YEAREND SPECIAL: A year of adaptations in Egyptian theater

by Dalia Basiouny – Daily News Egypt on  22 – 12 – 2009

The powerful art of theater is losing its grip on the public in the face of the fierce competition of satellite TV, with the range of choices they offer from the comfort of one’s sofa. For many Egyptians, theater is reduced to the comedies they watch on television. For the decreasing number of spectators who are willing to go through the effort of leaving their homes and facing traffic to attend live performances in Cairo, the Egyptian theater did not offer much incentive this year.

There was not one major hit or must see performance in 2009 from any of the active theater-producing bodies in Egypt: private theaters, government theaters, department of public culture, Artistic Creativity Center, Hanager Art Center, independent theater companies, Sawy Culture Wheel and universities. The bulk of the performances presented this year were adaptations of previous works. It appears that the current Egyptian theatrical writing effort directs its energy to variations on dramaturgy, whether it is “based on, “derived from, “adapted, or “inspired by, with little room for original ideas.

The Creativity Center at the Opera grounds lived off the success of its 2008 production “Ahwa Sada (Unsweetened Coffee), extending it for a few months this year. Their main offering in 2009 was various adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet by their directing students. The most notable of these was Hani Afifi’s “I’m Hamlet. The ambitious project of finding a connecting thread between Hamlet’s anguish and the distress of Egyptian young men worked visually, but did not translate to the core of the play. Nonetheless, Mohamed Fahim, the Egyptian Hamlet, still managed to nab the award for best actor from the Experimental Festival.

In its last breath, before a complete gutting for renovation, the Hanager Art Center presented a season of plays in the spring by independent theater companies that had less verve than previous Independent Festivals. Two of these plays “Under Threat and “Viva Mama won awards from the National Festival.

Many plays participating in the two major festivals – the National in July and the Experimental in October – were mainly re-workings of classical texts. The festivals highlighted some of the challenges facing Egyptian theater.

In its fourth edition, the National Theater Festival lit 12 stages across Cairo with 36 performances, 27 of which participated in the official competition. Most of the offerings in this year’s festival were based on canonical plays, both European and Egyptian.

The official rhetoric of the National festival, evident in its daily publication, was a celebration of some kind of renaissance in Egyptian Theater. While the plays presented suggested that Egyptian theater is in a deep slumber, its faint pulse originated from a handful of 1960s plays infused with song and dance to mask their age. Regardless of their date of creation, many of the plays were below the average competition level for any kind of theater award.

Unfortunately, the Experimental Festival, with its 26 competition entries, was not better off. The advent of Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater signals a special surge in the theater arena. While some expected a better festival this year, as it reached the age of maturity in its 21st edition, many had resigned their hopes of improvement, and accepted that the festival that once infused the Egyptian artistic scene with energy and vitality cannot be rescued from the sliding slope of mediocrity.

The mediocrity was evident this year in the poor quality of most performances. Many of the performances in the official competition lacked the cutting-edge, avant-garde experimental feel that set apart the entries of the early years of the festival.

The largest production of 2009 was Teatro’s “Praxa with a reported budget of LE 3 million. “Praxa is an adaption of the classical comedy of Aristophanes, and Tawfiq El-Hakim’s re-working of it. Nader Salah Eddin’s “Praxa was a grand production, performed at the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House in an elaborate décor and lavish costumes by a large cast of 62 actors and dancers, in addition to the six main characters, including singer Boushra.

If one managed to forget the difference between this production and the great originals it is based on, and the main theme of women’s equality it fails to address, a more pressing question remains. With all this talent, high production values and Salah Eddin’s undeniable skill in song writing, why rely on an ancient text and mess it up? Why not write your new original performance?

Al-Ghad Theater’s noteworthy production “Suktom Buktom (Silence, Not a Word) was also an adaptation. It pays tribute to Salah Jaheen’s “El-Leila El-Kebira. The young dramaturg and director Doaa’ Te’eema bases her work on the celebrated characters of the operetta, infusing it with other works by Jaheen: film dialogue, popular songs, cartoon commentary, shadow puppets and Qaraqouz, and off course the Quartets, some in the voice of the poet himself.

The most exciting performance this year was a small production in an unknown venue in Gamalaya district, behind Al-Hussein. Ali Samir, founder of Sobyan We Banat Theater Troupe, worked with the area’s youth as part of the developmental projects of Wekalet Al Kharoup, and after a year of training they produced an adaptation of Yoursy El Guindy’s “Ali Al-Zeibaq. The tale of this popular hero was presented with devoted spirit and passion that connected the stage to the audience through enchanting storytelling, simple beats and popular songs. It regained the faith in the power of theater which does not require elaborate sets or high tech, just the magic of people sharing a space and believing in the story and its transforming power.

The ailing Egyptian theater could regain some of its energy in 2010 if some of the millions spent on festivals are directed to workshops, nurturing young talents, training new writers and creators, producing new works and offering candid criticism for them to grow into healthy creative talents.


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