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Coming of age?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 10 - 2009

As the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre prepares for its annual banquet, to start on 10 October, Nehad Selaiha sneaks a peak at the menu
This year the CIFET launches a new tradition to mark its 21st edition and legal coming of age. In the words of the official announcement: "From this year onwards, the festival will annually select a world renowned theatre figure (writer, actor, or director) to deliver 'the experimental theatre message' to the world at the opening ceremony, stating his/her personal understanding of the meaning, value and importance of experimentation. This message," the announcement goes on to say, "will be translated into many languages and widely broadcast in the media" and is intended, according to minister of culture Farouk Husni, "to consolidate communication and openness in a new way" and hopefully "provoke discussion on an international scale." The figure chosen this year is American , writer, director and distinguished researcher Schechner.
Explaining what prompted this idea and the choice of Schechner, chairman of the CIFET Fawzi Fahmi says (in a somewhat grandiloquent foreword to be published in the festival catalogue): "In its logic, dynamics and methods of operating, the CIFET represents a state of interactive communication. Not only does it annually host a wide variety of performances from all over the world as well as specialists from different countries in its central seminar, ... it also produces in every edition a large number of theatre publications, translated from several foreign languages, and honours a number of influential figures in world theatre. These activities make the CIFET a truly communicatory event that generates and provides opportunities for genuine interaction of the kind that can influence consciousness and views of the self and the world."
In order to foster this aspect of the CIFET, and believing "that one of the benefits of communication is to make individual and personal experiences collective and communal," he goes on to say, it was decided to "create opportunities on an annual basis for individual members of the international theatrical elite [my italics] to communicate, in turn, with a large theatrical congregation from all over the world and share with them their cognitive energies and creative visions as well as their bets on the future of the theatrical art. Though the views of the distinguished figures who will address the festival every year may prove controversial, generating positive and negative reactions," he warns, "what really matters is to enforce the habit of listening to the other, however widely his/her views may differ from one's own, and to respect these views."
I am not sure that the expression 'theatrical elite' in this foreword will go down well with the predominantly young and generally rebellious guests and audiences of the festival. However, I do not think that many of them would quarrel with the choice of Schechner, or with the chairman's description of him as a man who "has richly contributed to theatre on both the practical and theoretical levels," or his statement that Schechner's "desire to communicate with different creative theatrical visions and manifestations has led him to travel widely in Europe and Asia, and that thanks to his special methods of activating communication and his belief in its vital importance not only as a means, but also as an end in itself, he has created through his travels a lively context for exchanging thoughts and visions that promotes positive and rich interaction."
More likely than not, Schechner will get a standing ovation at the opening ceremony and red-carpet treatment throughout his visit, including a 2-day trip to Luxor and Aswan; after all, his anthropological approach to the study of theatre and many books, particularly Theory of Performance, have revolutionized our understanding of theatre and influenced generations of young scholars and artists. Besides his 10-minute 'message', there is also a promised lecture, the news of which has generated great excitement, not to mention the presence of a throng of other illustrious guests alongside him to grace the occasion. In the glow of these festivities, many of those who have little knowledge of the logic, inner workings, or history of the festival would be inclined to believe the noble sentiments and rousing rhetoric of the chairman's foreword and even be moved by them. The last paragraph reads: "In introducing this new tradition, the CIFET hopes to legitimize this kind of relationship between sender and receiver, addressor and addressee -- a relationship rooted in the desire to encounter the other, and one in which all parties have the ability to understand different tastes and feelings. It is only through a relationship of this kind that true communication -- meaning, sending and receiving on an equal footing -- can be achieved. And it is only through this mode of communicating that people can break free from all the frameworks that exclude, marginalize, enclose, or isolate them. Without a relationship of this kind, moulded and formulated through communication, renewal and coexistence would be impossible."
As usual, the 3 mornings following the opening ceremony will be taken up with the annual central seminar which takes for its broad theme this year 'Experimentation and Political Theatre', focusing in its successive sessions on the raison d'etre and techniques of the Living Newspaper Theatre, the roots and genesis of the Epic Theatre, the origins and development of the Documentary Theatre, and Political Theatre in Egypt and the Arab world. Hopefully this year, the guest speakers at the seminar and their audience will be allowed sufficient time, the former to fully expound their ideas, and the latter to take them up on them or simply put across their own points of view. In former years, lack of time and proper translation were constant complaints. And speaking of translation, another planned cultural activity that could prove interesting and draw a lot of attention is a 2-session roundtable discussion of the influence of the translation of foreign texts -- plays, stage histories, theories of performance and theatre- related critical writings -- on playwrights and theatre-makers in Egypt and the Arab world.
Those who prefer 'theatre in action' will have plenty on offer and can start gearing up for a veritable experimental whirl. Though no one has been able to ferret any information about the Arab entries or foreign guest shows so far, you should expect at least 40 different performances from abroad to choose from. On the Egyptian side, 24 performances are already lined up for the Egyptian selection committee to select the two that will represent Egypt in the official contest. These cover a wide range of subjects, artistic trends, theatrical traditions and techniques, and regardless of which two are chosen for the contest, all the rest will play on the fringe. Of course many of these, nearly half, have already performed earlier in the year at various venues and even won awards at local festivals, both official and non-governmental. Indeed, one show, The Virgin Butterfly, conceived and directed by Walid Aouni, was shown at the last CIFET at the Institute of Arabic Music (a breathtakingly beautiful piece of Islamic architecture) and drew a mixed reaction ranging from wild enthusiasm to complete dismissal as more of a movie than a theatrical piece. Why is Aouni and his sponsor, the Opera house, are proposing it again this year for the official contest remains to be seen. It is said that he has altered it substantially to bring it closer to theatre than cinema -- a pity, since it was fine as it was, even if it did not strictly qualify as theatre. Perhaps the Opera house had found nothing fit for the festival this year and rather than withdraw to the side lines and just watch decided to air The Butterfly once more and give it another shot at the contest.
That the Opera house deems it a point of honour to be represented at the CIFET whether it is ready with something or not is obvious from the fact that, contrary to its usual practice and quite unlike itself, it has condescended this year to enter a work from the independent theatre (already seen at El-Sawy cultural centre in June) under its name and even host it at its elegant small hall. Not that the work in question is unworthy of the honour. In fact, Samaa Ibrahim's I am Carmen is a highly imaginative piece with a distinct Chekovian flavour that lingers in the memory long after you have seen the show. It features a poor and illiterate middle-aged woman who works as a cleaner at the Opera house and falls under the spell of Bizet's heroine, identifying with her after watching many rehearsals of his famous opera. Alone on the stage after rehearsals, sweeping and washing the floor and tidying up the singers' scattered costumes, she tells us about her life and remembers her youth. And though she first seems a lonely, pathetic figure, she soon surprises you with her imaginative energy, worldly wisdom, delicious vanity and quizzical sense of humour. Bizet's music is cleverly worked into the texture of the performance and some arias are actually rephrased in Arabic and joyously and defiantly sung by the aged, bedraggled cleaner. At such moments, when she removes her white coat and headscarf and whirls round in ecstasy, waving colourful shawls, she seems as if transformed by magic and turns into a wild and beautiful woman not unlike Carmen. The spell only lasts a few minutes and then she is back to reality and drudgery. By the end of the show we vividly feel that though very different in looks and a many other respects, Bizet's wild Carmen and Samaa's poor, pathetic creature have something deep in common: the same appetite for life, the same rebellious spirit, the same defiant longing for freedom. Poignant as the cleaner's monologue is, it is often witty and humorous and the visual contrast between the drawing of Carmen projected as a huge slide at the back throughout and the actual woman on stage is a constant source of amused laughter. As I described it in my Weekly at the time, I am Carmen is "a little gem of a show, absorbing, fascinating, hilarious and deeply moving -- a show impossible to forget."
Other performances seen earlier this year that will play in the festival include the 3 versions of Hamlet produced by the Creativity Centre in Cairo: Hani Afifi's I Am Hamlet, in which an impecunious young man walking the streets of Cairo projects the characters and events of the play on the people and reality around him; Mohamed Abdel-Rahman's Half Hour Hamlet, a brief, surrealistic flow of echoes, shadows and images in which Hamlet is multiplied by six; and Sa'daa' Al-Da'aas's Women's Hamlet -- the first all-women production of the play in Egypt, and one where the whole of the play is projected through the eyes and memories of Gertrude and Ophelia as they try to understand what caused their suffering and violent deaths. And if this is not enough of Shakespeare for you and you fancy more of the Bard and his gory stories, you can do much worse than watch a student performance of King Lear from Ain Shams University, presented in the style of a children's picture book as an illustrated fairy tale with a grim moral, or the Youth theatre's rather traditional but quiet decent production of Julius Caesar, even though it blatantly takes the side of Caesar. But if, like me, you have already seen those Shakespearean ventures and still thirst for more, there is a new Macbeth by Al-Ghad theatre which I have yet to see.
Other favourite classics of the European stage that can be seen in the festival are: a student production of Faust by the Heliopolis Academy and another of Caligula from the University of Tanta. Both are new and therefore unknown quantities to me, and so is Lorca's Yerma by the Theatre Club in Al-Mansoura. But I highly recommend Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape from Alexandria, directed by Gamal Yaqoot; passionate, visually vivid and forcefully eloquent in expressing the bitter resentment and frustration of the working classes, this production garnered many awards at both this year's 35th Regional Theatre Festival in June and 4th Egyptian National Theatre Festival in July. Another European classic which sounds very promising and politically topical is Al-Hanager's production of Aeschylus's The Seven Against Thebes, directed by Mohamed Abul Su'ood. The third play in a Theban tetralogy about the story of the destruction of the house of Laius as a result of a hereditary curse, and written when the capture of Athens by the Persians was still fresh in its citizens' memory, this austere static drama which centres on a power struggle between two brothers who cannot see eye to eye and depicts the terror of a city under siege obviously reflects on the current conflict among Palestinians and the situation in the Gaza strip and is bound to have a painful political resonance among its Arab audiences. It naturally forms a sequel to Abul Su'ood's earlier metaphorically political take on the deadly conflict between Eteocles and Polynices, with Antigone torn between them, entitled Antigone in Ramallah, Antigone in Beirut, for which he wrote the text, and was performed at the CIFET a couple of years ago, touring subsequently in Algeria with great success.
Another Al-Hanager offering to look forward to is Lenin El-Ramli's new play, The Illusion of Love, which he himself has directed, as has been his wont of late; and if you have just heaved a sigh of relief at the mention, at last, of a play by an Egyptian author, thinking they are shamefully scarce in a festival of this size, you can draw comfort from the fact that Ali Abu Salem's The Spinster, which opened two months ago at the Youth theatre and sports a wonderful performance by Hanan Soliman, will play on the fringe, together with a revival of Yusri El-Guindi's vintage epic drama Antara by the Modern Theatre, directed by Hassan Saad and rechristened Playing with the Masters. And to end this article on a cheerful note, new Egyptian play, and this time by a woman too -- Rasha Abdel Mon'im's The Guaranteed Way to Remove Stains (about a woman who dissolves her lover in a tub full of corrosive detergent for all the sins he has committed against her) will premiere during the festival in a production by the Anfoushi theatre club in Alexandria. More tips next week.

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