Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Fresh forays

Nehad Selaiha welcomes the introduction of Al-Firdausi’s Shahnameh and Roland Dubillard’s Diablogues on the Egyptian stage

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week I was lucky to enjoy two Christmas treats, both of which took me off the beaten track in respect of their source material. The first, Kan Yama Kan, Imbareh wel Neharda wi Bokra (Once Upon a Time, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow), a two-hander conceived and directed by the Egyptian/Iranian multidisciplinary artist Sabri Zikri, further boasted a freshness of venue — the Lotus Studio in the Darb Contemporary Art and Culture Centre in mediaeval Cairo, close to the Hanging Church and the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque — as well as a degree of formal novelty. Structured as a tale within a tale involving storytelling and impersonation, it wove together two stories of resistance against political tyranny and oppression, one contemporary and the other belonging to ancient, legendary times. Hence the title Once Upon a Time, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which links manifestations of oppression past and present and universalises the theme.

The contemporary story, which begins the play after a short musical prelude given by Naglaa Younis on the violin, was possibly inspired by stories of women such as Sherine Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2003 and has been in exile in the UK since June 2009 due to the increase in persecution of Iranian citizens critical of the current regime. Unlike Ebadi, however, Zikri’s fictional heroine, Serene Hammouda, is a political prisoner who, we learn from the dialogue between her and the prison guard, has been on a hunger strike for a month in protest against the persecution of her husband and nine-year-old son, Fereidoon (named after a hero in The Shahnameh), and the refusal of the authorities to allow them to visit her or grant them passports to go abroad. To preserve her sanity and cope with her mental anguish, she decides to write to her son the story in The Shahnameh in which the hero was called after figures, identifying herself with Faranak, the long suffering mother of that hero, who was similarly separated from her son by a vicious, tyrannical ruler. When the prison guard, ironically called Kaveh after the blacksmith liberator in The Shahnameh for a reason we shall discover at the end, denies her pen and paper, she secretly writes the story on a long scarf, using her eyeliner.

At this point in the performance, a traditional street storyteller takes over, continuing the narration in a vivid, lively manner against three painted tapestries (by visual artist Hani Homous) that colourfully illustrate in the manner of old Persian paintings scenes from the recited story. The story that unfolds, with calculated shifts back and forth to Hammouda in her prison cell and occasional hilarious interruptions caused by the storytellers’ clumsy, bungling assistant, tells us how Zahhak, a ruthless tyrant who had two snakes growing out of his shoulders, daily slaughtered young men he pretended to send to fight a dragon at the gates of the city and fed their brains to the snakes. Faranak, one of Zahhak’s female subjects, decides to protect her newborn son, Fereidoon, from this fate and sends him to a distant place where she entrusts him to the care of a cow who nurses him like a mother. One night, king Zahhak has a terrible dream in which he sees himself murdered and is told by a dream interpreter that a young man who is nursed and reared by a cow will cause his ruin and take his kingdom away. Zahhak orders that this young man be discovered and killed, whereupon Faranak removes Fereidoon from the cow and puts him in the care of an old man who wanders in the mountains. When Fereidoon reaches manhood, he leaves in search of his mother, finds her, learns from her his history and decides to take revenge on king Zahhak. He teams up with Kaveh, a blacksmith in the service of Zahhak, whom he meets at a gathering. But before the two finally destroy Zahhak and take over his kingdom, we are treated to a beguiling, blood-curdling account of how Kaveh discovers the king’s secret and the fate of the young men who were sent to fight the imaginary dragon.

When the ancient story written by Hammouda to her son and delivered orally by the storyteller and her assistant ends, the scene shifts back to Hammouda’s cell where we learn that she has been taken to hospital and that the prison guard, Kaveh, having read the story she wrote on her scarf for her son, has finally discovered the significance of his name and the role it implies he is destined for and, therefore, decided to revolt against the orders of his tyrannical masters, side with Hammouda and her cause and deliver the letter to her son. To further dovetail the two stories towards showing the power of art to inspire ordinary individuals and raise their political consciousness, director Zikri, who conceived the idea of the play, provided the material, guided the actors’ improvisations and finally constructed them into a coherent script, used only two performers, making the attractive, gifted, versatile Younis, who acts, sings, dances and plays the violin, double as Hammouda, the political prisoner, and the storyteller, while Abdel-Rahman Nasser, a new talented actor of great promise and powerful presence, doubled as Kaveh, the prison guard, and the storyteller’s assistant. Performing in neutral lighting, against white boards and three painted tapestries, they drew us inside the stories and gave a smooth, seamless performance, weaving their way in and out of stories, parts, moods and characters with ease and dexterity and managing the quick shifts with immaculate timing. Once Upon a Time, an independent production subsidised by Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource), a regional, non-profit organisation which supports artistic creativity in the Arab region and encourages cultural exchange, was a delightful, absorbing theatrical experience which illustrated not only the power of art, but also that nations and cultures divided by politics, as Iran and Egypt are, can be brought together and joined in harmony by art.

***

The second treat was the Creativity Centre’s Fragile — a bewitching, hilarious, bizarre performance in the style of a comic strip, or animated cartoons, composed by Mohamed Fahim and Amir Salaheddin out of their own improvisations on selected scenes from Roland Dubillard’s 1975 Diablogues et autres inventions — deux voix and 1998 Nouveaux Diablogues and performed by them, with Salaheddin taking the director’s seat as well. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Egyptian audiences are introduced to the work of this brilliant French poet, writer, comedian and actor who died in December 2011 at the age of 88, and whose plays are often compared to Beckett’s and Ionesco’s. In a series of small sketches on very mundane matters, like a music lesson, playing table tennis, trying to dive in a sea or river at the same time, welcoming visitors, or simply looking at one’s own hands and trying to decide whether they are similar or different, Fahim and Salaheddin treated us to a mélange of humour, emotion and naive wisdom that made the simplest and most ordinary of actions seem novel, unfamiliar, strange, absurd and wildly funny.  

As we watched, we seemed to recapture something of that long forgotten sense of wonder we experienced when children as we discovered the world around us, learned to control our limbs, or experimented with forming words and sounds. To produce this kind of wonder in theatre requires great talent and versatility and the wisdom of clowns and Shakespearean fools, and our two actors had what it takes. Contrasting sharply in appearance, in terms of height, build and looks, they formed a marvellous duo in which Fahim — small, chubby faced, thick haired, with a light complexion and big features — played the clumsy, inept, child-like friend of the pompous, commanding, dark, tall, bald and wiry Salaheddin. The stream of absurd babble reached a climax in a new invented scene, in which Fahim delivered a whole monologue backwards, reversing not only the order of the words, but also the order of the letters in each word, and did it at a frenzied pace.

Running through all the delightfully funny sketches and linking them together was a leitmotif which you could call the need for human sharing and communication and the difficulty of achieving either. This idea is introduced at the beginning, somewhat farcically, as the two actors stand at the front corner of the performance space which faces the corridor that leads in from the door of the auditorium to welcome loudly and jubilantly every spectator who walks in, often shaking hands with her/him. At the end, it surfaces clearly in the scene in which Fahim closely examines his hands, compares them with his fellow actor’s and reaches the conclusion that they were made the way they are so as not to allow a person to shake hands with him/herself and to drive us to seek others in order to do so. This need for the other was so eloquently dramatised in this scene as to make its spelling verbally on the one-sheet printed programme needless and redundant.

If there is one thing I especially disliked about this show, it was its title. Using the English word, “Fragile”, spelt in Arabic, the title was repulsively pretentious and supercilious. Besides, it did not seem to relate to anything in the show. Nor were we allowed to forget it as we watched the performance since stage designers Nada Abdel-Megid and Omar Raafat were apparently misled by it and lined the set at the back and front with glasses of different shapes and sizes that were never used and seemed purely ornamental. Indeed, the set, cluttered with needless objects and signs that served no purpose, was the weakest element in this work and a burden on the eye. An empty stage, with only a chair and a toy piano for the music lesson, would have served the actors better and set them to advantage. However, there is so much of creative power and comic invention in Fragile to make up for the unhappy set and title.

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