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Thrilling intimacy
Published in Ahram Online on 17 - 08 - 2021

Stage director Osama Raouf's production of Lady of the Dawn by the great Spanish playwright Alejandro Casona (1903-1965) – a play that has been made into two films and two operas – is being staged at the state-owned Talia Theatre in Cairo. With music by Hani Shenouda, it stars Nashwa Ismail, Mai Reda, Magdy Shukri, Bodour, Wafaa Abdo, Khaled Youssef, Mostafa Abdel Fattah, Randa Gamal and Adel Samir Tawfik. Written in the 1940s, the play which features Death as a main character is universal enough to be relevant to a contemporary Egyptian audience. Originally set in an unnamed Spanish town, it has no setting in the present version, which focuses rather on the theme of dying. Death is a fully humanised, sympathetic character who longs for love and affection and feels conflicted about ending people's loves.
Raouf says that, though aware of how many times it has been adapted, he has wanted to create his version of the play since coming across it: "It is a very human theme that raises difficult philosophical questions about life and death, questions no one has an answer to, which on many occasions people do not even dare to ask. I have a passion for that kind of subject." It drove him to manufacture suspense. "I sought the full engagement and interaction of the audience, and to let people as their own questions and maybe find their answers too." Raouf's treatment involves fundamental departures from the original. Choosing Standard Arabic for the dialogue is interesting in itself, but it reinforced the universality of the play.
The performance looks less like the translation of a foreign text than an artwork that transcends the limitations of time and place to explore mortality. "I was satisfied with the way the audience received the performance, without even noticing the language or thinking it was an issue. Standard Arabic was not an obstacle or barrier to a wider audience ranging in age from 15 to 60 engaging with the performance. This means the content got through as smoothly as it could have in the vernacular." Another element that makes the production universal is the music, by the celebrated composer Hani Shenouda: Oriental melodies and vocals fused with international sounds. Still, the moment of death has the unmistakable flavour of a traditional Upper Egyptian mourning ritual.
Lady of the Dawn
"This was part of my vision," he insists. "In addition to human voices embedded in the musical background, the choice of the oud as one of the main instruments played a part in giving the music an Oriental feel. The music here belongs to different cultures, including the culture of the director and the performance." In Casona's play Death is represented by the Pilgrim, a mysterious female visitor who arrives at dawn. In the Egyptian version six Pilgrims play that role, with the action substituting one for the other. "More than my reasons for using this theatrical technique," Raouf says, "I am interested in its impact on the audience."
It is magical and chilling. Especially in the small space where there is no barrier between audience and actors, it adds to the suspense in an almost cinematic way. The lively choreography of the six visitors in their loose, flowing white gowns — a colour and texture with its own visual rhythm even as it underscores the personality of the individual actor — suggests a spiritual or transcendental experience. The same is true of the décor, where for example a side window through which everyone looks at the moon and how it changes becomes a force akin to a main character.
According to Raouf, the choice of a small hall for this performance was part of the theatrical treatment of the play. Without any barriers to the actors, the audience feels as if they are guests at the house in which all events take place. "This creates a kind of intimacy between the audience and the actors and reinforces their integration into the events of the play, and the ideas and questions it explores. The hall is definitely part of my vision."
As for the casting, it was essential for the director that all the actors shouls have outstanding performance skills as they play equally important roles. Regarding the six visitors, Raouf says it was important, in addition to the performance skills, to have similar physical characteristics in terms of weight, height and body shape so that the magical idea behind replacing one with the other would be effective. "The casting process was difficult and time consuming. Then there was a place where we had to do a long series of rehearsals that were really workshops in which we all melted into each other. It was essential to the success of the way the show was executed," he says, seeming satisfied with the show's reception whether in terms of reviews or audience response.
Raouf says that despite the difficulties caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, the Egyptian theatre scene is currently witnessing a great reawakening. "There are very good performances at state as well as private theatres. Independent theater troupes too are back on track." Even more importantly, the Egyptian audience remains loyal to the theatre. "The audience may be distracted from the theater, but a good show will resonate and a bad show will definitely not have the same effect," he declares, saying his play kept the Al-Talia Theatre auditorium a full house for four weeks. "This has also happened with other plays since the beginning of the season. Egyptian theatre is in good shape."
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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