Alexandria's International Festival for Contemporary Theatre was held between 5 and 10 April at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina with a few plays staged at the Jesuit Culture Centre. The festival brought to the coastal city plays from eight countries as well as shows from Egypt.
The diverse programme of theatre, dance and puppetry included shows from Cameroon, Poland, Sweden, India, Columbia, Moldova, Germany, Tunis and Algeria.
Some of the festival's highlights included the Egyptian play Shakespeare's Women, performed 8 April at the Bibliotheca's Great Hall, the Indian play O! Frida, performed Thursday, 7 April at the Jesuit Culture Centre, and the German dance performance Hither and Thither, which was performed in the Bibliotheca's Great Hall on Saturday, 9 April.
The Arabic spoken play was one of three to have won a production grant from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina last year.
A comedy directed by Mohamed El-Tayee and written by Sameh Othman, Shakespeare’s Women offers audiences an alternative reading of Shakespeare’s plays, through the perspective of his heroines.
Opening with the iconic playwright William Shakespeare on a chair chasing inspiration, his muse and lover Elena leads him into the hands of women from his most famous works: Verona from Hamlet, Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra from Julius Caesar, and Desdemona from Othello.
The set is simple with only moveable wooden chairs and six vertical banners on both sides of the stage, each depicting a representation for the hometown of the six heroines.
The six heroines hold Shakespeare responsible for their sufferings and accuse him of being a heartless sexist who “knows nothing about love or women.”
In Elena’s words, “he is on trial,” as the women attack his judgment and motives, and he tries to defend himself and explain his literary choices.
The actors perform scenes from each of the six plays as evidence of Shakespeare’s alleged sexism and disregard for women’s rights and emotions, letting them suffer and then killing them off.
All the women are donned in white dresses, each adorned with customised details that identify her. Most evident are Cleopatra, whose dress bears distinct ancient Egyptian prints, and Titania, whose short frilly dress and magic wand identify her as the fairy she is.
The costumes served to both unite them yet maintain the individuality of each character.
Titania, the queen of the fairies, exudes the air of a strong and sassy woman not to be messed with. She is also the comic relief of the play. Many of her lines evoke laughter from the audience.
Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth are both depicted as strong women, but in different ways, the former with an authoritative confidence, and the latter with a manipulative thirst for power.
Juliet, on the other hand, in contrast is depicted as a naïve and delicate woman.
The play also involved dance performances, which revealed the women’s emotions through movement in parallel to the scenario.
The contemporary dances, choreographed by El-Monadel Antar, assert the women’s power over Shakespeare. With most of the dance synchronised, they act as one unit throwing him around, strangling him, and cornering him, and then take turns to individually have their way with him.
As the play progressed, the choreography seemed a little redundant. All the dances expressed the same emotions of anger and dominance with the same degree of intensity, leaving them lacking in a sense of development or escalation.
The stage was also animated, literally with digital animation clips that were projected onto the set playing at certain parts of the performance, meaning to act as visual aids and layers to the story.
Some of the animations were fitting, such as paper flying around when Shakespeare is writing. Others were less so, such as the clip of a woman resembling Japanese anime characters, which seemed out of touch with the visual language of the play’s production.
For Shakespeare fans and those who aren’t familiar with his works alike, the play is an enjoyable, insightful piece if some technical deficiencies are pardoned.
It brings up important, analytical readings of Shakespeare’s plays and the role of women in his works at large, yet leaves the conclusion open ended, with no real verdict to the trial.
The plot and script are the strongest aspects of this play, for extending an invitation to contemplate these classic works with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
Shakespeare's Women (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
A solo act play from India, O! Frida was written by Abhishek Deshmukh and performed by Krutika Deo.
The play imagines the journey of artist Frida Kahlo, born Magdalena Carmen Frieda, the revolutionary Mexican artist, whose life and art stand out and continue to inspire today.
Breaking the fourth wall at the beginning of the play, Frida explains to us that part of her still has something to express, although “it has been years since I have left this vault. And by vault I mean body.”
O! Frida takes us through episodes from the artist’s childhood, her passion for painting, her love and marriage to Digeo Rivera, her political interest, and her physical struggles with illness and an accident.
The episodes are divided by lighting black-outs, after which Deo appears in a different part of the stage that represents a different place in Frida’s life. A bed on the left forms a bedroom, a painting studio in the centre has an easel, and a street on the right hosts a large communist statue in the background.
The solo actress revisits these places according to the scene, and the overall effect is dream-like, filled with short, intense glimpses of Frida’s most significant moments.
Deo interprets Frida with a childlike passion and energy. She goes from being excited to depressed, from sensitive to demanding, as she bounces lithely through the scenes.
A braided up-do and a wardrobe of colourful costumes effectively support her portrayal, capturing the style that is distinctly Frida’s.
One of the challenges for an Egyptian audience was the language, seeing as the play is performed partly in Spanish, English and Marathi (an Indian dialect). Though Deo’s English-Indian accent was charming and even made it close to a Mexican accent that Frida herself could have spoken, it was sometimes difficult to hear and understand.
Nevertheless, the story was communicated, even as she spoke Spanish, through Deo’s body language and English words hinting in-between at the meaning.
In an especially magical part of the play Frida is painting the air, waving an arm and calling out colours whose names change the ambient light around her.
O! Frida (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
Hither and Thither
Hither and Thither is a contemporary dance piece by German choreographer Julia Koch, with the performance by six Berlin-based dancers.
The piece is comprised of a prelude followed by two acts echoing the structure of romantic ballets, which dedicate the first act to life and the second to fantasy, or the "other side."
After the prelude offers a preview of the acts to come, the first act sees the dancers recount their stories, with each character functioning as part of the group but also holding their own, to express individuality. The second act is more mysterious, with the group functioning as a unit and their individuality dissolving.
Though the skeleton of the dance piece is classical, Hither and Thither reinterprets these elements in a contemporary discourse.
During the first act there also are some movements on tip-toe borrowed from ballet, but as the dance progresses these moves are less and less frequent, giving way to more contemporary dance movements.
We see modernity also in the costumes of the dancers. All clad in black, the three women are dressed in leather capris and sleeveless tops, while the men are dressed in knee-length skirts and sleeveless tops also, resulting in an urban look.
In the first act the individuality of the characters is echoed in customised differences in their outfits, something that is abolished in the second act when they are all dressed similarly in black capris and tops smeared with the same black paint on their arms and faces, resulting in a muddy, organic appearance.
The choice of clothing in the first act is perhaps a suggestion of gender fluidity, although the dance itself upholds classical ballet gender roles (i.e., the male lifting the female).
According to Koch’s website, the piece expresses “timeless themes such as human relationships, power, love, guilt and formative events that affect our life path.”
Fluid and emotionally charged, but not without structure, the piece flows sometimes like a conversation between two partners or more, and other times as a monologue through a solo performance.
There are segments in unison, all six dancers perfectly synced. At other times one splits from the group for an individual dance, and is then judged by the group.
The stories express a spectrum of emotions, including desperation, liberation, frustration and celebration.
Music composed by Hoerdur Mar Bjarnason, often accompanied by a poetic voiceover, was as dynamic and strong as the characters in the piece. His nu-electronic music fused with Arabic influences, Eastern European, as well as tribal beats are what established the ethereal atmosphere.
The music and dance together resulted is a powerful, evocative, mesmerising experience.
Hither and Thither (Photo: Courtesy of BA Arts Centre media office)
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