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Something for everyone
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 11 - 2004

Nehad Selaiha samples what Ramadan has on offer in the way of live theatre
Ramadan is usually associated with light entertainment where live performance is concerned -- works that neither ruffle the mind nor bruise the soul. Of such stuff there is plenty around. At El-Sawi Centre, Beit Al-Harawi, Al-Hanager, Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum, the floating theatre in Giza, Al-Hod Al-Marsoud garden in Al-Sayeda Zeinab, the garden of GEBO (the General Egyptian Book Organisation) on the Nile Corniche in Rod Al-Farag, not to mention the many commercial 'Ramadan tents" pitched everywhere in big hotels and the Opera grounds, there are concerts galore, featuring a wide variety of musical forms, ranging from pop and Rae to children's choirs and traditional Islamic madih (songs of praise). Music, in the form of witty, satirical ditties, old ballads and popular 1920s' songs, also cuts a high profile in the vaudeville shows which invariably alternate with concerts at most venues. In such pieces, humour is the rule of the day, whatever the topic at hand, and it comes in many shades and colours and diverse veins, including the scabrous. The Ramadan list of entertainment always features storytelling as well -- a tradition that harks back to the old Hakawati and Sira singers. This tradition was revived and widely popularised in 1955 by Alf Leila wa Leila (The One Thousand and One Nights), a radio serial exclusive to the holy month, which ran into 886 episodes, all written and directed by Taher Abu Fasha and Mohamed Mahmoud Sha'ban respectively and narrated by Zuzu Nabil as Sheherazade over 23 years. When it terminated in 1978, imitations of it were successively launched under different names (e.g. Abu Fasha's One Thousand and One Days in which Nabil also starred and the current Sheherazade 2000, with Abdel Rahman Abu Zahra as Shahrayar and Sanaa Yunis as the titular heroine), while television intermittently tried to cash in on its popularity with a string of pallid serials.
Hakawi Al-Haramlek (Tales of the Harem), by Abeer Ali and her Al-Misaharati independent group, which played for ten days at Al-Hanager, from 25 October to 3 November, was a typical Ramadan entertainment. Although it was not originally intended as such, premiering in August in the context of the Independent Light Comedy Festival, and despite its lip service to feminism in the printed programme, it comes across as a typical revue or, to use the traditional Egyptian name for such shows. as Abeer would have us do, as a Samir Sha'bi. Sitting in a crescent shape, facing the audience, in the manner of an oriental band or takht, the actors, singers and musicians (lutes and percussion) draw heavily on the folk and popular musical heritage for their songs, on the tradition of storytelling in the narrative parts, and on conventional comic routines and female stereotypes -- mainly the beautiful, helpless princess, the virago, the seductress and the sexually frustrated aged spinster who drools over men -- in the sketches. Though half the team on stage are men and the narrated stories feature a fisherman and two heroes of the kind familiar in The Arabian Nights, the focus is primarily on women, past and present, lovingly portrayed in a humorous vein, in the style of parody and caricature, with the characters of the two old spinsters deliciously and hilariously impersonated by two male actors (Mohamed Abdel-Mu'iz and Yehia Mahmoud) in shawls and wigs. Intended as a corrective satire on the negative aspects of female consciousness and behaviour, Tales of the Harem seemed nevertheless, in both form and content, to be looking backwards with nostalgia to earlier, happier and more peaceful times; and this nostalgic mood, indicated in the title, imbued every aspect of the show, visually surfacing in the costumes, in the use of the traditional men's red tarboush and women's yashmac and appearing in the form of recurrent juxtapositions of harsh reality with wish-fulfilling dreams in the stories. Though the treatment of the harem by Al-Misaharati troupe raises many questions and could offend the staunch feminist, for many, it was a welcome palliative from the rigours of the present and was generally great fun.
The same could not be said of Delicious Uzu and Haki-ye min al-Do majeur (Narration in C major), both by independent troupes from Alexandria, which I watched at Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum in a double bill. The first, performed in the garden, in the open air, was a flimsy, hazily sketched 25 minute affair featuring a group of young men, some teenagers, playing with fire crackers, riding a children's merry-go-round and delivering songs and rhythmical monologues about their longings and frustration, while waiting for some kind of farcical deliverer in the shape of a gnome called Uzu. I had seen the same group, Hala (mood), which specialises in street shows, in August, in a delightful political satire called Salaam Mirabba which I reviewed on 26 August on this page, and the comparison was deeply distressing. But for Narration, the evening would have been a dismal waste of time. Based on real stories and characters from the streets of Alexandria, and drawing on the personal experience of its director, Sherif Disouqi, during a recent nervous breakdown, it features a lunatic undergoing psychiatric treatment. The text, collectively written, acted and sung by the newly formed Baraah (expanse) troupe, with El-Disouqi directing and playing the lead, consists of a rambling, agonised monologue, interspersed with funny anecdotes, comic impersonations of real and fictional characters, brief sketches, personal memories and several songs. Though El-Disouqi's ramblings and digressions seem haphazard, leading nowhere and serving no purpose -- except, perhaps, to showcase his comic versatility -- they are held together by an underlying sense of extreme mental anguish which fitfully surfaces in poignant moments. These regulate the verbal flow of the show, marking the tonal and thematic transitions and acting like a unifying thread.
Lars Tatom's at AUC was quite a change and a welcome one. It is rarely that one sees a serious play in Ramadan, let alone a tragedy and a world classic. The text, though one of Shakespeare's shortest and most compact, was, nevertheless, cut in the interest of brevity, speed and concentration; Donalbain, Fleance, Macduff's son, both Siward and his son, plus some Scottish noblemen, apparitions and extras were jettisoned, together with their lines, while some scenes and speeches were curtailed. The result was a fast- paced performance, given in 75 minutes without set changes or intervals. As such, it was light on the digestion and left one plenty of time to pursue other Ramadan treats on the same evening. But let us go back to the beginning. I arrived on time to find the regular entrance to the auditorium of Al- Falaki main stage deserted and the doors firmly locked. I was beginning to wonder if the performance had been cancelled or whether I had made a mistake about the dates when someone came to my rescue, leading me through a side passage and ushering me into the theatre through a back door. I was completely mystified until I found myself on the stage and realised we were to sit on it, in a circle surrounding the performance area, with only four corridors intersecting the rows of seats crosswise and serving as entries and exits. I could hardly suppress my excitement. It was the first time I see staged in- the-round, with the actors so intimately close to the audience.
The acting area seemed very cramped, with hardly enough space for the characters in some scenes, and its floor was overlaid with a hard, rugged surface. In the middle of it, there was a trapdoor, shaped like a large hole, and suggesting at once a grave and the pit of hell. Into this hole, many corpses were dragged in the course of the play. A few tall tree trunks, some slender, some thick, extending high above into the flies so that we could not see their tops, and some round wooden blocks, which alternately served as seats and tables, made up the whole set. The scene changes were marked by the lighting which sometimes reflected the invisible leaves and branches of the trees in silhouette, in various degrees of intensity, on the white, pitted floor, suggesting a forest on the side of a chalk mountain in the evening or at night; these disappeared in the indoor scenes or were replaced, at calculated moments, with crisscross shadows suggesting the bars of a prison cell. To add to the excitement, there was also real rain, or, at least, a simulation of it in the form of jets of water falling from the flies, sometimes as heavy rain, sometimes a drizzle, and pattering on the hard floor, filling the pits and creating real puddles.
To add to the novelty of his staging, Tatom kept the actors in full view of the audience most of the play. Sitting on small blocks round the acting area, they got up at their cues to perform their scenes then went back to their places. The entrances and exits were only used when a new character was introduced, or when a character had to rush in breathlessly or withdraw in haste. Jeanne Arnold's costumes, rough-textured for the soldiers and gleaming with a harsh, metallic sheen for the rulers, were eloquent signs of the characters' ranks and states of mind and quite in harmony, colour-wise, with Stancil Cambpell's harshly simple black and white set. But the really ingenious touch in this production was the visual and vocal conception of the witches. Dressed in thick layers of rough and soft, netted, hairy or scaly grey material and large, saucer-like headgear, fringed with long drapes that hid their faces, they looked and sounded, as they hissed and grunted, crawled and slithered, quite eerie and disturbingly monstrous. And Tatom made full use of their slimy, horrible presence, introducing them into scenes where they do not appear in the text, making them, for instance, paw Lady and viciously tug at her dress as she stands inside the hole in the ground, calling on the "spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts" to "unsex" her and fill her with "direst cruelty. This was a master stroke; another was making the trio of witches (Mona Gamil, Hussam El-Tayeb and Mimi Asnes), in a different garb but still recognisable by their voices, double as the assassins hired to murder Banquo and to massacre Macduff's family; and a third, was framing the face of Wael Mohassed, as Malcolm, in a halo of light as the crown is slowly lowered over his head, with the witches hissing in the surrounding darkness, auguring further evil -- a point also made in the final scene of Polanski film version of the play of which I was strongly reminded.
As , Shadi Alfons looked pathetically young and frail but made up for this with his strong voice, firmness of tone and convincing handling of the different moods. He was at his best, though, in the first scene of Act 4, in which he visits the witches to seek assurance. Compared to him, Naomi Smith, as Lady , though in reality very thin, looked not only taller, which she is in reality, but also stronger in build and more in command. This made her gradual disintegration and air of total exhaustion which enveloped her after the murder of Duncan and her eventual collapse in the sleep-walking scene quite moving. The rest of the parts were adequately acted, with Stancil Campbell giving us a very regal, majestic Duncan. When the lights came down at the end, leaving us with the sound of rain pattering on the hard floor for a minute, I found myself wishing there were more such shows in Ramadan. And when they came on again for the actors to take their bows, I looked around at the applauding audience, noting that the majority of Egyptian women there wore the veil. It was then that I realised the wrong- headed foolishness of the common belief that serious drama, or pagan drama as some call it, did not accord with the spirit of the holy month, or that during it, audiences are bound to balk at any spectacle that does not include singing or raise many laughs.


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