Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Theatre at last!

Nehad Selaiha welcomes the resurgence of theatre in Cairo with open arms

Al-Ahram Weekly

After nearly four months without theatre, except for some repeat performances of La Musica troupe’s Enemy of the People at Rawabet (see my ‘Changing contexts of reception’ in Al-Ahram Weekly, 18 September 2013) and a couple of very short, very modest solo mime shows at Al-Damma space — off Abdeen Square — in August and September, it was wonderful to learn that over the next few months, 10 new productions will be mounted at Al-Hanager by different independent groups, each playing for a fortnight. Not only that. In the space opposite that centre in the Opera grounds, a new open air theatre called Masrah Al-Midan — a name probably inspired by the monthly event, Al-Fann Midan, staged at Abdeen Square by independent artists since the 25 January Revolution — will come into action in a few days, hosting performances by young artists. No more theatrical famine in the months to come.
The Hanager project opened on 1 October with an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that reduced the text to 75 minutes playing time, gave it a vaguely historical setting and presented it in a quasi-ritualistic form that combines features of the ancient Greek theatre and the oratorio. Dramaturge Mohamed Al-Khayyam and director Tamer Karam, two young artists who have been very active in the recent turbulent political events in Egypt, conceived of the play as a popular epic drama about the rise and fall of an ambitious, daring, charismatic military hero turned bloody tyrant, narrated by a chorus, representing the people, with some members stepping out of the ranks to take on the main characters, like soloists, and enact the crucial scenes. In the interest of this conception, they added an overture in which the chorus stands over the prostrate, slain figure of Macbeth, informing us that they will tell us the story of this fallen hero for our benefit and edification and as a warning to posterity. When Macbeth rises, the play begins, and apart from the soliloquies and dialogic parts, which are played in a broad, epic style, with little attempt at detailed psychological realism or tragic effect, inspiring neither awe, empathy, or a sense of grandeur, the rest of the lines are chorally sung or rhythmically recited to the accompaniment of an exciting, atmospheric soundtrack compiled by Walid Ghazi, who also undertook the vocal training of the cast and played Macduff.
Such a conception will naturally sacrifice the play’s tragic dimension, moral conflict and depth of existential anguish and put paid to the central theme of self betrayal and consequent moral degeneration. Predictably, Macbeth’s final soliloquy, the excruciatingly poignant “Tomorrow, and tomorrow…” one, was ruthlessly excised with an easy conscience, and I cannot say I was not shocked and quite miserable at its omission. This particular soliloquy is one of my very favourites and though I could see the need for its removal and knew how at odds it would sound in this new rendering of the play, it was quite a struggle to get reconciled to the loss. There were compensations in plenty, however. These could be found in the broad, vibrant theatricality of the staging; in the strict harmony of colours on stage — mainly russet brown, black and white; in the fine choreography of the movement and the intensity and dexterity of the designing and execution of the battle scenes, particularly the final, fatal duel between Macbeth and Macduff; in the mesmeric live chanting and evocative background music; in the director’s creative lighting plan which made up for the austere simplicity and frugality of the set — by Mahmoud Sabri and Ahmed Hashish — with clever visual effects, particularly in the scene where Macbeth is told that “the Birnam wood” has been seen “removing to Dunsinane”; in the brisk, cascading rhythm and immaculate tempo, punctuated with blackouts superbly timed to heighten emotions, enhance the dramatic effect of an action, or induce suspense; in the exquisitely orchestrated vocal delivery of the chorus and main actors and their strict discipline; in the sensational coup de theatre in the banquet scene when the decapitated head of slain Banquo appears on a serving dish at the centre of the table when Lady Macbeth lifts off the lid with courteous hospitality, reminding us of a similarly ghoulish banquet scene in Titus Andronicus (Act 5, Scene 3); and, last but not least, in the power, competence, feline softness and cunning of Soha Adel as Lady Macbeth and in the youthful beauty and fitness of Mohamed Gheith as her lord and master. I cannot remember a handsomer Macbeth, or one who so looked and moved like a dangerous panther. Looking at him you could understand how, bloody and thoroughly black as the director painted him, he could charm and almost hypnotise all around him, including the audience. A stunning combination of animal beauty, litheness, grace and savagery.
The germ of this choral epic drama formula which uses classical texts or sources as material to be newly tailored came into Karam’s head when, while a student of philosophy at Ain Shams University, he used a chorus of fellow students in a university production loosely based on both George Bernard Shaw’s and Jean Anouilh’s treatments of the story of Joan of Arc in 2008. Though he joined the Theatre Institute in the Academy of Arts upon graduation, he continued to develop, refine and hone this formula, working with the same group of students and graduates and directing them at his old university in adaptations of Shakespeare’s King Lear (2009) and of Goethe’s Faust and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus knocked together (in 2010), He strayed from this formula in only one production for the state theatre organisation — namely Jose Triana’s Night of the Assassins, which he staged at Al-Tali’a theatre in May 2011 (see my review of it entitled ‘All in the timing’, in the Weekly, Issue No 1048, 19 May 2013). In the following year, however, he was back  with his chorus of old colleagues diligently experimenting with his favourite formula in an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu, which was soon followed by Ghinuet Al-Leil (Night Song) — an equally free adaptation of Yasin Al-Daaw’s Atyaf Hikayah (Phantoms of a Tale) — itself a dramatisation of Ayyoub Al-Masri, an Egyptian folk ballad which resets the Biblical Job and his trials and tribulations in the Egyptian countryside and provides him with a faithful, beautiful, long suffering wife called Na’sa. This ballad was unearthed, polished and expanded into a popular epic in the 1950s by the great poet and folklorist Zakareyah Al-Higawi and proved very successful when directed as a radio serial that combines acting and choral narration by Yusef Al-Hattab and broadcast in 1955. It has since inspired many plays, including, among others, Rahma (Ruth), by poet and playwright Abdel-Rahman Arnous, and Al-Daaw’s Phantoms, which Tamer Karam used in his Night Song.
Despite the different sources, the current version of Macbeth at Al-Hanager closely resembles the earlier Night Song, which also played at the same venue last Ramadan. In both the source story is simplified into a straightforward melodramatic conflict between good and evil, cast in a musical form and presented through the eyes of an active, engaged chorus who constantly double as actors and narrators. The only differences consist in the shift of focus from the good hero in the former to the villain in the latter, in replacing the folk music and modes of chanting and singing in the one with Western classical music and operatic voices and vocalism in the other to suit the Western setting and atmosphere of the chosen material, and in the more pronounced musical character of the present production.
When recently asked whether the political events of the past two years have affected theatre in Egypt and how, I said that the 25 January Revolution and the political turbulence that followed have certainly affected the theatrical movement in Egypt by bringing theatre artists on the streets with performances that reflected the anger of the nation, its hopes and dreams, as well as contributing to the raising and sustaining the revolutionaries’ morale. Their performances, which can be grouped together under the general rubric of revolutionary Street Theatre, drew on the arts of dance, music, poetry, storytelling, parody and satire and also introduced a new form of documentary theatre which may be classed as verbatim theatre — meaning a theatre that documents historical events as they happen through the testimonies of active participants and eye witnesses — a “Theatre of the Real”, in Carol Martin’s definition.
Such performances, however, I added, were generally put together through improvisation, on the spur of the moment as it were, and were of necessity closely attached to the events that immediately inspired them. Many of them, therefore, may not survive the events which gave them rise or sustain their impact on the audience as these events recede in time. It may be, I concluded, that we have to wait until things have settled down a bit before we can hope to see a drama that deals with the events of the two last turbulent years in depth and with profound insight into the human side behind them. Watching Tamer Karam’s To Night, Macbeth led me to think that until such time as we can get original dramas of depth and merit, we can perhaps make do, dramatically speaking, with classics such as Macbeth and make them speak our minds and address the mood of the times. This is what Tamer Karam has been doing in the past two years and his experiments have paid well in terms of theatrical joy and artistic satisfaction.

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