Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

More of the menu

Nehad Selaiha continues to sift through candidates for the 7th National Theatre Festival due in August

Al-Ahram Weekly

Barring a couple of bright spots, the performance of all state theatre companies in the past 12 months has been truly dismal. The number of productions put together by all 10 companies in that period falls far short of the output of the Independent Theatre Season in less than 3 months and hard as one may look one cannot find more than two productions that can match in quality the best that that Season has offered. Indeed, but for Mohamed Abu El-‘Ela El-Salamouni’s Al Mahrous wa Al-Mahrousa (The God-Protected He and God-Protected She), directed by Shadi Sorour, and Tareq El-Dweiri’s version of Jerome Lawrence’s and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, rechristened Al-Mohakamah (The Trial) – both National Theatre productions, the former in April 2013 and latter in March this year, with no productions in between – the head of the State Theatre Organisation would have been quite at a loss when it came to proposing suitable shows for the impending National Festival (for Ahram Weekly reviews of the 2 productions, see ‘The felling of a pearl tree’, Issue No. 1145, April 25, 2013 and ‘In defence of reason’, Issue No. 1187, March 6, 2014).

A paucity of output similar to the National’s marked the performance of the rest of the state theatre companies, but with nothing of the quality of the National’s two productions to make up for it.  The normally prolific El-Shabab (Youth) theatre staged only three works: Islam Imam’s  revival of Mohsen Misilhi’s Elli Bana Masr (He Who Built Egypt) – a barbed satire on modern Egypt projected through the eyes of the statue of the great Egyptian industrialist Talaat Harb (see, ‘A statue comes to life’, Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No.1183, 6 February, 2014); a pallid version of Mikhail Roman’s 1960s’ Al-Mazaad (The Auction), rechristened, for no apparent reason, Shaq Al-Qamar (Moon Split); and Qareeb Gidan (Far Too Near), an ambitious but disappointingly underdeveloped two-hander about the life and conflicts of a pair of male Siamese twins conjoined at the head, written and directed Akram Mustafa.

Similarly, El-Ghad (Tomorrow) theatre, another purportedly youthful, formerly prolific company, only boasted 3 productions. Bahig Ismail’s Zanqet El-Riggalah (Male Crush, or Jam) – an allusive verbal parody of ‘Zanqet El-Settat’, the name of an old commercial alley in Alexandria that mainly caters to women and is notorious for its crowdedness – is a political parable about the vicious consequences of relying on US economic aid, with comic overtones and an obvious moral. The members of a social club in financial difficulties accept a generous donation from a wealthy American woman only to discover that the attached conditions are intended to cripple them and can only lead to ruin. Equally obvious was the moral of the two productions that followed. Mahmoud Diab’s 1960s’ monodrama, Al-Ghorabaa’ La Yashraboon Al-Qahwa (Strangers Do Not Drink Coffee), features the invasion of the home of an aged man by some strangers who take advantage of his hospitality to rob him of his property and drive him out. Ishq El-Hawanem (Ladies’ Amours), a musical version of Ali Abu Salem’s play, Beit El-Tayeb (Good Man’s House), is about a female vagrant who artfully worms her way into the home and confidence of a wealthy widow and her only daughter in order to rob them of their inheritance. By regularly doping their coffee and spinning fanciful tales about an imaginary lover she turns them into helpless addicts and deadly rivals.

Like the earlier play, both are political allegories, leading one to suspect a strong predilection for that genre on the part of El-Ghad Company. In all three plays the action is triggered by an insidious invasion of a peaceful, private space (a social club in one and a home in the other two) by a hostile destructive force intent on usurping it and enslaving its lawful inhabitants. However, the target of the cautionary tale in each play is different. While the warning in Bahig Ismail’s play is against US hegemony through economic aid and Diab’s Strangers cautions against Israel and Zionist expansionism, the danger in Abu Salem’s play is internal rather than external. The poor, hounded gypsy woman, who takes refuge in the house of El-Tayeb and eventually takes possession of it by vicious machinations, reducing its owners to senseless, quailing slaves who mortally hate each other, comes across as a clear metaphor for the Muslim Brotherhood and how they cheated their way to power in Egypt.

Even when thickly overlaid with obtrusive music, sentimental songs, ornamental dances and spurious humour, political allegories can be exceedingly tiresome and offensively simplistic. A degree of allegory, however, is inescapable in all political theatre that touches upon topical matters. The trick is to make it neither too obvious nor too loudly didactic, and, above all, not to proffer facile solutions. Hilm Plastic (A Plastic Dream) — an independent theatre piece by Shadi El-Dali and his troupe, hosted by the state theatre organization at El-Tali’a Theatre in preference to shutting down this venue for lack of productions, is a good example in this respect (see, ‘Theatrical probes’, Weekly, Issue No.1170, 31 October, 2013). When the Tali’a Company finally woke up, the result was a fulsomely elaborate staging of Isam Abdel-Aziz’s squelchy, turgid and thoroughly confused Tuqoos El-Mawt WA El-Hayat (Rituals of Death and Life). Commenting on the production at the time I said: ‘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,’ and wound up calling it a prime example of misplaced artistic energy (See, ‘Misplaced energy’, Weekly, Issue No. 1181, 23 January, 2014).

Dreary as the records of El-Ghad, El-Tali’a and El-Shabab may seem, they were far superiour in terms of numbers to the Comedy Theatre whose total output in 12 months amounted to no more than a single production which did not even complete the usual one-month run, closing after no more than a fortnight. Had it been allowed to have a decent run, as it amply deserved, Mahasalsh (It Never Happened), a musical adaptation in colloquial Arabic of Molière’s Sganarelle, or the Self-Deceived Husband would have substantially camouflaged the abject performance of this company. Curiously, however, rather than assist Qabil and promote his work, the head of the Comedy seemed intent on putting all kinds of obstacles in his way. Nevertheless, despite the inimical contrariness of the administrative bureaucracy, and with more than half of the theatre’s technical equipment out of repair and dysfunctional, Mahasalsh came across as a lively, colourful, visually exhilarating and hugely entertaining costume musical comedy.

Like the State Theatre Organisation, the Creativity Centre in the Opera grounds is part of the ministry of culture and stages productions funded by the state. Strictly speaking, however, it is more of an academy for the performing arts than a professional, theatre-producing body. It is surprising, therefore, to often find its productions (student graduation projects) far superiour to most state-theatre fare. Indeed, its ‘An El-’Ushaq (About Lovers) – Hani Afifi’s fascinating dramatization of Ibn Hazm’s 11th Century treatise on the art and practice of love, called The Ring of the Dove – was an almost magical experience and could only compare in terms of artistry, force of impact and enduring impression with the National’s Trial (see, ‘Back to Andalusia’, Weekly, Issue No. 1172, 14 November, 2013).

Equally ambitious was Wisam Osama’s original reworking of Macbeth, the first of a series of direction graduation projects offering different readings and adaptations of that Shakespearean tragedy. Osama named her version Maknoon Macbeth, an odd title, of which the first word means ‘essence’, making it read ‘the essence of Macbeth’, while at the same time evoking the word ‘majnoon’, meaning ‘madman’. When conjoined with a name, however, as in the title of Ahmed Shawqi’s verse drama Majnoon Laila, the word ‘majnoon’ would mean ‘besotted with’, or ‘obsessed with’, which, indeed, fits more accurately the content of this particular treatment Macbeth. In it, an actor playing Macbeth gets psychologically locked inside the character when his wife, who plays Lady Macbeth, drops dead exactly at the moment when that fictional character is declared to have committed suicide. He will continue to be Macbeth and never end the play for fear that he too would die in earnest the moment the character he plays is killed. Only when he can carry the play to its end will he recover.

To persuade him to do that and help him along, the psychiatrist who treats him enters into the theatrical illusion, impersonating all the different characters save Lady Macbeth. She is vividly present in the mind of the mad actor (and before the audience) as his wife had played her, but remains invisible to the doctor. Osama cleverly steered her delightful actors – Ahmed El-Shazli as Macbeth, Hadeer El-Sherif as his Lady, and Walid Abdel Ghani as the psychiatrist – across the different levels of theatrical illusion, often manipulating the shifts for comic effect without diluting the dramatic tension or obstructing the suspenseful, relentless march of the action towards the stunning end.  Nada Abdel Mageed’s imaginative set of multiple levels and locations effectively helped in this respect, allowing the action to flow smoothly and rapidly, while Ahmed Sami’s costumes and props allowed Lady Macbeth to double as a witch in the blink of an eye and the doctor to impersonate different characters at a moment’s notice. With the help of disciplined, well-trained actors and a gifted, dedicated crew, Wisam Osama produced an imaginative theatrical tour de force with a thrilling end. What it is I leave you to discover for yourselves when you see the play in the festival.

add comment

  • follow us on