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Aesop's donkey once more
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 11 - 2015

That Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Trial of the Donkey's Shadow should have finally made the crossover from the fringe to the mainstream and found its way to the state theatre is not surprising. As soon as Yusri Khamees's Arabic translation of the play was staged by director Islam Imam at the Creativity Centre in 2010, it became immensely popular with young theatre makers in independent and regional theatre troupes. Within months, the Teatro Masr independent troupe presented it at El-Saqia Ramadan theatre festival of August 2010 under the direction of Abdalla El-Sha'er who, while preserving its atmosphere and old, foreign setting, projected its central political conflict onto the sectarian tension in those days between Muslims and Copts in Egypt to warn against its catastrophic consequences. Within two months, in October 2010, Imam's production surfaced again at the 22nd edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre to represent Egypt in its competition.
After the two turbulent years that succeeded the 25 January 2011 revolution, during which all theatrical activities were disrupted, the play surfaced again in May 2013, in a production by the Faculty of Engineering troupe at Helwan University. In the following year, the play was staged by the troupe of Al-Menoufia University who presented it at the 7th edition of the Egyptian National Theatre Festival. 2015 brought the Donkey's Shadow back to the stage in another production by Helwan University, directed by Ahmed Abdel Mon'em and presented at the third edition of the Ibda' (Creativity) festival, organized by the Ministry of Youth and Sport in Luxor in March. By the beginning of November, we find the Donkey making a bold leap into one of the state-run theatre companies and strutting with due aplomb on the stage of the Youth theatre in a new production directed by Mohamed Gabr.
Originally written in 1951 as a radio play (Durrenmatt's second venture in this genre) and later published with the earlier one, The Trial of the Donkey's Shadow is an adaptation of Christoph Martin Wieland's History of the Abderites (written in1781 and translated as ‘The Republic of Fools, 1861), which is itself a reworking and development of one of Aesop's Fables. The original fable goes as follows: “A Traveler hired an Ass. The day was hot and the Traveler sat in the shadow of the Ass. The Owner argued he didn't hire the shadow. Ass left as they argued. Moral: In quarreling about the shadow we often lose the substance” ( Wieland's extended satirical reworking of this pithy, succinct old fable about the dispute over the donkey's shadow was adapted by Durrenmatt to forge an attack on post-war European society. As Crockett has noted, Durrenmatt's adaptation, his first, ‘like the rest, begins close to the source and ends far away from it.” Though he sticks to the basic plot – namely, the dispute between the donkey's owner Anthrax and the dentist Struthion over whether the latter in renting a donkey for a day's journey to visit a client in a neighbouring town has also rented its shadow – his ‘modernizations are obvious in the emphasis on class struggle between the proletariat who frequent the Latona Temple and the bourgeoisie who worship at the Jason Temple – an antagonism especially prominent in the speeches of the Agitator of the Macedonian Workers' Party and the President of the Senate. Modern too is the interest of the weapons industry in supplying both parties while fanning the flames of conflict' (see Understanding Friedrich Durrenmatt by Roger Alan Crockett, University of South Carolina Press, 1998, pp. 64-5).
As the dispute between the donkey's owner and the dentist escalates, they end up in a court, where two unconscionable lawyers pounce on them and egg them on, promising them impressive settlements for which they demand fat fees. To pay the lawyers, Anthrax, the donkey's owner, is forced to pawn his furniture and sell his wife while dentist loses his practice. Both litigants change their life styles to appear more virtuous than they are and scramble to find connections that could influence the judges, bribing practically the whole town. While Anthrax seeks the help of a famous public courtesan, Struthion, the dentist, sends his wife to the bed chamber of one of the judges to intercede on his behalf. When the court fails to reach a decisive verdict in favour of either, the case, already a public issue, spirals into a national conflict, threatening civil war. The proletariat and bourgeoisie form two parties, one, the Donkeys, favouring Anthrax, and the other, the Shadows, siding with Struthion.
At this point, Durrenmatt, according to Crockett, diverges from Wieland's plot, in which the Abderites avoid civil war by making the donkey a scapegoat. He introduces a drunken sea captain, named Typhis (his own addition to the plot), who accepts bribes from both parties and sets both the Latona and Jason Temples on fire on the same night. And at this point the play develops into a real macabre farce as the firemen, who are half Shadows, half Donkeys, refuse to cooperate in putting out the fire since this would compromise their principles, with the result that the fire spreads to the whole town and destroys it. As Crocket points out: ‘timely 6 years after the end of World War II, yet timeless in its validity is the observation of the High Priest Agathyrus: “It has always begun with the adoration of a Jackass and ended with mass murder. We know the symptoms.”' Durrenmatt gives the last word to the Donkey, which is running for its life from the angry mob: “Since I have, in a way, the leading role in this tale,” he says, “don't be angry with me and answer me honestly with a clear conscience, as I now perish miserably from the arrows of your brothers. Was I the Jackass in this story?”
The current Youth Theatre production of The Donkey's Shadow presents a pruned musical version of the play in which some of the action is narrated in song to the accompaniment of a live band. Director Mohamed Gabr, who also adapted the play for this production, first made his mark in 2013 with a university theatre production of Mahmoud Gamal's 1980 Upward which won the award for best production of the year at the Egyptian National Theatre Festival in 2013. 1980 Upward has since become a phenomenal success with young audiences, playing on and off to packed houses at a private theatre (the Hosapire) and touring outside Cairo. It was on the strength of this success that the Youth Theatre, a professional, state-funded company, accepted to finance and host at its venue (the small hall of the Fatma Rushdie Floating theatre in Giza) Mohamed Gabr's production of Durrenmatt's play.
Hoping to repeat the success of 1980 Upward, Gabr sought his cast, as he did in the previous play, among the students and graduates of Ain Shams University where he got his first training as director during his student days. Once more he opted for a bare stage, with a few simple props and a plain, white backdrop, and relied on the lighting and the bodies of his actors to shape and paint the scenes, suggest the mood changes and create the right atmosphere. A new directorial feature here, however, and one quite in line with the title and central theme of the play, was the use of the technique of the old shadow play in a new, inventive way for aesthetic purposes and to sarcastically accentuate the moral of the play. Discarding the use of puppets, as in the traditional shadow play, Gabr presented some scenes in silhouette, against the lighted backdrop, while in others, he completely dimmed the stage, leaving only one or two spotlights for the speakers, and projected behind them enlarged shadows of the other actors. Indeed, the lighting was the star in this show and Mohamed Gabr has proved himself as gifted a scenographer as he is a director. Designing the costumes as well, he has created a series of captivating stage images on a very modest budget and with the modest, if not downright primitive, technical equipment of the small hall. Another feature which distinguishes this production from Gabr's earlier one is the use of live music not just as a background, but as an active component. Here, the visual and kinetic aspects of the performance developed hand in hand with Ahmed Nabil's stimulating musical accompaniment and dynamic songs.
Having said this, one must admit that Gabr's adaptation, which framed the performance as a radio play (a direct reference to its original form) by placing one actor with a microphone at a table on one side of the stage to announce it and provide narrative links between the scenes, lacked political bite, urgency and relevance and seemed to strive too hard after comic effects at the expense of the drama. The acting too, occasionally crude and ham, left a lot to be desired. Despite the palpable talent of the actors and their physical agility, infectious energy and immense dedication, they obviously lacked experience and finesse and their performances were marred by farcical physical contortions and needless vocal distortions and exaggerations. I do not doubt that Gabr tried hard to hone his young actors skills in the time allowed him, but perhaps he demanded too much of them. As it is, I do not think that the Donkey's Shadow can hope to match the success of Gabr's previous triumph. However, a substantial degree of popularity is assured it thanks to the perennial appeal of the play to Egyptian audiences – an appeal which, I confess, quite puzzles me since the merits of the play, such as they are, cannot by themselves sufficiently justify it.

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