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A theatrical harvest
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 12 - 2010

Nehad Selaiha detects glimmers of hope in an otherwise dismal year
This year, our state theatre organization has come up with an ingenious and hitherto unheard of theory of arts management. The sole purpose behind this newly devised policy, which simply consists of churning out a string of festivals close on the tail of each other, is to put theatre officials, rather than theatre-makers and artists, in the limelight and have them constantly in the news. I have nothing against festivals, but not if they become the sole occasion for funding new productions and not when the whole production policy is guided by these events rather than the events being used to showcase what has been produced in the successive seasons. Rather than theatre seasons, we now have festivals that keep Ashraf Zaki, the man at the top of this organisation, constantly in the news, opening festivals, publicizing future ones and honouring old stars side by side with the minister of culture. All this comes at the expense of artistic quality.
The theatrical year started late, but reasonably well with Hoda Wasfi, the artistic director of the still homeless Al-Hanger Centre, launched her annual season of independent theatre productions at Rawabet on 13 April. The season featured 14 new plays reflecting different artistic trends, sensibilities and intellectual orientations and lasted till 2 August. But for this initiative, May would have been a theatrically arid month. Then suddenly on 1 June and probably to make a little money go a long way and whip up media interest, the State Theatre Organization opened its 1st Youth Theatre Encounter at Al-Tali'a (Avant-garde) and Al-Arayes (Puppet) theatres. Since the slogan under which this 10-day event was hyped read 'Towards a Poor Theatre', it was obvious what budgets the 10 sponsored productions selected by the organizing committee were allowed. Ironically, the best of the lot were 2 takes on Shakespeare ' s Hamlet by two seasoned directors in their forties who have been working on the fringe for years. Predictably, they scooped most of the awards, with the former winning 7 and the latter 6. The event left me wondering what the word 'Youth' means in Mr. Zaki's dictionary!
But worse was yet to come. While the 1st Youth Theatre Encounter was still in full swing, Mr. Zaki had another reckless inspiration and surprised every one with the news of yet another one-week festival, this time dedicated to comedy and laughter. Though he initially set the date of the opening for 1st July, the festival did not actually open until 10 July, lasted for 6 nights and closed on the eve of the opening of the 5th Egyptian National Theatre Festival on 17 July. As it turned out, this half- baked 'Week of Laughter' turned out to be a dismal and thoroughly mirthless affair. Of the festival's 6 plays, the 4 I watched were naïve, carelessly concocted and miserably lacking in wit and technical finesse. Nor was the Egyptian National Theatre Festival any better in terms of variety or technical distinction. out of the 34 productions it featured, only a few were worth dwelling over, and most of these came from the fringe and either relied on well-known and over-used foreign texts, sticking to their traditional interpretations, or tiresomely rehashed conventional themes and material from the popular heritage, technically treading the same familiar paths and adding no fresh perspectives. Indeed, as I said in my coverage of the event at the time: "A feeling of artistic exhaustion and shrunken horizons marked the whole occasion."
It was no surprise, therefore, that a student production from the Theatre Institute of The Double Story of Doctor Valmy, Antonio Buero Vallejo's famous Spanish play about political torture, scooped the top awards for Best Production and Best Director, as well as a joint award for Best Actress, another joint award for Best Rising Actor and a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, putting to endless shame the whole arsenal of the State-theatre Sector. Next, it was time to catch up on what is happening outside Cairo in the way of theatre. From 23 to 30 September, the Closing Festival of Theatre Clubs -- the last of a series of smaller festivals and competitions held by the Cultural Palaces organisation every year at different times and various regional centres to pick out the best productions by theatre clubs -- was held at Manf Hall.
Sexual and patriarchal repression and political and economic corruption were dominant themes in the festival's 12 performances. From Alexandria, which had the lion's share in this event, participating with 4 productions, Tesmaheeli Bil Raqsa Di (May I have this Dance?) by the Mustafa Kamel theatre club, was a poetic piece, featuring, in a highly metaphoric style, a number of frustrated love stories and thwarted dreams, projected in the form of overlapping, brief sketches in which the actors constantly switched characters and roles, alternately playing the oppressed and oppressors. Sexual frustration and patriarchal oppression surfaced again in the Alexandrian Al-Tazawuq theatre club's Whaid+Wahid=Wahid (One + One = One), about a split female character, one side of which craves liberation and fulfillment while the other is crippled by a conservative, traditional upbringing. Also from Alexandria, this time from El-Anfoushi theatre club, came El-Ishara Lunha Eih? (What Colour is the Traffic Light?) which tried to encompass in the space of less than an hour all the problems that face young people in Egypt today. The scope the author tried to cover defeated him, diluting most of the issues he tried to tackle and leaving the audience wondering what the whole performance was about. But apart from the shows, it was heartening to see regional directors and their technical crews struggle to accommodate their productions in the cramped performance space available at Manf. What a passion for theatre these people must have and what dedication and hard work they put in it throughout the year!
In contrast, the 22nd CIFET (10-20 October) seemed to take the State Theatre Organisation and all its companies and directors by complete surprise. Though the festival has been around for over 20 years and is regularly held in September or October on an annual basis, the same thing invariably happens every year: they wait until almost the very last minute then start looking frantically for something that might do for the occasion. As a result, most of the works specifically produced for this international gathering are usually hastily thought up and sloppily put together. Outstanding exceptions were Effat Yehia's Sahrawiyya (Desertscape) -- a daring, lyrical piece, alternately poignant and funny, inspired by the first act in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, with Egyptian female characters from different ages and walks of life replacing Churchill's original ones, and Mohamed Abul Su'ood's impeccably elegant and evocative A Mass Requiem for Mozart -- an adaptation in colloquial Arabic of Pushkin's "Little Tragedy" Mozart and Salieri -- also produced by the Youth Theatre. Al-Hanager's excellent production of Sa'dallah Wannus's last play, Bilad Adyaq min al-Hobb (Counties too Small for Love), directed by Tareq El-Dweiri, ran into trouble due to the lack of a suitable venue and had to wait until Wasfi could rent one. It finaly opened at Al-Hosapeer theatre on 25/11 and ran till 9/12.
Of the visiting performances the most interesting were 3 based on ancient Greek myths and plays, a Chinese opera for one voice that projected Shakespeare's Macbeth as a nightmare experienced by the eponymous hero's 'Lady', a Bulgarian reworking of Hamlet, interspersed with echoes from Macbeth, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida as well as Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine, a new treatment of Brecht's modern classic, The Good Person of Szechuan, from Moldova, a play from Bangladesh called At the Threshold that borrows two major scenes with their characters from two well- known Ibsen plays, and a dramatization of Constantine P. Cavafy's poem Waiting for the Barbarians from Syria. But of all of these, the most enthusiastically received was Italy's Oedipus on Top, A Play Without Words, by La Casa Dei Racconti (House of Tales) theatre in the Provincia di Rieti.
On 19 November, the 8th El-Saqia Theatre Festival opened, lasting till the 23rd. Curiously, though it was dedicated to the theatrical heritage of Yusef Wahbi, out of the 10 scheduled plays, only 3 -- Rasputin, rechristened Al-Shaitan (The Devil), Awlad Al-Fuqara (Children of the Poor) and Safeer Guhannam, (The Ambassador of Hell), which is in fact the film version of another play by Wahbi called Al-Shaitan -- were written by Wahbi. The rest were adaptations of foreign classics plus one Arabic play, all of which Wahbi is supposed to have directed and/or performed .

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