Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Misplaced energy

Nehad Selaiha has mixed feelings about a new play at Al-Tali’a

Al-Ahram Weekly

To unearth play-texts by unknown authors is surely a commendable thing, with the proviso that they are worth the effort. This proviso was sadly neglected when Al-Tali’a Theatre took upon itself to produce Isam Abdel-Aziz’s long published but hitherto unperformed Tuqoos El-Mawt wa El-Hayat (Rituals of Death and Life). The endorsement of this text, suggested by young director Mazen El-Gharabawi, by the board of Al-Tali’a state theatre company raises some disturbing questions about its artistic policies and the management of its funds and pinpoints its urgent need for some kind of expert dramaturgical counselling. One can find some excuse for the young director’s choice, prompted, as it was perhaps, by an innocent, blind trust in academic titles. The author of Rituals happens to be a worthy drama professor at the theatre institute of the Egyptian Academy of Arts and, perhaps, taught the director at one time. Unfortunately, however, even the highest academic degree in drama does not automatically qualify a person to produce stage worthy play texts. And by stage-worthy I do not mean well-made plays that follow traditional rules. Writers can be as experimental as they like; but even the most wildly experimental drama must have a degree of imaginative coherence and progressive energy to keep the audience interested, which is not the case in Rituals.
The play, set in a graveyard at night, with tombstones everywhere, begins in a thoroughly lyrical vein, with an overlong, overblown elegy, delivered by a young woman over the tomb of her husband. The excessive emotional outpouring — drenched in tears and punctuated at every other line with vows of never leaving the side of the tomb till death — sounds strangely neutral and falls cold on the ears. With nothing in it to characterise, in even the tiniest degree, either the mourner or the mourned and no detail to relate it to any conceivable reality, it degenerates into a string of histrionic lamentation clichés. Indeed, the woman’s vows strike one as false and hollow by dint of their extravagance and repetition, often sounding like a parody of real grief, just like the Player Queen’s vow (‘Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife, / If once I be a widow, ever I be a wife!) in the Mousetrap in Hamlet (Act 3, scene 2), forcing one to echo Queen Gertrude in conclusion that “The lady doth protest too much.”
After wallowing in “Death” for over 20 tedious minutes, wondering all the while how anything could follow from this first scene, “Life” enters in the form of two soldiers who are at once attracted to the young woman. While the comical one covets her body and mocks at her grief, the serious one falls in love with her at first sight. The reason for their being on the scene is that they have been appointed to guard the crucified body of an executed rebel against any attempts by his comrades to take him down and bury him, which could turn his tomb into a shrine. There is a hint at a military dictatorship in power and a rebellion against it. Here is a new source of interest; our hopes revive that things will begin to move at last. But alas, they don’t. The serious soldier promptly dispatches his comical colleague off the scene to keep watch over the corpse and proceeds to woo the widow, using a long string of platitudes to console her for her loss and persuade her to embrace life and love anew. The dialogue here is as wordy, trite, repetitive and depersonalised as was the opening monologue and equally devoid of dramatic potential. When the amorous soldier finally withdraws to resume his vigil, a woman accompanied by a little boy suddenly invades the scene to claim, in a startling, unforeseen twist, that the man buried in the tomb at which the first woman has been wailing is in fact her own husband! The wrangling of the two women over the dead man engages a long scene, with each giving him a completely different character from the one described by the other. While the first woman portrays him as a gentle, tender lover and romantic artist, the second asserts he was a mighty warrior and military hero who amassed a vast fortune by hiring himself as a mercenary. Whatever tension and suspense builds in this confrontation is wantonly dissipated when it finally transpires that the second woman has made a mistake and was not actually certain of where her husband was buried. All this big hullaballoo boils down to nothing and leaves you wondering why it was introduced in the first place.
When the amorous soldier walks in again in the following scene to continue his wooing of the mourning widow, he finds her, for some inscrutable reason (unless it be her stormy meeting with the other widow, which, in this case, needs explaining as to how and why) more responsive. Despite her firm vows at the beginning, she shows signs of relenting and yielding. But another startling twist occurs. The comical soldier dashes in, in mad fury, shouting that the body of the rebel has been stolen while he was away for a pee and blames his colleague for leaving him alone on the watch to indulge his amorous propensities. Expecting to be court-martialed and doubtlessly shot for his negligence, the lover-soldier, who has been such a fervent advocate of life in the face of everything, gets cold feet and shoots himself on the spot while his colleague flees. What about the woman you will wonder. Nothing. The scene blacks out on her standing over the corpse of the soldier. One is tempted to think that the curse the Player Queen invoked upon herself in Hamlet has caught up with this woman too. Unless one takes the play as a warning to widows never to hope to marry again, one is quite at a loss how to fathom the author’s purpose in writing it.
The talk of rebels, a revolution brewing and a military dictatorship in rule could tempt one to attempt a political interpretation. One could say, with a lot of critical bending over backwards and overstraining of the imagination, that the play is a loose metaphor for the 25 January revolution; that the grieving widow is Egypt mourning her beloved dead martyrs, or a beloved dead saviour; that the other widow who tried to claim the dead saviour represents the remnants of the toppled regime who tried to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon; that the two soldiers who promised life and support but proved ineffectual symbolise the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who were supposed to protect the revolution, but betrayed it, victimised its leaders and sold it over to the Muslim Brotherhood; and that the stealing of the body of the crucified rebel by his comrades implies that the revolution will continue. Such a reading is not implausible; only it would never cross your mind while watching the play. If the author of Rituals had something like this in mind, he could not have chosen a clumsier, more disconcerting way of communicating it.
One wonders how this muddled, inconsequential, verbose and queasily sentimental play would have come across on stage without the imaginative work Mazen El-Gharabawi and his artistic crew put into it. To enliven the text and break its monotony, El-Gharabawi enlisted the talents of lyricist Mustafa Selim, composer Ahmed Mustafa and singers Amira Amer and Ilhami Deheima to frame and punctuate the verbal text with songs, while distinguished choreographer Karima Bedeir contributed a number of exquisite dances performed by members of the Opera dance troupe, Fursan El-Sharq, involving the beautiful, wraith-like Noha Lutfi, who valiantly struggled with the part of the grieving widow, in them. The visual framing matched the musical one in beauty: Ahmed Abdel-Aziz’s graveyard set of white tombstones and dead branches against a dark background looked appropriately desolate in a romantic vein that was equally pronounced in his costume designs for the females in the play and was ethereally lighted by Rami Beniamin to suggest a moonlit night in most scenes, visually echoing many romantic paintings. However, to be fully appreciated, the audio-visual elements of the performance needed a bigger space and to be seen and heard from a certain distance. In the cramped space of Salah Abdel-Saboor hall, the music seemed too loud, the set cluttered and the dancers barely had room to move. The main stage of Al-Tali’a theatre would have been a far better venue for this work.  
With such an excellent artistic team at his command, I wonder why Mazen El-Gharabawi did not think of whittling down the text a bit more than he did, putting the whole to music and having it sung or recited all the way through with additional choreographed sequences? His excellent, well trained cast, which actually included a professional singer (Fatima Mohamed Ali who played the second widow), would have, no doubt, been able to adequately perform the task since Noha Lutfi, Mahmoud Izzat and Michael Sidhom have good, clear, well-trained voices. Predominantly lyrical and weak on plot, conflict and characterisation, Rituals is, perhaps, best put across as a musical. As it was, El-Gharabawi went only half the way, leaving us with the unsatisfying impression of an unfinished task, of beauty wasted and misplaced artistic energy.

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