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A hilarious investigation
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 06 - 2008

Nehad Selaiha watches the Egyptian premiere of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Youth Theatre
It's a crying shame that the Youth Theatre, one of the most active and innovative companies in the state- theatre sector in Egypt, has been forced for years, indeed ever since it was established in February, 1982, to air its creations through small, cramped spaces that lack the most basic technical facilities and storage spaces for costumes and sets, and where actors have no proper tiring rooms and are often forced to change their costumes and makeup in dirty bathrooms or draughty corners and vestibules outside the performance area. For five years, the company had no home, and though its philosophy and objectives were clearly defined and stipulated in the ministerial decree that brought it into the world, it seemed to lose direction and fall prey to the wayward whims of successive directors who often cared more for publicity and commercial success than for artistic quality or the identity of the company.
In 1987, the company got its first makeshift home -- a small annex of the theatre of the Arabic Music Institute in Ramses street (later rechristened Mohamed Abdel Wahab theatre). It consisted of a number of tiny offices, the largest of which was converted into a performance hall and given the name of an illustrious actor, namely, Abdallah Gheith, as if to camouflage its shabbiness and technical inadequacy under a glossy veneer. I remember watching a string of interesting and ambitious performances in this dismal hall and wondering at the time why some sumptuous commercial comedies housed at regular theatres in both Cairo and Alexandria sported on their publicity bills the title of the company.
When the ministry of culture decided to renovate the building of the Arabic Music Institute, including its theatre, and turn it over to the state-funded Opera House establishment as another venue, the Abdallah Gheith hall was dismantled and the Youth theatre company was once more on the street, without even the most rudimentary of headquarters. To think that in the whole of a big metropolis like Cairo, a supposedly vital and powerful institution like the state-theatre organisation could not find an old, ramshackle building, a derelict movie theatre, or a cheap-going garage to convert into a habitable space for this company is a puzzle that needs the analytical powers of a huge team of political, sociological and cultural researchers to solve it; and their solution, I suspect, would tell us a lot about the criminal negligence, the reckless indifference and the absence of anything resembling a guiding vision or policy in the mess we call our cultural life. The short history of this most persistent, most unfortunate company could tell you volumes about how the official establishment thinks of the youth of this nation and what kind of care and attention it gives to nurturing their talents.
It is a sad irony that the solution to the irking problem of the homeless Youth Theatre Company was provided by, of all people, the ministry of interior. When, after a series of terrorist attacks on public places mounted by the Islamic Jihad, a side exit out of Al-Salam theatre in Qasr El-Eini street (the home of the Modern Theatre Company) was declared a security risk and promptly cancelled, some bright theatre official came up with the ingenious idea of converting this disused area, a small, awkwardly rectangular passageway, into a new home for the Youth Theatre Company. It was as if this star-crossed, untimely- begotten company was doomed to be physically squeezed out of existence and relegated to underground cells and rat corners. Like the former Abdallah Gheith small hall in Ramses street, the opening of this new hall intended 'to house experiments by young people' pompously gave it the name of another grand homme de theatre, this time dramatist Youssef Idris.
But artists are wily simulators and fanciful fabricators, and any space for them, even a street corner in a slum, or the roof or basement of a dilapidated house can be transformed, through their magical art, the energy of their imagination and their indefatigable creative zest, into alternative worlds and visions of places hitherto unseen. Though the space at Youssef Idris hall in Al-Salam theatre -- currently the main (and lame) venue of the Youth Theatre Company -- is extremely cramped, with the audience squeezed against each other and the actors almost breathing down their necks, though it can very well be declared the supreme nightmare of designers and directors, it has managed to valiantly defy its conditions of existence, and, like its old, defunct parent, the Abdallah Gheith hall, has managed to process, over the past three or four years, a number of highly exciting and thought- provoking experiments, one of which won first prize for 'rising playwright' in the last National Theatre Festival.
The last offering of this poor, struggling hall was Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist which has just finished a successful run, playing to full houses, for 45 nights from 13 April to 4 June. Given the many recent press reports of incidents of police brutality in Egypt, some of them involving hair-raising accounts of torture and resulting in the mysterious deaths of the accused, it was a brave choice that bespoke a keen attention to the issue of topical relevance in theatre and a degree of commitment to the question of human rights in Egypt.
Based on a real incident, the death of Guiseppe Pinelli, a man arrested after the bombing of the National Agricultural Bank in Milan in 1969 who allegedly committed suicide by jumping out of an open window during his police interrogation, the play questions the definition of terrorism, its motives and objectives, and also those of the forces of law and order in society and the legitimacy of the procedures they take to curb rebellion and violent protest. Though the eponymous anarchist in the play is absent and his role is taken over by a maniacal, theatre-crazed impersonator who manages to lure the ferocious police officers into a game of his devising by pretending he is a judge sent to investigate the mystery of the anarchist's death, the play unfolds as a confrontation between anarchy, redefined as a thirst for freedom symbolized by theatre -- the freedom to alter one's inherited identity and reshape one's world -- and order, redefined as brutal coercion, deceit and dehumanizing submission.
Designer Sobhi El-Sayed opted for a neutral, deceptively cheerful looking set, with lots of coloured Venetian blinds, framing the space in red, yellow and bluish green, two raised, arched corridors running along the two sides of the rectangular hall, which symbolically acted as mental spaces for monologues and private reflections or as dead- end escape routes, and a window back centre which formed the focus of the whole design. The costumes partook of the same geographical neutrality and pronouncedly artificial theatrical quality of the set design, with a distinct throw in the direction of circus clowns, street minstrels, jesters and buffoons. Though the topic was extremely realistic in that it urgently dealt with a hot, topical issue, the form was thoroughly theatrical, with spaces for inventive improvisations by the actors and occasional songs and farcical ditties (composed by Yusri Hassan and set to music by Ahmed El-Hinnawi.
Director Adel Hassan seemed to understand what Dario Fo's theatre was all about and how essential to it was this mix of pressing current issues, radical rebellion and popular culture. In the management of his team of gifted comedians, of his technical crew, and, indeed of the whole show, he seemed to be guided by Fo's words when he said, in his Nobel lecture in 1997, that a "theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance." Without any hectoring or a trace of pronounced political propaganda, the performance transmitted its political message in a most effective and enjoyable way.
Heading the cast as the role-changing maniac was the multi- talented, superb tragical-farcical clown, Ashraf Farouk. The three years he spent in Italy immersing himself in the philosophy and techniques of the commedia dell'arte, the wonderful, effervescent tradition Fo and his life-long partner Franca Rame constantly draw on for artistic vitality and political rectitude, bore their fruit in this show. Supported by Sayed El-Fayoumi, as the vain and cowardly chief of the police, Kamal Atiyya, as his drunk, brutal and dim-witted deputy, Bate' Khalil as his bungling, bull-like, obscene assistant, Mustafa El-Dooki and Mohamed Samir as the two pathetically helpless underlings, secretly in sympathy with the victims of their bosses, and last, but not least, the attractive and vibrant Sumayya El-Imam in the role of the journalist investigating the case. Ashraf Farouk gave a sensitive and masterful performance which did justice to the text and was a credit to his director, colleagues and the whole of the Youth Theatre Company. I left the theatre wondering why we don't do Dario Fo and Franca Rame more often in Egypt. But this is a theme for another article.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo, translated by Yusef Al-Asadi, directed by Adel Hassan, Youth Theatre, 13 April-4 June, 2008.


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