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Time for dreams
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 06 - 2010

Nehad Selaiha ponders the Bard's never waning popularity with young directors in view of a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Youth theatre company
What is it that keeps attracting young directors in Egypt to Shakespeare generation after generation? I pondered this question as I fought my way through the heavy Giza traffic one night last week, driving at a snail's pace in sweltering heat and waiting at interminable traffic lights, and all to catch a new stage version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that has been running for nearly a month at the small hall of Fatma Rushdi Floating theatre. I was not particularly looking forward to spending the next 2 hours at that venue, which currently serves as the sole outlet for the Youth theatre company; indeed, I dreaded the prospect. Once a delightful, open-air space, with a magnificent, leafy tree on one side, shading the stage, it has now become a suffocating, plastic tent, depressingly the colour of dust, with a few, feeble fans that soon give up trying to beat off the heat.
But to go back to Shakespeare and my initial question, I thought that, if anything, the forbidding halo of respect that surrounds Shakespeare's name in Egypt, his awesome literary reputation among the literati and theatre people as the greatest dramatist of all time, a tragic poet of unparalleled genius, a formidable moralist and grand rhetorician -- a reputation initiated by the early pioneers of the Egyptian theatre and bequeathed to subsequent generations -- and the sheer size of the literature his works have inspired over centuries, much of which has been translated into Arabic, should deter fledgling theatre makers from approaching his plays, let alone fiddling with them. After giving the matter some thought, I concluded that doing a Shakespearean play was, perhaps, the surest way of getting media coverage and critical attention. Even if the critical response is negative, or downright derogatory, publicity is assured.
Besides, Shakespeare's plays are multi-layered, allowing varied readings, and have inspired different interpretations at different times in countless foreign productions, some of which visited Cairo while on tour or in the course of different editions of the Cairo International festival for Experimental Theatre, and these can be cited by young directors and dramaturges in defense of their untraditional approaches, however wild. Of such foreign, experimental productions, the earliest were 2 British versions of King Lear, both directed by Deborah Warner, which visited Cairo in 1987 and 1989. While the first, by the Kick company which Warner had founded, presented the play as a harsh black comedy in the style of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, with a crippled female fool, doubling as Cordelia, almost completely naked actors climbing and jumping off ladders and pouring buckets of water all over the stage in the storm scene, while the octogenarian king pranced around in his underwear, the second, by the National Theatre Company, encompassed all historical periods in the costumes, generalizing the theme, and cast the play in the mode of Brecht's epic theatre. The influence of Warner's first Lear production appeared the following year in the 1st (1988) edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre in Sayed Khatir's adaptation of Othello, called The Last Round, which set the action in a boxing ring at Al-Tali'a theatre. It was equally palpable in Mohamed Abdel-Hadi's 1991 King Lear, also at Al-Tali'a, which projected the play from the point of view of the fool, using only six actors, grotesque masks and no sets (except for a small round platform in the middle over which hung a crown) and was defiantly subtitled 'a grotesque, farcical travesty' (for a full description of the production, see my review in the Weekly on 21 March 1991, reprinted in The Egyptian Theatre, A Diary: 1990- 92, The General Egyptian Book Organization, Cairo, 1992).
In subsequent years, the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre launched in the year separating Warner's 2 productions brought to Egypt a steady supply of iconoclastic versions of the Bard's plays -- like The Hamlet Summit by British/Kuwaiti writer and director Sulayman Al-Bassam, where Hamlet becomes a Muslim fundamentalist and Ophelia a veiled suicide bomber and all the characters are hauled into the 21st century to fight out their feuds and grievances with the help of microphones and web cameras, in 2002, the Swedish Theater Halland's Hamlet -- if there is time, which turned the play into a roaring farce, in 2003, or the Russian Romeo and Juliet in drag, directed by the Bulgarian Lilia Abadjieva, which burlesqued Shakespeare's classic in a vulgar vein, sinking it to the level of a knock- about farce, with plenty of camp humour, and drowning the dying lovers in the final scene in a full ten-minute heavy shower raining from the flies, in 2006 -- to mention but a few of the last 10 years' crop.
Tariq Sa'id's farcical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by a group of university students in the 1995 festival of the Egyptian Society of Theatre Amateurs, and Khalid Galal's 1998 Shakespeare One Two, which encapsulated four tragedies, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet into vivid, brief sketches within an outer framework featuring a third- rate theatre company clumsily auditioning for and rehearsing a trite show under the eye of a pompous, pretentious and despotic director, were clear signs that finally our young directors had realized that there were other ways of approaching Shakespeare than the traditional ones. More significantly, they had discovered that, far from being a rigid, priggish, old-fashioned and extremely verbose pontiff (as traditional productions and most drama classes made him out to be), he was lively, highly theatrical, full of tricks, and could be bawdy, naughty, skeptical or sacrilegious when it suited his purposes. At last they had a Shakespeare they could love and play with -- a Shakespeare who rebelliously flouted the classical rules to delight his audience, was not above cashing in on the popularity of any text, dramatic or otherwise, and using it as material for a new play, and even lifting whole lines out of it, and who did not seem to regard dramatic texts as finished, self sufficient creations, but, rather, as blueprints for myriad theatrical productions. Indeed, the fact that Shakespeare had worked as a writer/actor in a commercial company and was not one of the 'university wits' of his time (a fact deemed embarrassing by most teachers and discreetly pushed aside) endeared him all the more to young theatre people in Egypt.
No wonder that in 2001 Khalid Galal resumed his experimentation with Shakespeare, producing his Hamlet Junction, in which a group of actors in the present set the play in different ages, ranging from medieval times to the future, and in places as widely varied as Denmark and Upper Egypt, and use music hall numbers and routines, modern dance, cinema, the shadow play, the puppet show and the traditional art of the popular story- teller to present their various readings of the play and views of its hero. He followed this with a production of No'man Ashour's Egyptian version of Othello, written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic and set in Upper Egypt, calling it Mandeel El-Helw (The Pretty Woman's Handkerchief), after the opening of an old, popular song, and a hilarious 40-minute version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, retitled A Mid-August Night's Dream at the Creativity Centre, of which he became head.
Other directors soon followed suit: In 2002, Sherif Subhi's Shakespearean Intimations treated us to a mind-boggling potpourri in which Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth were kneaded together and where for the three plays we had 3 Hamlets, 3 Othellos and 3 Macbeths, all echoing each other, while the chorus dangled and swung on ropes and trapezes; in 2004, the Creativity Centre Studio presented 5 five fresh takes on King Lear by directors Reem Higab, Islam Imam, Tareq Ragheb, Abeer Ali and Yasser El-Tobgi, in which Lear was alternately a referee in a basketball match, a puppet manipulated by the fool, a madman in a cell, a shadowy presence in the background and a clown in motley; a couple of years later, the same Studio presented a farcical parody of The Tempest as a collaborative graduation project of the 2nd directors' workshop; and in 2009, the Studio's 3rd directors' workshop produced Hani Afifi's at once hilariously funny and deeply sad I Am Hamlet, Mohamed Abdel-Rahman's Half Hour Hamlet and Sa'daa' Al-Da'aas's Women's Hamlet. an all-women production (see "Hamlet galore", Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, Issue No. 963, 3 September, 2009).
Studio Emad El-Din also jumped on the bandwagon with Ahmed El-Attar's and Nevine El-Ebiary's Who is Afraid of Shakespeare, an English script made up of excerpts and snatches from no less than 13 different Shakespearean plays, which recreated Desdemona into a modern American, middle-class white woman and Othello into a dark-skinned, impoverished immigrant with a garbage collector for a father, and made them echo Romeo and Juliet in most scenes, while the Doge kept verbally swinging between Orsino in Twelfth Night, Jacques in As You Like it and God knows who else. Equally unsatisfying was Mohamed Abdel Munsif's curious version of Othello, rechristened Black and White, and presented at one of the independent theatre festivals held annually by El-Sway Cultural Centre. Far superiour to both was Metwalli Hamed's ingenious adaptation of the same play, presented at Al-Hanger's 4th Independent Festival for Light Comedy in 2005, in which a realistic, parallel plot, engaging the actors behind the scenes, went hand in hand with the plot in the Shakespearean text, cleverly intersecting it at many points. Al-Hanager had already produced in 2001 Sameh Mahran's Dooditello, a zany political satire in which princess Diana and Emad El-Fayed play Othello and Desdemona in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I, impersonated by Hamada Shousha in drag, and a crippled, half-witted Shakespeare on an improvised scooter, played by Sherif Subhi, and more recently, it sponsored Mohamed Abdel Khaliq's Richard x Richard, versus Bayyoumi , which played off Shakespeare's Richard II against Russell Lees's 1996 play, Nixon's Nixon.
Nor did the Bibliotheca Alexandrina lag behind in this respect, presenting in May 2003 Mohamed Abul Su'ood's stunning production of Titus Andronicus, rechristened Spring of Blood, which transposed the setting from imperial Rome to Iraq in the last days of Saddam Hussein and during its storming by the US forces in 2003. The following year, it produced Karim El-Tonsi's Shakespeare: An Encounter, which roped in characters, scenes and lines from as many as seven plays, using the bodies and voices of twelve actors to form intriguing patterns of parallelisms and contrasts.
Since A Midsummer seems to be generally viewed, especially by young people, as a prime candidate for original, sometimes wild, approaches, and keeps surfacing in a variety of strange, openly farcical versions in amateur and university productions, I wondered what Ahmed El-Sayed, a promising young director, would do with it. And I was really surprised and delighted. Working in close collaboration with an equally young artistic crew and a cast of students from the Theatre Institute, El-Sayed treated us to a rollicking, jazzed up, modern-dress, pop-musical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. While Diaa' Al-Rahman Egyptianized Osama Nur El-Din's classical Arabic translation, rephrasing it into colloquial Egyptian Arabic and providing some lyrics, which Sherif Al-Weseimi, who designed the whole zingy soundtrack, put to music, and Yasmine Abdalla and Sally Kamal El-Din dressed the young actors in hippie, punk, Goth, and other youthful fashions, Sally Ahmed imaginatively choreographed the movement in every scene, so that the whole play seemed like a formal dance, with plenty of mime and hip-hop sequences, and most of the dialogue delivered in the style of rap.
Given this wild approach, it was amazing how El-Sayed, despite the Egyptianzed characters and extremely limited budget, remained faithful to the spirit and mood of the original play, at once preserving its magic and sad meditations on the fickleness of lovers and transience of love, and refraining from the facile, attractive option of turning it into a roaring burlesque, or a tame, cozy, romantic fairy tale. Strangely, the dark side of the world of Oberon and Titania and the sense of menace it inspires were very much present, thanks to the costumes of the fairies and their king and queen, their weird make up and their artificial, inhuman voices. Indeed, the power these creatures of fancy possess and wield over humans was visually brought out as they mimed manipulating and controlling the movement of the lovers, and indeed of each other, from afar, as if they held them at the end of a rope, and could pull, or push them, or get them to shake frenziedly at will.
With no more than a single set consisting of long strips of plastic as a curtain at the back that lifts up in the forest scenes to reveal a staircase sporting a huge, golden ball at the top, and an intelligent lighting plan, El-Sayed relied mainly on the talent, energy, craftsmanship and enthusiastic dedication of his highly disciplined cast to put across his sweet-sour reading of the play. His Oberon and Titania, who doubled as Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, here transformed into an Egyptian Pasha and a high society belle, in the style of old Egyptian movies, were impressively versatile, and the slim, amazingly agile and delightfully wicked and whimsical Puck was the best I have seen for a long time. Though billed as 'a show exclusively for teenagers', Dreams was surprisingly cynically wise and almost completely devoid of sweetness and facile romanticism. More than anything, the quartet of lovers, Hermia and Helena (here Hayat and Horria) and Lysander and Demetrius (Khalid and Hassan) were thoroughly pathetic despite their youthful beauty and graceful elegance. Sufficient doses of farce, however, were available, but strictly confined to the scenes of the 'rude mechanicals' who were led by a vivacious, loquacious, Upper Egyptian Bottom in traditional dress. As a 'poor theatre' show, Al-Ahlam was vastly rich in human energy and talent; it was however so poor in budget, it could not afford a printed programme to tell us who was who in its wonderful, zany cast. That El-Sayed's directorial conception was partly inspired, as he frankly admits, by Baz Luhrnman's film version of Romeo and Juliet and similar treatments of the Bard's plays revealed to me one further reason for the popularity of Shakespeare among young Egyptian directors -- namely, belonging to a whole new tradition and being counted among the iconoclastic lovers of the Bard.


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