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In the balance
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 07 - 2008

Nehad Selaiha gives an overview of the third Egyptian National Theatre Festival which ended last week
Normally, one would expect a national theatre festival to represent not only different artistic trends, styles and concerns, but also different generations. A survey of the productions which took part in this year's National Theatre Festival, however, reveals a marked absence of such generational variety. Apart from a handful of established local dramatists -- namely, Lenin El-Ramli, Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman, Yusri El-Guindi, Said El-Faramawi and Mahmoud El-Toukhi -- and even a smaller number of seasoned directors, such as Sami Taha, Issam El-Sayed, Nasser Abdel-Moneim and Osama Abdel-Ra'ouf, the majority of the artists who contributed work to the festival, in or outside the contest, were aged between 20 and 40. While this could be taken as a sign of health and vigour, it could also imply a disturbing failure on the part of theatre to accommodate and make use of the talents of experienced theatre- makers and has driven its veteran writers and performers into the arms of television. A theatre that does not make room for young talent, that neglects to pump new blood into its ageing veins is doomed to shrivel and die. It is equally true, however, that a theatre which completely neglects its heritage, uproots itself and completely cuts loose from tradition, will be a weak growth that cannot survive for long. New, youthful experiments need a strong, traditional frame of reference against which to rebel and define themselves. Without it they seem like sporadic flashes, brilliant but short-lived.
Though heartening and quite exhilarating, the abundance of youthful productions from the fringe in this festival failed to mask the sad dearth of activity in mainstream theatre and the lack of professional grand productions whether private or state-funded. Equally worrying was the fact that most of the state-theatre contributions to the festival this year, including the National's Al-Eskafi Malikan (The Shoemaker as King), relied on young, budding artists, of little experience, as well as on theatre students and recent graduates, with hardly a seasoned actor from the ranks employed by the different state companies. The mass exodus of established writers and performers to television, lured by money and publicity of a kind theatre could never provide, is often trotted out as an excuse for roping in young, inexperienced artists; rarely, however, does anyone stop to ask why working in the theatre has become so arduous, so nerve-wracking and unrewarding that only the young and reckless are willing to take it on, and usually in the hope of stardom, as a stepping stone towards cinema or television.
In its first edition, in 2006, the festival was different; the mainstream was strongly present with such big, solid productions and popular hits as the National's production of El-Ramli's Ahlan Ya Bakawat (Welcome Gentlemen) which starred Hussein Fahmi and Izzat El-'Alayli, Al-Salaam's production of Sa'dalla Wannus's Al-Malik Huwa Al-Malik (The King is the King), starring Salah El-Sa'dani and Mohamed Mounir, a grand performance by Magda El-Khatib in an adapted Italian play called Akrahak (I Hate You) at the Youth theatre, two other magnificent performances by Aida Abdel-Aziz and Salwa Mohamed Ali in Al-Hanager's production of Sa'dalla Wanus's Ahlam Shaqiyya (Anguished Dreams), not to mention Tawfiq Abdel-Hamid's stunning impersonation of Mohamed Ali in Al-Ghad theatre's production of Abu El-'Ela El-Salamouni's Ragul fil Qal'a (A Man in the Citadel). The fact that most of these works were revivals of old productions, some dating several years back was glossed over at the time; its significance, however, became painfully clear in the next editions.
The presence of so many distinguished works and established authors, actors and directors from the mainstream in the first (2006) contest prompted the jury that year to persuade the festival organisers to introduce a new category of prizes for "rising" playwrights, actors and directors from the fringe. Such prizes, it was hoped, would allow young artists a place under the sun side by side with the stars and give them some recognition. In this way, as I wrote on this page in December 2006, the festival could "bridge the gap between different generations of theatre practitioners, as well as between the fringe and mainstream theatre, suggesting a possible course for future cooperation". This hope, however, was dashed the following year since most of the big, mainstream companies had nothing to offer and the older generation of theatre artists was prominent by its absence. The same thing happened this year, virtually turning the event into a "youth" theatre festival, with no noticeable distinctions in terms of craftsmanship, maturity or intellectual depth between mainstream, fringe, professional or amateur productions, and making a mockery of its two-tiered awards. What is the sense of them if a student production from a university is rated as equal to one by the National theatre and deemed worthy of sharing the best production award with it? I am all for young people and a staunch supporter of the fringe; still, the fringe would make no sense and would lose its impetus if the mainstream theatre disappears and I find this near total absence of the older generation of theatre-makers deeply disturbing.
Such nagging reflections apart, I found the festival quite illuminating and thought-provoking, if not consistently enjoyable. In many of the plentiful contributions from the fringe, whether originally written or adapted from another text by a member of the group, or culled and pieced together from their improvisations, one noted the emergence of the sketch as a basic structural unit, implying a fragmented, de-centred view of reality and existence. Except in very rare cases, the sketches seem to succeed each other haphazardly, following no artistic or imaginative logic, and, at best, manage to create at the end a general mood or suggest a nebulous state of mind. In some cases, this fragmented form opts for "presentation", rather than "representation" in performance, adopting a confessional theatrical mode in which the actors use their real names, talk about themselves and their experiences, directly addressing the audience, with little attempt at dramatic masking, fictionalisation or illusionism. Such "therapeutic" performances, though frequently humorous in a dark vein, are invariably embittered protests against the present, projecting uniformly grim visions of the future, with a few flickers of hope and defiance here and there.
Using laughter and irony as antidotes to despair in the face of a chaotic, unmanageable and suffocating reality may also explain the frequent resort to parody, burlesque, and farcical caricature by the fringe in this festival. Could it also explain, perhaps the atrocious corruption and mangling of classical Arabic in some shows and the use of weird verbal coinages and nonsensical gibberish in others? This happened frequently enough in the festival to constitute something of a phenomenon and people have construed it differently: while the orthodox denounced it as a manifestation of flagrant disrespect for the cultural heritage on the part of the young and a proof of the disgraceful laxity and ineptitude of the current educational system and its failure to impose discipline, others hazarded that it could be an indication of a deep urge, conscious or otherwise, to defy authority and subvert the "official" cultural heritage, with all its values and established orders, including the linguistic one, by way of protest against its failure to cope with their problems and meet the challenges of a globalised world.
To the theatrical troupe of the Faculty of Law at Ain Shams University goes the credit for the one production from the fringe this year that recklessly defied and poked fun at the cultural heritage without in any way impeaching the integrity of classical Arabic. By every test their "de-idealised", tongue-in-cheek parody of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet should have been a thoroughly modest production, and yet, it came across as provocative and refreshing, brimful of vitality and consistently exciting. Faced with a famous classic to put over and only a team of amateurs to execute the task, the director, Mohamed El-Saghir, resorted to what purists would regard as sacrilegious tricks -- namely, drastic cutting, farcical exaggeration, visually embroidering what remains of the text with a series of ingenious mimes that run contrary to the drift of the words and accompanying the serious speeches with comical music or outrageous buffoonery. Yet, in spite of these tricks, or rather because of them, the adapter/director was able to offer a coherent and convincing version of Shakespeare's play suited to our cynical, unromantic times. Indeed, compared to the recent National theatre's earnest, straightforward and expensive production of the same play, currently on at Miami theatre, this youthful version, though "adulterated", seems infinitely more relevant and exciting and, paradoxically, invests the bard's poetry with more energy and poignancy, the poignancy of nostalgia for a paradise lost.
Obviously taking his inspiration from the scenes of the "rude mechanicals" rehearsing their "tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/ And his love Thisbe" and their "very tragical mirth" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mohamed El-Saghir transported the play from the world of romance into the world of pantomime, cartoon films and illustrated comics. All the characters were reduced to figures of fun and caricatures and the deadly feud between the two families as well as the love story were presented as slapstick farce. The sight of the bare stage, draped all round in white cloth, and of the actors, dressed and painted like circus clowns, with the women in blue, yellow and pink wigs, immediately suggested the sense in which the story was to be read. While the homely objects the actors used as percussion instruments -- pots and pans, boxes, rattles and wooden sticks -- suggested a children's game, the shiny, colourful outfits hinted at a masquerade and the ridiculous ruffs, frills, cloaks, doublets and hoses faintly parodied Elizabethan costumes
The friar here was not only robbed of his dignity and holy robes, but was virtually recreated in the image of "the king of the swingers all, the jungle VIP" in Walt Disney's cartoon film The Jungle Book, and was fittingly accompanied by a retinue of jabbering, swinging, banana-munching, monkeys as he blathered away and roared, drumming his chest with both fists. The characters were similarly ragged, with none spared. Romeo became a sulky, grumpy slip of a boy, with limp shoulders, dangling arms and flapping feet, given to squealing, running away and hiding when danger loomed; Juliet was a lumbering, blubbering, squinting and simpering halfwit, with a vapid smile, a marked drool and a habit of violently and silently convulsing the upper part of her body when she cried. Paris was a quivering, effeminate mass of complacent, self-hugging flesh with the brain of a two-year old; the nurse was bent and crabbed, had a limp and her voice was shrill, creaky and abrupt; Mercutio looked like a scraggy cockerel and behaved like a professional tumbler and the Capulets, the Montagues and the Prince were stiff, gawky, tetchy and pompous and their speeches were ridiculously declaimed and frequently punctuated with sudden grimaces and yowling cries.
Of course, such burlesquing of the classics is very old and, somehow, Shakespeare seems to invite it more than any other dramatist. In Egypt, Khaled Galal is a master of Shakespearean parody and has produced several ones since the late 1990s. Mohamed El-Saghir who studied under Galal at the Creativity Centre Studio and took part in many of the workshops he conducted on the arts of mime, clowning and burlesque is obviously deeply influenced by him and, indeed, this production is very much in the style of Galal and carries vivid traces of his work and methods. Nevertheless, Mohamed El-Saghir has proved here that he has an original imagination and a wonderful capacity for comic invention.
With no scenery except what the actors themselves could construct with their bodies or by manipulating a few props, like the pasteboard moon mounted on a stick and held high by an actor in the balcony scene, the cutout painted tree tops which some of the actors held before their faces to suggest the forest which the transformed friar now inhabits with his monkeys, or the bar with a bit of curtain across it, hoisted by two actors to suggest Juliet's balcony, El-Saghir filled the stage with magic, mirth and colour. And just as the set was fashioned by the actors' bodies, all the sound effects and rhythmical accompaniments were provided by their voices and primitive percussion instruments. In one scene a rhythmically swaying group of actors whistling like the wind become a clump of trees which Romeo climbs, and in another, two of them, facing each other, mechanically swing from side to side, clicking their tongues to suggest a grandfather clock, then, when the hour strikes, step aside to allow two other actors, a man and a woman, posing as decorative, porcelain figurines, to pop out and glide smoothly in a circle.
Here, every move and tone was deft and delightful and the whole show was a wonderful feat of split-second timing. The actors' discipline was truly amazing and they carried out all the difficult tasks set them by the director, especially the sudden transitions from one character or function to another, with immaculate precision and breathtaking speed. This Romeo and Juliet was great fun to watch, and at the end, when the two lovers finally died, I found myself reacting exactly the same way as Philostrate did when he watched Bottom, disguised as Pyramus, kill himself; like him, the scene "Made mine eyes water; but more merry tears/ The passion of loud laughter never shed."
The awards:
Best production (no cash value):
Jointly, Romeo and Juliet (Ain Shams University and Al-Eskafi Malikan (The Shoemaker as King, The National Theatre).
Best dramatic text (LE15,000):
Jointly, Dustoor Ya Syadna (Pardon, Spirits, or, The Constitution, O, Masters) by Mahmoud El-Toukhi, and Atyaf Hikaya (Shades of a Tale) by Yasin El-Daaw.
Best director (LE15,000):
Hisham Atwa for Les Miserables (Al-Tali'a Theatre).
Best actor (LE15,000):
Magid El-Kidwani as the Shoemaker in The Shoemaker as King.
Best actress (LE15,000):
Jointly, Nirmeen Za'za' as both Fantine and Cosette in Les Miserables, and Iman Imam as Nazim Hikmet's Sherine in Al-Ghad theatre's Qissat Hobb (Love Story).
Best supporting actor (LE10,000):
Khaled El-Nagdy as Thénardier in Les Miserables.
Best supporting actress (LE10,000):
Amani El-Bahtity as Eponine in Les Miserables.
Best scenography (LE10,000):
Subhi El-Sayed , Les Miserables.
Best musical score (LE10,000):
Jointly, Tareq Mahran, Les Miserables, and Haytham El-Khameesi, The Shoemaker as King.
Best choreography (LE10,000):
Jointly, Adel Abdu, Zaii El-Fol (Just Fine, the Popular Arts and Music Sector), Diaa Mohamed, The Shoemaker, and Sami Mohamed, Ala'una ( Going, Going, Gone, Theatre Institute).
Best rising playwright (LE10,000):
Mohamed El-Qawashti for Ala'una.
Best rising director (LE10,000);
Mohamed El-Saghir for Romeo and Juliet.
Best rising actor (LE10,000):
Karim Yehya as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.
Best rising actress (LE10,000):
Riham Desouqi as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Three special jury awards (LE5,000):
Qahwa Sada (Unsweetened Turkish Coffee), the Creativity Centre;
Atyaf Hikaya (Shades of a Tale), Abu Teeg Cultural Palace in Assiut;
Mush'ilu Al-Hara'iq (Fire-raisers), the Youth Theatre.
Three certificates of merit (no cash value):
Said El-Faramawi for Hikayat Izbet Mahrous (Tales from Mahrous Farm), the Popular Arts and Music Sector, Fadi Yusri and Shorooq, two child performers in Shaklaha Bazit (It Looks a Mess), the Egyptian Society of Theatre Amateurs.


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