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Festival notes
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 07 - 2016

Ninth edition of the National Theatre Festival, first week, 19-25 July, 2016.

The opening ceremony of the National Theatre Festival this year was the worst in its whole history. It took place as usual at the big hall of the Cairo Opera house; but instead of starting as scheduled at 8 pm, the huge audience which filled the hall from top to bottom, including the honorees, all quite advanced in years and some frail in health, were kept waiting for well over an hour for the minister of culture to arrive. No apology was offered before an hour had elapsed and this was only made after the young members of the audience took to hooting, booing and clapping rhythmically in protest. Needless to say the guests of honour felt slighted, the big stars felt insulted and the energy and enthusiasm of the audience was hopelessly dampened. The luster and glow of the occasion was irretrievably lost.
In this crabby, cantankerous mood one became captious, finding fault with everything and determined to forgive nothing. The festival's poster which glared at us from the two large screens flanking the stage was the first obvious: A bright green background with a small clump of brown earth in the middle out of which eight green leaves fanned out, with a ninth stalk in the middle carrying a hideous white mask sporting blood-red pursed lips, ghastly empty sockets and thick black lashes trailing from the lower rims over the cheeks to the tip of the chin, it looked quite outlandish and more befitting a ministry of agriculture ad for some ghoulish, genetically-engineered new crop. Then there was the tiny, tiny print of the festival schedule at the back of the festival booklet (which carried the grotesque poster on its cover); the mistake the announcer made in the name of one of the honorees, giving him the surname of one of the members of the jury; the saliently offensive lopsidedness of the gigantic sign that dangled from the flies at the back of the stage carrying the name of the late great actor Nour Al-Sherif to whom this year's edition is dedicated, not to mention the slapdash, paltry quality of the short film about his career made especially for this occasion.
Even the short musical performance which customarily serves as a prelude to the ceremony was this year similarly slipshod and lackadaisical, lacking freshness in conception and artistry in execution. Written by Gamal Mahmoud, directed by Tamer Karam and choreographed by Dia and Mohamed, with live music and singing, it traced the beginnings of theatre in the primitive hunting dances of the caveman, then moved swiftly, by means of a narrator and amid a lot of chaotic dancing in a riotous mixture of costumes, to spoken drama, treating us to badly delivered famous passages from the verse dramas of Salah Abdel-Sabour and Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharkawi, all extolling the power of the word. Visually, this little piece seemed to enshrine the tradition of the conventional picture-frame stage: Ornate picture frames all of the same shape but of different sizes filled the stage from top to bottom, some holding the musicians and singers inside them and others left empty, with the largest one (the above-mentioned skewed one holding Nour Al-Sherif's name) towering above them all. I would never have thought that such a brilliant creative team could have come up with such a tawdry piece of work.
But if the opening ceremony was something of a wet blanket, the festival soon picked up in energy thanks to the enthusiasm of the public who daily flocked to the different venues in thick numbers, obliging some to give two consecutive performances of the same scheduled show on the same evening, which put a great strain on the actors, some of them fainted after the repeat performance on one occasion. Of the ten shows offered in the first week (each playing two consecutive nights) I had already seen six and covered five of them on this page. These were Al-Hanager's Zombie and the Ten Sins, a multimedia stage-piece based on Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell's 1984; Al-Talia's a ritualistic folk opera, Al-Insan Al-Tayeb (The Good Person); the Youth Theatre's psychological two-hander, Al Fanar (The Lighthouse), the same theatre's musical version of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Trial of the Donkey's Shadow, and its adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew under the new title, Gamila (Beauty) (see my review in Issue 1303 “Pooling the best”). The sixth show, a drastically whittled down and simplified version of Friedrich Durrenmatt's three-act philosophical comedy An Angel Comes to Babylon, by the Alsun theatre group, I had seen earlier this year at the French Cultural Centre's Avant-Scene theater festival where it won one of the awards, if I remember correctly.
Reducing the play's dramatis personae to five (competently led by Michel Milad and Islam Ali, who also compiled the musical soundtrack) and shedding most of the plot's intricate twists and turns, this version (prepared by director Mahmoud Tantawi) focused mainly on the interaction of the play's central unconventional triangle in the first act: King Nebuchadnezzar, the personification of worldly order who has just established a ‘welfare state' and ‘a faultless empire' in Babylon and is determined to compel Akki, the last beggar in his realm, to become a civil servant; the beggar Akki, a charming rogue, storyteller and social anarchist who has mastered the difficult art of living and financially supports dozens of poets; and the absent-minded, naive angel who represents Heaven and the celestial order and only sees the wonders of nature on earth but is blind to human misery. The initial hilarious interaction of these three characters in the first act of the original play, which takes up over half of the time of the present version, is triggered by the arrival of the angel on earth carrying a gift of God's Grace in the shape of a beautiful young woman, Kurrubi, to the lowliest of men. Obviously the beggar Akki is the intended one; but since the king assumes the disguise of a beggar in the hope of persuading Akki to quit his trade, the angel is quite at a loss to which the gift should go. In his dilemma, he chooses to wait for the result of a competition in begging between the king and Akki.
When the king, an amateur in begging and no match for akki who adapts his technique according to his victim, predictably loses, he is ironically rewarded by the gullible angel with Kurrubi. To keep her, however, he has to relinquish wealth and power, which he refuses to do, whereupon the gift of heaven finds temporary lodging with Akki. It is at this point that the Alsun Theatre troupe's version parts company with Durrenmatt's text, reducing the remaining two acts to a jumble of quick, pallid scenes that miss out most of the fun in these acts and do not even amount to a crude summary or a sketchy outline of the events they relate. This made the second part of the performance seem drab, boring and quite pointless, rehashing much and adding little. Even the actors who were brilliant and scintillating in the first part seemed to run out of steam in the second and flop down sadly as if blighted.
The Theatre Institute's Al-Khorooq ‘an Al-Nas (Extempore, or, literally, Going Outside the Text) gave us one of the few originally written dramatic texts offered in this festival. Written by Ahmed Nabil, who also provided the lyrics, and directed by Karim Sami (with sets by Mahmoud Sabri, costumes by Amani Atef, lighting by Ibrahim Al-Forn, music by Ahmed Nabil Sayed and choreography by Mohamed Naser), it unfolds as a lively, boisterous musical comedy, performed with coloured wigs, semi period costumes, lively music and plenty buffoonery. The action is set in medieval France, at the time when theatre was moving out of the churches into the streets and public squares, and shows three actors, a woman and two men, who begin by attempting a mystery play about Adam and Eve and end up putting on a secular version of the story with lots of local colour and topical concerns. Though it could do with some condensing, it was performed with infectious gusto and was well received by the critics and the public.
Though billed as an original play by Osama Al-Banna, Dhil Ragel (A Man's Shadow), by the troupe of a Cultural Home in Sohag, Upper Egypt, turned out to be yet another dramatisation of Yehia Al-Taher Abdalla's popular novel Al-Towq wa Al-Eswira (The Collar and the Bracelet) which has become almost a fixed feature in all Egyptian theatre festivals. The new ironical title at once evokes the old proverb ‘a man's shadow is better protection than the shade of a wall' and bitingly satirises the absent, long-awaited hero who upon coming back is discovered to be no better than an ineffectual shadow. The performance, directed by Khaled Atallah, with set and costumes by Israa Bakheet and music by Abdel-Moneim Abbas, gave us a straightforward, simple, unpretentious dramatisation of the events narrated in the novel, with a silent male chorus waving sticks in ritualistic dances, sometimes menacingly and sometimes at phallic symbols, reflecting the obsession with sexual potency and impotence in the play. Though the acting was palpably amateurish, it was affectingly guileless and sincere and the actors seemed desperately keen to give their best. The simple set of three temple pillars, two wooden chests that alternately served as beds and coffins, a primitive grindstone, sand on the floor and a grayish backdrop inscribed with hieroglyphic symbols, together with the typically Nubian and Upper Egyptian chants and melodies that accompanied the actors gave the show an aura of authenticity.
Another adaptation billed as original composition was Beer Al-Saqaya (Drinking Well), by the Matrouh Governorate National Troupe, written by Hosam Abdel-Aziz and directed by Ashraf Al-Nubi. Reducing Shakespeare's Macbeth to its skeletal plot and transplanting it in a small village in Upper Egypt, Beer Al-Saqaya comes across as a tedious, hackneyed tale of thuggery and bloodshed. Indeed, I cannot think of a worse or more ridiculous adaptation of a Shakespearean play or one more laughs in supposedly grimly tragic scenes. I heartily pitied the poor actors who seemed quite at a loss to make sense of or begin to feel the words they spoke and who were further ruthlessly burdened by the director with a movement design that required them to constantly climb up an down the utterly useless mound-like structure that filled the stage, leaving only a small cramped space in front, lined with reeds, which was also cluttered with the simulation of a well. In striving for a vaguely symbolic set with a genuinely realistic look, stage-designer Nahla Mursi almost literally crowded the actors out.
The real gem of my week's viewing was Monadil Antar's Al-Bassaseen (The Informers or Spies) performed by the Opera house Dance Theatre Company. Consisting of a string of inventive, highly elaborate and extremely taxing duet, solo and group dances, performed in plain, mostly black and white costumes against an austere backdrop of cloudy sky and leafless trees and accompanied by a weird, strangely haunting soundtrack of music and songs compiled by the director from various African sources, The Informers focused on physical violence, torture and coercive subjugation as its main theme, playing it out in different variations that amply showcased the technical competence, physical skills and breathtaking precision of the dancers. The dances, with their intricate, often evocative and sometimes symbolic formations and images were quite engrossing and fully expressive of the titular theme of the show. I did not think that Antar needed to punctuate and link them together verbally by quotations from Naguib Mahfouz's Awlad Haretna, better known to English speakers as Children of Gabalawi. The quotations, delivered live by a narrator whose entrance momentarily stems the sweeping tide of violence, all harp on the history of the people's coercion by self-appointed dictatorial thugs, reiterating a warning against forgetting the past. While such verbal appendages and intrusions could be said to give the show a more pronounced political dimension, I personally think that the dancing was sufficiently eloquent and show had enough of the political without them. However, Monadil Antar seems to like using excerpts from literary works in his shows.


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