Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1202, (19 -25 June 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1202, (19 -25 June 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Shows to remember

Nehad Selaiha looks at eligible contributions from the independent theatre to the 7th National Theatre Festival due on 10 August

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Al-Ahram Weekly

7th ENTF (Egyptian National Theatre Festival), 10-25 August, 2014: The Fringe.

The independent theatre scene from January to June 2014 has been extremely rich and varied. Scores of new productions of local and foreign plays were seen in Cairo and scores more were staged outside the capital. The Independent Theatre Season alone showcased 37, the Prospects Season 97, and the Festival of the Egyptian Society for Theatre Amateurs 10. Outside these events (of which the best that was offered was reviewed in my last week’s article), there remains a choice bunch of fresh and powerful pieces that performed in the past few months and which eminently deserve to be seen and appreciated on a much wider scale than has been the case hitherto. This can only happen if, as I earnestly hope, they find their way into the forthcoming National Theatre Festival.

Of this bunch, 3 productions stand out as the most brilliant, urgently, topically relevant and artistically gripping. The first is Afashtak, an intensely poignant Egyptian version of Barry Keeffe’s 1976 Gotcha, translated and directed by Ahmed El-Alfy – a most welcome newcomer to the Egyptian independent scene who has recently formed a bilingual company based in London and Cairo with the object of bridging ‘ the cultural gap’ between Egypt and Britain ‘through a renegotiated identification of the other’ by means of producing ‘bold and cutting-edge theatre, complemented with creative adaptations that add cultural relevance’, to quote El-Alfy’s own words to Nourhan Tawfik (see http://communitytimes.me/ahmed-el-alfy-propagating-humanism-through-theatre/).

Keeffe’s ferocious damning of an inhumane, narrow-minded education system that adopts a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and  solely encourages competitive academic achievement, in complete disregard for the all-round development of the human being and children’s need for a sense of dignity and human worth, seemed a poignant comment on the state of education in Egypt today, and its shameful, chronic problems over the past 50 years. On the last day of school, an anonymous teenager accidentally catches two of his teachers in a compromising position in the storage room where he had stowed away his motorbike. Driven by a mad, vengeful impulse, he recklessly takes the two hostage and uses them to lure in and trap the headmaster as well, threatening to blow them all up by setting a light to the open petrol tank of his bike. This marginalized, alienated, neglected figure could be easily identified with thousands, if not millions, of Egyptian schoolchildren from deprived areas, crammed tight into filthy, dilapidated schoolrooms, reduced to nameless numbers, treated like soulless objects, verbally and physically abused and robbed of all human dignity.

The situation in Keeffe’s play was perfectly credible when projected in colloquial Arabic in an Egyptian context. Trapped in a bleak present, facing an uncertain future, angry at the whole of society, harassed by overburdened parents, abused by teachers and envious of their more fortunate peers in private, expensive schools, a large number of Egyptian schoolchildren have been growing more aggressive, more resentful and more prone to violence and destructive impulses. The desperate predicament of such young people as represented by Keeffe’s teenager gains in tragic pathos when the confrontation reveals the teenager’s utter vulnerability and the futility of his resistance. The magnitude of the failure and hollowness of the school system under attack is poignantly shown when the teenager is asked to state his demands for freeing the hostages. What he demands is nothing that the educational system can provide; it is nothing short of a total radical change of society and the concept of education. At the end of a string of impossible, contradictory demands to which the conciliating schoolmaster, keen to humour him, mendaciously promises to comply, the youth, confirmed in the hopelessness of his situation in the present status quo, responds, “You  hypocrites!”

The credibility and relevance of the play gained from the happy choice of venue. It was performed in a space which, in real life, serves as a classroom in one of the former community services buildings on the AUC Greek Campus. Indeed, going up two floors to that classroom, I saw a sign in the corridor leading to it, handwritten in thick black letters on paper and bordered with decorative flowers, which made me involuntarily gasp: ‘Why, it’s a real school.’ The sign simply said: Welcome to his Excellency the Minister. The kowtowing words, the lettering, everything about it suddenly conjured up hundreds of similar signs I have seen in government schools over the years. The impression was bolstered by a row of schoolchildren’s drawings that dotted the corridor and by the oppressive aspect of the chosen schoolroom: the camped desks, the green, faded blackboard, the small, high windows, the scratched brown cabinet and battered teacher’s table, the grimy walls, bare except for a large drawing illustrating the alimentary canal, the broken glass covers of the ceiling lamps and the twisted, dangling wires. With only one door to the room on the side of the performers, making it impossible to leave before the end should one wish to do so, the audience were virtually locked into this uninviting space and made to experience what many schoolchildren all over the country go through on a daily basis during the school year.

Sofia Samir Ahmed’s scenography created the right claustrophobic atmosphere for this intense, tightly focused and somberly relevant drama. The taut structure which strictly observes the classical unities of action, place and time adds to the tension of the situation and, despite occasional flashes of comedy and black humour, relentlessly foreshadows the tragic end. Working within such a tight structure, in such a tight space, and with next to no effects, except for an intermittent, unobtrusive, mood-enhancing soundtrack of familiar tunes and songs, sensitively put together by Ahmed El-Abyouki, and a change of lighting near the end, the actors had to be totally concentrated, alive to every change of mood or feeling in their characters, however slight, and to meticulously observe the fluctuating tempo of the action. As the anonymous School Kid, Abdel Rahman Adel gave a captivating, heart-wrenching performance, graduating from a diffident, shy stammer to tentative, childish sauciness, spiraling into a rough, external bravado and aggressive defiance that shortly flickered out, giving way, as the play sped to the end, to a touching sense of vulnerability, forlornness and hopelessness that made his final battering to death an incredibly raw and harrowing scene. As the pretentious headmaster, Ahmed Mokhtar was deliciously pompous, ridiculously artificial and hollow as he affected urbanity, fatherly care and human warmth, and repulsively cowardly and brutally mean as he fled out of the room at the end, leaving the boy to be murdered with his full approval. His performance was masterful, comically caricaturing the basic features of the character without reducing it to a stereotype. Ahmed Torki rendered the PT teacher as a tense, pugnacious macho, brooding over some hidden grievance and itching to take out his pent-up fury on the first object that offered. His lithe, soft, restless movements vividly brought to mind a dangerous, caged beast. In contrast, Walaa’ Qaddah’s female teacher was meek and vulnerable, and her brief, warm rapport with the stressed kid and their mutual exchange of confidences framed both as helpless fellow victims in a ruthlessly oppressive macho society that spares neither women nor children. Under El-Alfy’s subtle direction, this talented cast gave a cohesive, finely tuned ensemble performance that did full justice to Keeffe’s gripping drama and brought its message home to Egyptian audiences with overpowering urgency and immediacy.

My second pick of the bunch is El-Qafila (Caravan) troupe’s Al-Ustaz (The Master), a free adaptation by the troupe’s founder, director Effat Yehia, of Ronald Harwood’s 1995 Taking Sides, a play that addresses the dilemma of artists under oppressive dictatorships and the agonizing personal and moral choices they have to make. In Yehia’s version, the interrogation of German conductor and composer Wilhelm Furtwangler, charged of collaboration with the Nazis, by American Major Steve Arnold in post-War Germany is replayed in post-Mubarak Egypt by an unnamed, great Egyptian theatre director, the Master of the title, and an official Egyptian investigator. The focus of the play, however, remains the same and the interrogation in the Egyptian take brings to the fore the vexing, irking question of the so-called Fulool, literally, the ‘remnants’ of Mubarak’s regime. Since January 2011, anyone who held an eminent position in official quarters, enjoyed fame or fortune, gained success in any field, or made great achievements in his calling during Mubarak’s reign was automatically dubbed by the majority of young revolutionaries as ‘fulool’, accused of having contributed to the general corruption and oppression of the ousted regime, and loudly bullied to withdraw completely from public life. Ashraf Farouq and Ahmed Mokhtar made a wonderful duo as the director and the interrogator and their gripping acting match brought out the full complexity of the relationship of the artist to power and the compromises it often necessarily entails. When Farouq vehemently exclaims that he had had no choice, that to stop working or emigrate would have meant artistic suicide, a desertion of duty and a betrayal of his responsibility as artist, he seems to be voicing the thoughts of many artists, including Yehia herself, who won a top award in Mubarak’s reign. Al-Ustaz ultimately takes sides, arguing that to pursue one’s art with integrity under an oppressive regime is a form of resistance, and the argument touches a responsive chord in the audience.

Equally relevant, but in a much lighter vein, was Taxi, the first production of a new independent theatre troupe called The Thousand Tongues, which, like Ahmed El-Alfy’s troupe, is bilingual and composed of Egyptian and non-Egyptian members. A fast-paced dramatization in the form of skits and monologues of Khaled Al Khamisi’s book of the same name, a compilation of short dialogues with Cairo taxi drivers, Taxi satirically highlights many of the negative aspects of Egyptian society, including government corruption, graft and bribery, police brutality, sexual harassment, moral hypocrisy, nepotism, verbal and physical abuse, religiosity and female oppression. The director’s seat was shared by an American, Brian Farish, and an Egyptian, Rewan El-Ghaba, and they did an excellent job, using minimal props and mainly relying on the talent and versatility of their six performers to communicate the sharp, satirical thrust of the text and encourage audience participation. Taxi played six nights between 17 April and 2 May in the open courtyard of the AUC’s Greek Campus, and the out of doors setting, together with the interactive nature of the show and its general hilarity, gave the event something of the air of a carnival.

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