Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Escapist flings

Nehad Selaiha takes a trip into the world of romance and fairytales on the wings of some new productions

Al-Ahram Weekly

With anxiety about the present and uncertainty about the future gripping the country, the fast approaching elections generating widespread fear of even more violence, daily explosions and bloodshed, the chronic economic problems gaining in pressure and intensity by the minute and a spiralling energy crisis that gloomily forebodes a dark, sweltering summer (during a whole month of which many of us will be fasting), it is not surprising to find some theatre artists taking a break from politics and seeking temporary relief  in plays that project a more cheerful, peaceful, benign world and a more optimistic view of life. While Mahmoud El-Lozy chose to imaginatively revisit a bright spot in the past, when society seemed changing for the better and becoming more just and humane, by reviving No’man Ashour’s Al-Nas Elli Fouq (The People Upstairs, or At the Top) for the annual AUC Arabic play production, Hani Abdel Naser made an imaginative flight  to the Far East and the world of folktales and legends, staging stories from Sabri Abul Fadl’s Selections from Japanese Literature, which he rendered into colloquial Arabic in collaboration with Siham Abdel Salam. The result was Yabany, Taqfeel Masri (Made in Japan, Assembled in Egypt), performed at the Jesuit Centre off Ramses Street as part of the current Independent Theatre Season. Hani El-Mettenawi, on the other hand, found his refuge in Russian literature, directing Mohamed Saleh’s smooth translation of Maria Lado’s Just a Simple Story – a charming, romantic tale about love, heroism, self sacrifice and tolerance, first performed in 2004.

 Hastily written, almost within months of the 1956 Al-Nas Elli Taht (The People Downstairs, or ‘At the Bottom’), and in all probability to cash in on its overwhelming popular and critical success, Al-Nas Elli Fouq rehashes the themes of the earlier play, putting across the same ideological message and the same forceful call for a classless society. No’man Ashour (1918-87) was a thorough socialist and committed writer who rose to fame under Nasser’s regime in the 1950s and ‘60s and is generally regarded as the father of social realism in the Egyptian theatre. Indeed, speaking of the two plays in his autobiography, significantly entitled Al-Masrah Hayati (Theatre: My Life), he describes himself as a social historian who traces and documents social change and the development of society in his dramatic work. Artistically, however, Al-Nas Elli Fouq is definitely inferior to its predecessor in terms of tautness, cohesion and vivid characterization. The dialogue is often trite and tediously repetitive, thrashing the same point over and over again and displaying little wit and a marked lack of originality. Apart from Raqiqa Hanem, a shallow, vain, pretentious and thoroughly affected social upstart who joined the aristocracy through the wealth of her husband, the fawning, sanctimonious secretary and, to a lesser extent, the Pasha of humble origins, the characters are indifferently drawn and fail to raise interest, sympathy, or laughter.

No wonder that, unlike Al-Nas Elli Taht, it is rarely revived. This makes the main value of the AUC production mainly educational: to acquaint the younger generations and new audiences with the Egyptian theatrical heritage and train student actors in handling old texts. El-Lozy’s production, for which Hazem Shebl designed the sets, did little to enliven this clumsy text, sticking faithfully to the three-act formula of the original and avoiding any dramaturgical intervention. He guided his actors well; but though they did their very best with their assigned roles, they could not aspire to match the performances of the play’s 1957 original star-studded cast, which sported such illustrious names as Hussein Riad, Na’ima Wasfi, Sanaa Gamil, Sohair El-Babli, Ihsan El-Qal’awi, Ihsan Sherif, Nur El-Dimirdash and Fu’ad Shafiq. To work at all, or make the audience turn a blind eye to its serious defects and marked lack of creative inspiration or human depth, Al-Nas Elli Fouq needs a cast of comparable strength and popular appeal to the one that saved it from sinking in 1957. Indeed, without the 1957 cast, not to mention the particular historical moment when it appeared – a moment of euphoria, optimism and national pride following the failure of the tripartite aggression on Egypt in 1956 and the implementation of Naser’s land reform laws – that first production would have been a dismal failure. As it was, it only achieved a modest success with the audience, while the leading critics at the time lamented its many technical failings and inadequacies. The long, arduous drive to Malak Gabr Theatre in New Cairo, however, was not without its reward – if you can call it a reward. El-Lozy’s production was a painful reminder of a period of national glory that soon turned sour; of a passionately cherished national dream that soon turned into a long nightmare.

Hani Abdel Naser’s Made in Japan, Assembled in Egypt, staged at the theatre hall of the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Cairo, off Rasmes Square, known as Studio Nasibian (a large, bare room, with modest light and sound equipment and rows of wooden chairs facing the performance space on the same level), was openly, shamelessly, indeed self-confessedly escapist in drive and intent. When the lights came up, we saw five actors in traditional Japanese costumes and hairdos (by Basem Biso, who also designed the set) sitting, or, rather, kneeling down on cushions on the floor in a straight line before us. On the wall behind them, five large posters showing different traditional Japanese scenes and figures hung at different levels. Two long strips of dark paper  hanging on both sides of the central poster and inscribed with what looked like Japanese writing, and five white lamps placed on the floor beside the actors, the shades of which carried similar Japanese looking inscriptions, completed the frugal set. (I was told later that all the Japanese looking inscriptions were real Japanese words and sentences, including a translation of the Arabic title of the play.) It was a minimalist set, and as a storytelling performance with music and songs, Made in Japan needed nothing more.

After a short musical prelude of a distinct Japanese character to put us in the mood, Hani Abdel Naser, who made one of the storytellers, began to introduce the performance and mention the source of the stories and their nature. Immediately, however, he was loudly interrupted by protests from the other performers (Siham Abdel Salaam, Mona Naguib, Ahmed Kamal and Adel Al-Huseini), singly and in chorus. They complained of their uncomfortable mode of sitting, their costumes and the work they had been assigned. Why Japan and Japanese fairytales and folk legends, they asked. What had they got to do with us or with what was currently happening in Egypt, they grumbled. In answer, Abdel Naser defiantly confesses that he has grown sick and tired of politics; that finding everything around him thoroughly depressing, he felt driven to escape reality and seek refuge for a while in imaginary times and distant lands.

Like all folktales, the stories which follow, with the five performers taking turns at narrating them, are a mixture of the real and magical and sink the barriers between heaven and earth, the living and the dead, the animate and inanimate. Regardless of their subject matter and characters, they are all moral parables processed through the colourful popular imagination and advocate such values and virtues as love, peace, compassion, charity, endurance and tolerance. The narration is punctuated by songs performed by some the storytellers and they enhance the lyricism of the tales. The lyrics of these songs were drawn from the tales themselves or other Japanese sources and phrased by Siham Abdel Salam. In putting them to music, Abdel Naser also drew on Japanese sources. The stories, the songs, the set, the costumes and the talents of the narrators all combined to produce a thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience that allowed one to forget for a while the pressures and anxieties of the present.

At Al-Hanager, Maria Lado’s 2004 Just a Simple Story – generally described as a charming, romantic tale about love, heroism, self sacrifice and tolerance – turned out to be far from simple. It is true that the general atmosphere is lyrical and idyllic and the story, ineed the play as a whole, displays many features of the folktale: mixing reality with fantasy, withholding all information about the historical time of the events and their geographical location, presenting the characters in broad outlines as types and role-players, or function-carriers, rather than complex, psychologically detailed characters with specific histories and backgrounds, merging the worlds of animals and humans so that animals talk in the language of humans and understand them, and retaining a belief in the supernatural – in the existence of guardian angels and their power to intervene in human affairs. However, in no folk or fairy tale that anyone has ever come across can one find the action centering, as it does here, on such a problematic, thorny issue as abortion. The moral seriousness of this issue and the way it is dealt with gives the play a new dimension and turns it into a passionate plea for life and tolerance. Underlying the plea is the old, optimistic, romantic belief in the innate goodness of humans and their capacity for reform, forgiveness and altruism.

Set in a barn inhabited by five talking domestic animals (a pig that dreams of wings to fly and see the world outside, a placid, pregnant cow, a kindly aged horse,  a cocky, know-all rooster that struts about reciting the news it hears on the radio, and a restless, inquisitive sheep dog constantly rushing in and out ferrying news and gossip) and secretly visited by the daughter of the prosperous farm-owner and the son of a poor neighbour to make love, the action unfolds amid the comments of the animals. Alexei and Dasha, the village Romeo and Juliet, find themselves in trouble when she becomes pregnant. Matrimony is not a solution since, as in the story of their old prototypes, the lovers’ parents are at loggerheads. Dasha’s father, the thrifty, hardworking, morally strict Pavel, loathes and despises Alexei’s father who not only is a slovenly, good-for-nothing drunkard who has let his farm go to ruin, becoming penniless and thus forcing his son to hire himself out to other farmers and do odd jobs around the village to earn a living, but is a thief as well, always pilfering Pavel’s wine.

While all the animals in the barn are thrilled when they hear of Dasha’s pregnancy and chatter about it happily, her parents feel shame and anger and insist, particularly her father, on her having it terminated against her will. To pay for the abortion, Pavel slaughters the pig, which, nevertheless, comes back as an angel, flaunting the wings it has long longed for, to help set things right. Not only does Alexei’s father, who is really a good soul and kind at heart despite his sloth and drunkenness, experience an awakening of conscience and consciousness after hearing the angel and the animals talk and shoots himself in an act of self-sacrifice to remove the obstacle to the couple’s marriage, thus saving the life of the unborn child and becoming its guardian angel to boot, but Dasha’s father too undergoes a transformation, or moral regeneration, becoming tolerant, compassionate and forgiving. Hani El-Mettenawi’s staging preserved the charm and humour of the play, providing the right atmosphere, cast and mode of acting. The actors, particularly Reem Higab as the pig, Nagla Yunis as the horse and Ahmed El-Torki as the cow, entered wonderfully into the mood of the play and gave a harmonious, fast-paced ensemble performance. Salma Sami’s animal costumes were delightfully imaginative and the barn set, by Abdel Salam Kamel and Rasha Faris, looked as if it came out of a children’s picture book.

 Just a Simple Story may strike some as naively simplistic and facilely optimistic, and, indeed, it was dismissed by John Freedman in the Moscow Times on 30 April, 2004 as ‘an openly didactic anti-abortion tale … intended to instruct and comfort more than to challenge.’ As such, he goes on to say in the same review, entitled “Morality Tale”, it ‘strays into an area that can be deadly in theater’ and rarely shows qualities that redeem it as theater ‘because it is too preoccupied with redeeming our souls.’ This may describe how the play was seen by some in Russia and may possibly be seen by others in countries where abortion is still a passionately disputed issue in the media. In Egypt, however, the right of women to abortion is not a public issue at all, hot or otherwise. Though generally frowned upon, abortion is conceded by religion and the law in certain cases and silently condoned in others as a necessary evil by the rest of society. The anti-abortion plea would not, therefore, be foremost in the minds of Egyptian audiences as they watch the play. They would probably find in the turning of a drunkard, who also commits suicide, into an angel a more controversial issue. This takes us back to the question of the context of reception. Plays differ in their meanings and messages depending on who watches them where and when. In Egypt, at the present moment, Just a Simple Story came across as a romantic fairytale about love, peace and reconciliation – things we have come to miss and long for. With reality challenging us every hour of the day, perhaps we can do for a while without challenges from the theatre. Plays that provide hope and comfort, such as Just a Simple Story, can never be unwelcome in Egypt at the present moment.

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