Plays from fifteen independent professional theatre companies are taking part in the official competition of the Egyptian National Theatre Festival (10-25 August).
This is quite a significant number when compared to roughly ten state theatre entries. Moreover, the number of independent troupes also testifies to their changing status as a result of new techniques of self-financing as they sustain their relative autonomy from the government.
Egypt's independent theatre movement
The history of Egyptian independent theatre goes back to the 1990s and the decision of the Ministry of Culture to cancel an edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) following the eruption of Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991).
In August of that year, ten companies who opposed this ministerial decision formed an independent theatre movement, detached from the decisions of the Ministry of Culture.
In her article published much later in August 2006 in Al Ahram Weekly, renowned theatre critic, professor Nehad Selaiha, recalls those days saying: "The meeting [opposing the cancellation] soon took a political turn and developed into a brainstorming discussion of the state’s control of the arts, its subsidising policies and treatment of the artists who work outside government cultural organisations. The meetings continued through September, spawning a fiery manifesto written by Khaled El-Sawi, and culminated in the declaration of the birth of a Free Theatre Movement and the launch of its 1st Free Theatre Festival at the small hall of the Opera House on 1 October."
"Though a clear-cut definition of an 'independent' or 'free' theatre group was not laid down in those early meetings, it gradually emerged through years of hard work and much trial and error," Selaiha adds.
Since the iconic month of August 1990, the young creators – operating as The Free Theatre Movement – continued their annual meetings taking place every April with the aim of looking into the status of independent companies, while welcoming the newcomers.
As numerous independent troupes began to form, many of them were embraced by cultural centers, with the Hanager Theatre becoming one of their main shelters for many years. It was natural then, that the Egyptian National Theatre Festival that launched its first edition in 2006, also opened its doors to these independent groups. The Free Theatre Movement decided to submit its two best performances to take part in the national festival.
Today, in its seventh edition, the festival has widened to give even more space to independent troupes and the definition of ‘independent’ continues to evolve.
Some of the participating artists do not hesitate to receive financial support offered to them by independent bodies such as Studio Emadeddine.They are also supported by foreign cultural centers operating in Egypt. As opposed to their predecessors, these groups are no longer fully dependent on self-financing mechanisms.
On the other hand and similarly to their amateur colleagues, the independent professional troupes seek to reach a more official status and it is through their participation in the national festival that they find an opportunity to do so.
Missing the mark
It is apparent during this year's festival that the limited experience of some of the independent troupes has resulted in several oddities that have caused them to miss the mark.
The monodrama entitled Mirror, written and directed by Yasmine Emam, suffers from poor on-stage framing. The stage is too big for the actress where the scenography aims to evoke the impact of a conservative society on a young girl who dreams of love and freedom
The play, Al-Etar (The Frame), staged by the troupe So'o Tafahom (Misunderstanding) is an adaptation from the novel, El-Touq wal Aswerra (The Necklace and the Bracelet) written by El-Taher Abdallah.
In Al-Atar, the director Mohamad Mabrouk falls into the trap of excessive length and exaggerated comedic stunts. Though giving space to humorous effect aims to reduce the weight of heavier parts, it all comes at the expense of dramatic structure. The scenography consisting of paintings of women has nothing to do with the context of the play while the traditional lighting techniques do not help to elevate the many dark scenes. Despite an interesting body and choreographic expression, Mabrouk fails to convince with his work.
In its turn, the play entitled The Brothers Karamazov performed by Ehsas troupe and directed by Mohammed Abdallah is yet another example of missing the mark. Ehsas, which promotes itself as a professional troupe, delivers a monotonous work with elementary mise-en-scene and frigid characters.
Another play entitled Al-Raheb Al-Aswad (The Black Monk) also falls below par. Despite the well-designed scenography, many elements contribute to the performance losing its potential charm. Ahmad Sami chose to present scenes that are excessively concise with projectors going on and off as the viewer is transported from one scene to another, among which many could have been deleted. On some occasions, music becomes so dominant that one can no longer hear the actors' lines. A pity, since the dramaturgical content of Al-Raheb Al-Aswad is quite interesting.