all his productions carry some trace of rituality and spirituality. Al-Saadawy’s productions are also political, they feature a very high level of political criticism that goes beyond political events to reaches a degree of ideological critique. They question the place of human beings in the world, how the market objectifies and robs them of history and identity, how memory is in danger, and how performance can remain a field of human connection and communication where we can all retrieve our humanness as performers and spectators.

In 1993 Al-Saadawi decided to create a festival for youth theatre through Al-Sawari. The word “youth” in the title did not refer to children and adolescents as it does in some theatre festivals, but rather to the young generation of citizens and artists past adolescence — people in their 20s or early 30s — and who deserved to occupy the stage and express themselves and their visions of life. The festival was another progressive initiative to give voice to those who are usually held behind the false parenthood of the elderly in power. Held every two years, Al-Sawari Festival is this year in its 12th edition, and has become an international event. Al-Saadawi, now 70, is as ambitious as ever, neither has the dedication of Al-Rowaei let up.

Al-Sawari Theatre company gradually transformed into a registered company with a board and management that guarantee production operations throughout the year. It is quite an exceptional case for an independent theatre to survive for 34 years, expanding into a theatre festival that runs for 25 years. Such a journey seems almost like a mirage in other societies. Al-Sawari have succeeded in being a progressive model both in art and in cultural management. Their artistic values go along the same lines as their social and political values. This, it seems, is how a culturally pioneering model is created. 

 

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The 12th round of the festival included productions from eight countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria/Germany, Georgia, Russia and Armenia. It also included a conference and two workshops. One workshop, given by Roberta Levitow and supported by the US Embassy in Bahrain, focused on theatre networks and partnerships. Levitow is the senior programme associate/international for the Sundance Institute Theatre programme, and the co-founder and director of Theatre Without Borders. The other workshop, by the Swiss dramaturge and theatre director Erik Altorfer — an expert in conducting workshops in the Arab region, having given two workshops in Alexandria and three in Beirut — focused on dramaturgy and playwriting and was supported by the Swiss Arts Council (ProHelvetia). Compared to previous rounds, the festival has expanded in terms of international relations and partnerships. Not only did it attract local funders and sponsors, it also managed to create long-term collaborations as a new plan to regularly introduce the Bahraini cultural scene with guest performances and training programmes. It is worth noting that the festival carried the same artistic signature and identity of Al-Sawari: the selected performances presented a strong physical craft, political topics and unforgettable images. It seemed the festival was another tool to extend the message of Al-Sawari and to voice it through cultural and aesthetic diversity. 

Almost every evening, the cultural hall witnessed a full house of 1000 spectators, an outstanding achievement especially when it lasts for 10 consecutive days. From dance theatre performances like the Russian and the Syrian productions to textual dramas like the Georgian and Bahraini shows as well testimonial theatre (Egypt) and parody (Tunisia), the festival presented a whole rainbow of aesthetic, dramatic and intellectual excellence, and planted the first seeds for future international cooperations in Bahrain. One major phenomenon worth stressing is that five productions were directed by women, which means that more than half of the productions participating in the festival — selected through a process that made no special provisions for female artists — were created by women. I find this unique among festivals in the region — to have this many productions by women without labelling or restricting them under the category of “made by women”. This is actually much more progressive than creating special festivals and festival sections for women, because it shows that women can compete and win the selection process because of artistic merit alone. 

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The Dormant Feminine

In this context the Egyptian production, The Dormant Feminine, directed by Nada Sabet, should be celebrated. Produced by Noon Creative Enterprise, it premiered at the British Council in Cairo in December 2017, and played again at the D-CAF (Cairo), Theatre Is a Must (Alexandria) and Women by the Sea (El Gouna) festivals in 2018. The piece is inspired by the testimonies of 12 women who are caregivers of children with various mental and physical illnesses and disabilities. The women were participants in workshops held at the children’s clinic at Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital in Cairo. The women came together weekly over one year, and empowered by storytelling, they were able to create this piece and give it to three actresses. 

The piece was staged at the Moharrak Youth Centre in Manama. The spectators sat in circles and witnessed the delivery of those real stories by Mona Suleiman, Abeer Suleiman and Carol Aqqad. It felt like an evening of testimonial theatre, although the spectators did not all necessarily know the piece was based on real stories, but the style of performance and acting conveyed this almost documentary style and made us think of ourselves not so much as audience members but as witnesses. The three actresses used a natural acting style which shifted away from the dramatic attitude that might be expected because of the nature of the stories to one that stresses verisimilitude without theatricality so as to guide us towards understanding the outer reality in a more profound and humane way. The monologues they delivered were carefully designed as a collage of all the real stories intertwined. The simple movements and the images created by Sabet perfectly served to create the situation of a human encounter, a sharing moment and a testimonial style. Everything was so subtle that we ended up feeling those stories were not so much women’s as society’s, which women are usually prevented from telling. They are stories of discrimination — that is not far from racism, and of shaming, staining and elimination made towards women by a society that is gradually losing its sense of humanity. Again, this is not the problem of women, it is the problem of a whole society. 

Without the work of artists like Sabet the Egyptian theatre scene would not have much space for performances based in social and societal issues. Her work is a genuine model of the artist’s responsibility towards issues of development, social and psychological awareness, and human justice in general. Not only did she tour the Egyptian provinces with her outdoor performances of Hara TV, tackling issues like violence against women, discrimination and reproductive health, she also made outstanding efforts as a producer to create a new formula for devised theatre and for local touring. 

In my wild imagination, I dream that her work will be celebrated by the state theatre and provided with special support in order to help her expand the scope of her work and continue her local touring, this time with The Dormant Feminine. I trust that the young theatre manager of the new unit of the state touring theatre, Mohamed Al-Sharqawi, will realise the opportunity that Sabet’s work presents to his plan. Sabet does not make pedagogical theatre, she makes her own style that recognises social and societal issues, raises awareness through human sharing, and probably heals by removing the shame and hence publicly retrieving the collective pain and transforming it to victory. I follow her in calling her piece “an ode to vulnerability”, and I salute Al-Sawari International Theatre festival for extending her work to the regional scene, breaking some of the old prejudices against this style and bringing it back into focus. Again, Al-Sawari have not failed to maintain their historic artistic message and vision of innovation, pushing borders and empowerment. 



The Dormant Feminine

THE 12TH Al-SAWARI INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL PRIZES

The Abdallah Al-Saadawy special jury prize: Hadya Hura, Syria/Germany

The prize for best theatrical adaptation of music: Wandering Time, Russia

The Ibrahim Bahr prize for best playwright: Jamal Saqr for For Better or Worse, Bahrain

The prize for best actor in a leading role: Hammoudah bin Hussein, for Not Yet, Tunisia

The prize for best actress in a leading role: Narine Grigoryan for her role in Flight Over the City, Armenia

The best scenography prize: Tamar Okhikyan for Yellow Days, Georgia

The best theatre director prize: Tengiz Khukhia for Yellow Days, Georgia

The best performance prize: Wandering Time, Russia
 

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