Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Swimming against the tide

Nehad Selaiha reads “resistance” in the theatrical scene of 2012

Al-Ahram Weekly

For the majority of artists in Egypt, 2012 ended on a doleful note, with great anxiety, even panic about the future and many, many regrets for all the past mistakes that have turned the 25 January revolution into something of a nightmare. Fled is the glorious dream and a grim reality weighs heavily upon us. Still, despite the dashed hopes, broken promises, failed alliances and many betrayals – despite the violence and the bloodshed, a spirit of heroic defiance and unrelenting determination to survive, to go on whatever the obstacles, seemed to permeate the independent/semi-independent theatre scene in Egypt throughout 2012. While the state theatre organization failed to hold its annual national theatre festival for the second year running, kept most of its major venues closed for the better part of the year for one (unconvincing) reason or another (equally, if not more unconvincing), and the performance of all its companies put together was the worst and most dismal for years, yielding less than two dozen predominantly modest productions (most of which came from the Youth, Al-Ghad and the Children’s theatre companies – the least privileged budget wise), independent troupes and organizations managed to organize no less than 8 major theatrical events in Cairo and Alexandria alone and stage over 150 new exciting productions of urgent relevance to the present.
The earliest of those events, Lazim Masrah (Theater is a MUST), was launched on 4 March (two days after the religious extremists’ attack on Tunisian artists outside the National theatre in Tunis) by The Movement of Arab Theatre Artists (a team of young cultural and artistic activists) at several sites in Alexandria, lasting until 4 April, and featured mid-day street performances by a magnificent troupe of street clowns called Outa Hamra (Red Tomatoes) and a number of productions of the “Egyptian-Theater-of- the-Oppressed-Project” workshop, directed by Nora Amin. The event also included 2 roundtables: one on “Theater as a Necessity” moderated by artist Hala Omran, and the other, a foundational meeting to create a free and independent Arab theatre cooperative network. In a circular email, the organizers described the event as: ‘An Arab Festivity that stresses the role of theater as an everyday life necessity in any civilization and an active being that interacts with all political and social events and not a marginal art that only blossoms in times of peace and welfare.’ ‘This vision,’ they went on to say, ‘was stimulated by keen observation of the Arab theatrical scene during 2011-2012, the two years that witnessed the Arab revolutions, and also witnessed many theatrical ventures that challenged the idea of “safe art” and interacted with popular movements.’
Challenging the idea of ‘safe art’ was also partly behind The Arab/international D-CAF (Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival), organized by Studio Emad El-Din between 29 March and 14 April, Apart from the concerts, film projections, visual arts exhibitions, lectures and workshops, it hosted 15 Egyptian, Arab and European theatre and contemporary dance performances, the majority of which were staged out of doors, in front of the Egyptian Stock Market and of Radio Theatre, or in the Viennoise space, or the open courtyard of the Greek Campus of the American University. Though some performances artistically required the physical ‘safety’ of an enclosed space and were accordingly housed indoors, in the basement of the Goethe Institute, or at the AUC Falaki Theatre, they were far from ‘safe art’ and scathingly satirized Arab regimes. A case in point was Sulayman Al-Bassam’s ingenious The Speaker’s Progress – a reworking of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which projects it as an old 1960s’ performance being forensically reconstructed and denunciated in the present, in some unnamed Arab country where theatre has been banned, by a ‘speaker’, commissioned by the regime, and a group of volunteers. However, as the Speaker of the title, a once radical theatre maker and now regime apologist, and his group progress in their task, the one pompously pointing out the decadence of the piece and the others delivering their lines mechanically and strictly observing the rule of no-male/female-touching, they are all involuntarily overpowered by the magic of theatre and its truth, recover their humanity and dignity, and join in an act of rebellion against the oppressive regime.
Very similar to D-CAF, but much later in the year, was Teatro Eskendria’s Backstreet Festival: Towards Art in Non-Traditional Spaces – a one-week, multi-venued Euro-Mediterranean forum/festival for independent artists and theatre troupes, launched on 23 September. Denied permission by the governor of Alexandria to perform in public squares, the resourceful organisers resorted to the backstreets of Kom El-Dekka, the Plaza of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the back garden of the Alexandria Atelier. Here again, as in the earlier Lazim Masrah event, Hany Taher and his irrepressible Outa Hamra clowns brought joy and colour into one of the poorest and most deprived areas of the city. However, street theatre remains a most unacceptable idea to the authorities and is generally looked upon with profound suspicion. But even in traditional or semi-traditional spaces theatre can still be a dangerous art – an art that questions, provokes and challenges. Though the rest of the independent theatrical events took place in traditional theatres, or spaces properly equipped for that purpose, they all manifested the same spirit of defiance. The Egyptian Society of Theatre Amateurs (ESTA) held its 10th Arab theatre festival at the Hosapeer theatre from 29 March till 8 April, presenting 11 Egyptian shows plus 6 Arab ones, and a 5-day world drama festival at the Theatre Institute, which opened on 8 April, presented decent productions of Chekov’s Swan Song, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, The Dutchman, by African-American playwright Amiri Baraka, Brecht’s The Mother, Ibsen’s Ghosts, Armand Salacrou’s Nights of Wrath and Pierre Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro.
The 4th Independent Theatre Season followed, with no less than 37 scheduled new productions, offering a total of 111 performances spread over the period from 8 September to 16 December, with Al-Hanager, Rawabet and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as alternate or simultaneous venues. Besides many of the well-known pioneering troupes, the event showcased many new comers. Most of the shows I saw in this event were of creditable artistic quality and intellectual maturity and were deeply engaged with the most pressing issues in Egypt today. Even when they were not directly political, or set in post-revolutionary Egypt, they were still political in the broad sense of the word, questioning the social structure and critiquing the cultural heritage and the position of women in society. I have already written about Sa’id Soliman’s Al-Shal (The Shawl) which centers on honour-killing, representing it as a typical male response to the feelings of impotence, inadequacy, mistrust and self-doubt aroused in men when faced by free, self-confident, passionate women, and also as a result of a long tradition of negative female representation, nourished by a female-dreading patriarchal heritage that brainwashes women into embracing it and bequeathing it to their sons and daughters (see ‘Back in force’ in Issue No. 1116 of the Weekly, 27 September, 2012).
 Equally daringly probing and more urgently topical perhaps, in the light of the threat to the performing arts posed by the rise of the Islamists to power, was the Halwasa (Hallucination) troupe’s El-Raqs Haraam (Dancing is a Forbidden Sin), a dramatic monologue for a belly dancer, conceived and directed by Hani Abdel Nasir, written by Mohamed Abdel Mu’iz and superbly performed by Mona Hussein. Originally trained as a folk dancer and later developing into one of the most competent actresses of her generation, Hussein, who can still dance enchantingly and did treat us in the performance to a teasingly short display of her dazzling art, was a perfect cast for the part. But it was mainly an acting part, and one that deals with a very serious issue despite the sparkling humour of the writing. Working against the hackneyed stereotypes of the belly dancer as either a wicked, depraved woman who would do anything for money, or a fallen woman, forced into the vile, evil profession by want and early loss of honour (i.e., virginity), repenting every minute what she does and longing to retire if she could only find a husband, Abdel Nasir and Abdel Mu’iz gave us a belly dancer with not an ounce of shame about her. Rather, Mona Hussein came across as a proud, confident, independent, if lonely woman, proud of her art and thoroughly enjoying it, with more integrity, humanity and charitableness than the most respectable of society women. Though simple and modestly educated, she proves a shrewd judge of character, and her natural intelligence makes her see through all the masks and realize that all that glitters is not gold. Moving among the rich and mighty, in the highest circles of society, she is not fooled by appearances and easily sees the corruption beneath. Though she likes to manipulate powerful men, usually for the benefit of the poor and needy, she is not a woman of easy virtue and only makes love when she believes herself in love.
To the kind of traditional, hypocritical morality that despises and stigmatizes belly dancers out of an ingrained fear of the female body while coveting their presence, that respects nothing but titles and outward forms and trades sex for money, status, or power in the name of marriage, the play opposes a finer, more discerning, honest and humane kind of morality. Mona Hussein embodied this morality and communicated it to the audience with such bewitching innocence and captivating warmth as won the hearts of all present and made converts of us all. Set in the dressing room of the dancer, in the high-class nightclub where she usually performs the last number, the monologue proceeds as she changes her gaudy dancing costume for a simple black shirt and trousers, removes her wig and elaborate make-up and prepares to join some friends for a weekend at their luxurious farm. At the end of the monologue, and just before she walks out, she stops before her long mirror for a moment, like a forlorn figure, and sadly scrutinizes her face, as if discovering signs of the relentless march of time and the inevitable advance of old age, when she will be forced to relinquish her beloved art, not by morality or society, but simply by the failing of her own body. That moment in the play had so much sad dignity, so much truth and poignancy as to make it simply unforgettable.
Another remarkable performance in that event was Reem Higab’s The Wheel and the Moon, a large section of which (originally a short play by psychiatrist Isam El-Labbad) took up the issue of rape and grimly satirized the prevalent attitudes to the rapist and his victim in conservative societies such as ours. In this section, a police officer is seen investigating the gang rape and killing of a young cafeteria hostess and questioning the male colleague who was with her, on their way home, as they were neighbours, when this happened. The colleague, a young, timid man, who deeply respects the victim, loves her as a sister and attests to her probity and moral uprightness, can only remember their being assaulted by 3 or 4 men before he was knocked out of consciousness. Typically, the police officer takes the side of the rapists, and in a bid to save their lives tries to lay the blame on the victim, insinuating that no respectable girl would work in a cafeteria, asking if she was veiled, and when told she was not, as the rules of the cafeteria would not allow it, suggesting that she was, perhaps, too seductively dressed, walked in a sexy way, or that her assailers were in fact previous lovers and she was not raped at all and only accidentally died. At first the young man vehemently opposes all such suggestions, but, gradually, as the investigator puts the screws on him, bombarding him with obscene insinuations, sniggering at his innocence, vividly portraying what he imagines the breasts and legs of the victim to have looked like as she walked, the young man begins to falter, waver and doubt himself. The authority of the law and all the negative assumptions about women bequeathed by the patriarchal cultural heritage prove too much for him. At this moment, the victim, whose ghost has been crossing and re-crossing the stage throughout the investigation, as if to give the lie to the investigator, collapses on the floor, as if killed a second time. Violated in life, she is also violated in death.
On 1 October, while the 4th Independent Theatre Season was in full swing, the Theatrical Horizons Encounter, another independent theatre event, opened at Salah Jahin Hall in the Balloon Theatre, with no less than 97 shows lined up to play, at the rate of 2 to 3 per day, until October 21. The most memorable of the ones I managed to catch, and they were many, was an outstanding dramatization of Yusef Zeidan’s novel Azazeel, which won the Arab Booker Prize a couple of years ago. The dramatization, by Ahmed Sabri Ghobashi, who also directed and superbly played the leading part of a monk, in 5th Century Alexandria, torn between his passion for science and learning, which draws him to Hypatia’s lectures, and his allegiance to a bigoted, narrow-minded and rigorously disciplinarian priesthood, focused on the tragic consequences to humans of religious fanaticism and intolerance. Though the dramatization kept the historical setting of the novel in 5th Century Alexandria, the audience could easily read the warning against the rise of religious fundamentalism and political Islam in present-day Egypt it powerfully transmitted. The night I saw the play the audience was so huge, filling the hall and lining outside in long queues that literally encircled the Balloon theatre that a second performance had to be given. One day before the Theatrical Horizons marathon ended, El-Saqia cultural centre held its 10th Independent Theatre Festival, lasting from 20 to 24 October and featuring 15 productions. Of these, my favourite was Abdalla Al-Sha’er’s witty and pointed rendering of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Hercules in the Augean Stables.
Compared to the independent theatrical events mentioned above, the 38th Annual Closing Festival of the Cultural Palaces Organisation’s Regional Theatre Troupes, held from 2 to 27 September at Manf Hall and El-Samer Marquee, seemed a poor offering on the part of the ministry of culture. However, it brought to Cairo 29 productions from all over Egypt, and some of them, like Khaled Tawfiq’s version of  Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, admirably performed by the troupe of Kafr Saad Cultural Palace (in the northern governorate of Damietta), and Riham Abdel Raziq’s version of Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, reset in Upper Egypt and rephrased in the dialect of that region by Shazli Farah and performed by Al-Qabbari Cultural Home in Alexandria under the new title Nisaa’ Al-Naar (Women of Fire), were real gems (you can read more on the festival in ‘Welcome visitors’, Issue No. 1114 of the Weekly, 13 September, 2012). Designedly or by a strange coincidence, within less than 3 months of the performance of the Alexandrian Nisaa’ Al-Naar, another Egyptian version of The House of Bernarda Alba surfaced at Al-Ghad theatre, adapted and directed by Sa’id Soliman. In this version, set in some unspecified village in northern Egypt, the nanny was removed, the grandmother pushed forward and made to talk to and joke with the audience, and Alba was rendered by singer Azza Balba’ as a tender woman in reality, as sexually frustrated and longing for love as her daughters, but hiding her feelings under an assumed, stern exterior imposed by traditions and a misguided sense of duty. Between the two Albas, in November to be precise, the theme of the hard lot of women in conservative, patriarchal societies and their insufferable oppression by unbending, inherited traditions was replayed in a new variation at Al-Ghad theatre in Leil El-Ganoub (Southern Night). The text, in which a male writer tells the stories of 4 women in Upper Egypt whom he had known as a child and who were all finally driven insane by the tyranny of traditions, was written by the same Shazli Farah who rewrote Lorca’s dialogue into the Upper Egyptian dialect in Nisaa’ Al-Naar and was beautifully directed by Naser Abdel-Mon’im.
Southern Night, together with Lenin El-Ramly’s Fi Baytena Shabah (A Ghost in our House), a National theatre production directed by Isam El-Sayed which opened at Miami theatre on 27 February and had a further run later in the year (see ‘Chasing ghosts’ in Issue No. 1091 of the Weekly on 29 March, 2012), were the best that the state theatre organistion offered this year. Compared to them, the Modern Theatre Company’s Abul Thuwar (Father of All Revolutionaries) – a reworking by Mohamed Hussein of Kayfa Taraktu Al-Sayf (Why Didn’t I use My Sword) by Syrian playwright Mamdouh Udwan, in which Udwan’s original hero, the historical Abu Zarr Al-Ghaffari who opposed the Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan in the 7th Century and is regarded by many as the first Islamic socialist, is brought back to life at the start of the 25 January revolution and sent to Tahrir Square  to preach to the demonstrators – was quite stodgy, loud and shallow and artificially put together. Loula Anagnostaki’s The City, adapted and directed by Hani El-Sayed for the Youth Theatre and presented in November, in a shed-like, make-shift black box, clumsily put together in the garden of the Floating theatre (the 2 halls of which have been closed for months), was a confused and confusing affair, lacking both focus and relevance. Even Ash’in Turabik (In Love with Your Soil) – the political cabaret show which caused such a furore before opening in December, when the censorship committee that went to vet it insisted on cutting out a satirical scene featuring a meeting of bearded Salafis and removing the name of prime minister Qandil from the script – seemed intellectually shallow and half-baked despite the energy and noisy vivacity of the actors (see Soha Hesham’s interview with its director, Mohamed El-Sharqawi, in Issue No. 1124 of the Weekly on 29 November, 2012).
Indeed, with very few exceptions, it was away from the state theatre that one found the most vibrant, thought-provoking and relevant performances in 2012. In May, ACT (the Alumni Community Theatre Company) treated us to a hilarious evening of short plays at Rawabet, featuring Miss You by David Auburn, directed by Leila Saad, Wanda’s Visit, by Christopher Durang, directed by Mido Abou Youssef, Surprise, by Mark Harvey Levine, directed by Alaa Shalaby and Check Please, by Jonathan Rand, directed by Adham Zidan. The same month witnessed the Egyptian premiere of Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, presented by students at the AUC under the direction of Mark ‘Coach’ Mineart (see ‘In the loony bin’, the Weekly, Issue No. 1099, 24 May, 2012). In June, Dalia El-Abd’s Wesh w’Dahr (Back to Front), a new, powerful dance theatre piece, focused on the deep ideological fissures in the fabric of Egyptian society the 25 January revolution has revealed, with particular reference to women’s identities in relation to their bodies and to politics (see ‘Dancing on hot coals’, the Weekly, Issue No. 1105, 5 July). And in July, Mohamed Abul Su’ood dramatized his feelings and reflections on the revolution at Al-Hanager in a multi-media piece of great beauty and mature political discernment called Isis, Mon amour (see ‘An elegiac love song for Isis’, the Weekly, Issue No. 1110, August 9, 2012). It was the independent theatre that held the theatrical fort when the state theatre organization seemed to give it up and, hopefully, it will continue to resist religious bigotry, social intimidation and intellectual repression and to swim against the tides of darkness that threaten to engulf this country.

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