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More from the fringe
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 10 - 2015

Over six days, from 16 to 21 October, El-Sawi Cultural Centre, popularly known as Saqiet El-Sawy (El-Sawi Culture Wheel), or simply El-Saqia, held its 13th annual independent theatre festival, which coincides this year with the 13th anniversary of its birth as a non-governmental cultural centre. The festival, dedicated this year to the memory of director Hani Metawe', the head of the festival's jury for many a year, who died on 28 August, just a few weeks before this edition, featured thirteen performances from schools, universities and independent groups. The number of shows had nothing to do with the 13th anniversary of the Centre, as one might be tempted to think. It was in fact pure coincidence and the result of one of the originally scheduled fourteen shows withdrawing at the last minute. Though the shows displayed considerable variety in terms of material, ranging from new plays to classics of Arabic drama and the world stage, and including a couple of adaptations of works of fiction, artistically, the festival as a whole was something of a letdown.
Indeed, compared to previous editions, this one seemed to me the weakest for many years. Besides the usual faults one has come to expect in productions by amateur groups (and most of the participants in this festival are usually amateurs calling themselves independent troupes) – faults like ham acting, poor and often drab scenery, and clumsy scene-blocking, some of the groups this year showed an aberrant tendency to mess about with well known plays, often thoroughly corrupting them, in the misguided belief that they were improving on the original. To add insult to injury, in one case at least – a play called Tekonsh Sikket El-Salamah (Could this Be the Road to Safety?) by a group that calls itself Ahl Cairo (People of Cairo) and claims to specialize in ‘refined comedy', a new, botched up version of one of the classics of the Egyptian theatre – namely Sa'd El-Din Wahba's Sikket El-Salamah, was billed as an original composition by its writer, Ingy Safwat.
Wahba's 1960s' popular political cautionary parable (about a group of passengers on a bus who lose their way in the desert and face death as a result of the driver's mistake and are eventually saved when all confess their sins) was originally directed at Nasser as a warning against being misled by his self-seeking clique into derailing the 1952 revolution off its original track. When comedian Mohamed Subhi adapted it a few years ago, he updated it to give it a more topical political slant that overtly relates to the Arab/Israeli conflict. Subhi, however, did not have the effrontery to call his version an original composition despite the many changes he made. Admittedly Ingy Safwat's adaptation was more extensive with regard to the cause of the passengers' ordeal and entrapment in the desert. Rather than the well-meaning driver being misled by one of the passengers to serve his own ends, in Safwat's version he is forced to change his direction at gun point by two hijackers demanding a fat ransom to save the life of a sick child who needs a costly operation. Admittedly too, new characters were introduced – mainly two blind men presented as a comic duo and an army private who, as a transparent symbol of the Egyptian army, or, indeed, of President El Sisi himself, is finally chosen by the group as a leader to guide them out of the wilderness into safety. However, the fact remains that many of Wahba's characters, particularly the third-rate actress Sousou and her agent/pimp Qurani, who are the main source of vitality in the play, are kept almost unchanged, together with large chunks of the dialogue. But, after all, perhaps it was a good thing that Safwat claimed this version of the play as her own. With so much melodrama, so much farce and the final show of obsequious flattery and servile deference to the military, I do not think Sa'd El-Din Wahba would have wanted his name on the piece.
Though it suffered no change of title or author, Ali Salem's Afareet Masr El-Gididah (Afreets of New Egypt) – a delightful, dark comedy with an element of fantasy satirizing the police state system in Egypt during Nasser's reign – fared even worse at the hands of Sawa (Together) group and their director Mohamed El-Halawani. Ali Salem (who lately died) was a master of comic writing and witty dialogue. But, as is the case with the works of all masters of the genre, his plays have to be acted in dead earnest to produce their full effect. This fact seems to have been lost on El-Halawani and his group and this led them to plaster over the truncated and, one might add, crudely, insipidly delivered dialogue with a thick layer of coarse movements and gestures, punctuated by sudden grimaces, leaps, yowling cries and similar farcical stage-business. This, together with the garish, laboriously incongruous costumes and raucous outbursts of song, completely flattened the serious message of the play and utterly smothered all wit and humour. No wonder the play fizzled and rang false.
Mahmoud Diab's Layali El-Hasaad (Harvest Nights), Tawfiq El-Hakim's El-Donia Riwayah Hazleyah (Life is a Farce), Albert Camus's A State of Siege and the much more recent and relatively less famous though frequently staged, El-Wad Ghorab wi El-Qamar (A Boy Called Crow and the Moon), by Ashraf Izz, were all products of the university theatre and, therefore, much more disciplined and reasonably entertaining in varying degrees. The troupe of the Faculty of Law at Helwan University gave a straightforward rendering of El-Wad Ghorab (a revenge tragedy with folk elements set in Upper Egypt, involving a love triangle, adultery, rape, two illegitimate births and three murders), with minimal cuts, painted scenery, suitable costumes and some decent acting. If the performance palled at times and seemed to drag on endlessly, it was the fault of the text which has the structure of a novel or a television soap opera rather than a drama. The same can be said of El-Hakim's Life is a Farce, presented by the Faculty of Commerce troupe at Banha University. It features a bored civil servant obsessed with the idea of the transmigration of souls and rehearsing it in his mind's eye in a succession of scenes in which he enacts different characters, past and present, real and fictional. Episodic in structure, with nothing to link the scenes and give them direction except the starting idea, it seems to ramble with no possible end in sight and could indeed go on forever.
By contrast, Diab's delightful peasant drama, Harvest Nights, has a taut dramatic structure. Though constructed as a play-within-a-play that unfolds through playacting, with the characters constantly impersonating other characters in the play, it is bound together by strong thematic lines that inevitably point to one direction and by solid, vivid characterization behind the various masks. Unfortunately, in the production presented by the Faculty of Agriculture of Cairo University, the adaptation caused whole chunks of the dialogue to be delivered in chorus and the director chose to dress all the male characters not as peasants, but in long, shiny, hooded black robes that looked like rain coats, while dressing the desired heroine (the only woman in the play but one), who is coveted by all, in fiery red. Such a bizarre choice of costumes was, to say the least, quite disconcerting. Luckily for the audience, no such weird ideas marred the production of Camus's State of Siege by the troupe of the Faculty of Economy and Political Science at Cairo University. The text was intelligently cut down in length, the set and costumes were simple but adequate and visually harmonious, the acting was consistently adequate and in some cases, particularly that of Aya Gamal as the Plague's cool, seductive, and deadly secretary, confident, intelligent and technically competent.
Not that Aya Gamal was the only actress worthy of notice in this festival. In fact, one curious feature of the 13th Saqia theatre festival was the distinct technical superiority of the female performers over their male counterparts. While seven certificates of merit were awarded to actresses, only three went to actors. Indeed, in some productions, the performances of the female leads were crucial in keeping the show afloat against great odds. One such production was the Dionysus troupe's version of the Arabic classic, Al-Ayam Al-Makhmoorah (Drunken Days) – one of Sa'dallah Wannus's daring last plays in which a mother of grown up kids, brought up as a devout Muslim, finally rebels against her loveless married life and elopes with a lover who, to make matters worse, is also a Christian. In this play, success or failure depends largely on the actress who plays the mother; fortunately for the Dionysus troupe, Wafaa Abdallah was at hand to take on the part and she gave a compelling performance, rendering the character with great sensitivity and attention to details and emotional shades. Her performance made up for the deficiencies of the rest of the cast, the majority of whom gabbled their lines and could neither pronounce the classical Arabic of the dialogue correctly and distinctly, nor breathe a whiff of life into it.
Another production which sported some good acting was Pace, Hunchback of Notre Dame – an intriguing, loose dramatization by the Shazaya (Shrapnels) troupe of Victor Hugo's famous novel that has Esmeralda strangled in her home rather than publicly hanged and hews down the novel to one trial scene that investigates her murder. During the trial, which takes up the whole play, two scenarios of the murder are projected (enacted as flashbacks) from two totally different, conflicting points of view, one presenting Quasimodo and the other captain Phoebus as the prime suspect. Aya Mahmoud Mohamed, as Esmeralda, and Iman Ahmed, as her maid, gave powerful, captivating performances that won them citations for merit, and they were effectively assisted in their task by Husam Bekheit, as the handsome captain Phoebus, and Khaled El Kilani, as the prosecutor. Indeed, El-Kilani gave the best male performance in the whole festival and was deservedly nominated best leading actor. Besides Camus's State of Siege and Hugo's Hunchback, two more adaptations of foreign texts were presented: the Crazy Team troupe's clumsy and politically pretentious adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's story The Emperor's New Clothes, into a children's play entitled The Black Book; and Yusef Abdel Hamid's whittled down and diluted version of J. B. Priestley's The Rose and Crown, tamely directed by Hisham Mohamed Nader, and lamely acted by the members of a group that calls itself, descriptively perhaps, Mashrou' Firqa (A troupe in the Making), with lugubrious music by Tamer Girgis and a decent set by Husam Mamdouh Mohamed.
A more positive aspect of the festival was showcasing some promising new writing. Mustafa Hamdi's 8 Utopia Alley, directed by El-Amir Zakareya was a kind of modern, comic morality play about the plight of Satan in a world in which humans have beaten him at his own game and, indeed, far surpassed him. Feeling useless, he thinks of retiring and reforming, but before that, as a last attempt to save his dignity and reputation, he sends his three children into the world to see if they can succeed where he failed. The three devils land in Utopia Alley, a hellish cesspit seething with corruption and are themselves sucked into its vortex. Here, again, two actresses, Israa Hamed and Sarah Taha stood out and received certificates of merit for their performances.
The other two new plays were both two-handers (duodramas) and, by a strange coincidence, the male character in both was a painter. Isam Nabil's Portrait (directed by Islam Said) showed a broken down, frustrated artist in his studio, haunted by the phantom of an old flame he once painted and drowning his sorrows in booze. Though moderately interesting, it lacked focus and the dialogue verged on the trite and commonplace at many points. Ahmed El-Abaseeri's Mona Lisa, on the other hand, was a veritable little gem. Crisp and concise, it resembles a Chekhovian short story in which a chance encounter between two strangers bares their souls to us and builds up to a poignant moment of illumination that changes their lives. A painter meets a coarse, down-at-heel flower girl and has a whim to capture her arresting smile in a portrait for his forthcoming exhibition. As he paints she innocently and endearingly chatters about her sordid home, her drab life, her hopeless future and her customers. However, she is cheerful withal. Her one big dream is to be presented with a flower like the girls in the romantic couples she meets. At the end of the brief sitting, she gets her wish: the painter buys one of her flowers and courteously presents it to her. Though they part, never to meet again, perhaps, she is transformed by the gift and feels for the first time her dignity and integrity as a human being. This charming, unpretentious, uplifting and deeply moving little piece got the top award for Best Performance (with The Hunchback as second best performance and The State of Siege in third place) and won its author, El-Abaseeri, who also directed it and played the painter, a citation for best playwright, while his partner, the beautiful, lively and talented Reem El-Masri, shared the best female lead title with the leading actress in Drunken Days.

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