This year, Egypt’s National Theatre Festival spanned over three weeks and over 40 plays, 36 of which participated in the official competition.
The dynamic versatility and free entry contributed to theatre halls filled with a large audience throughout the festival.
Not only did many plays showcase the potential of young artists, but the whole festival became an artistic manifestation of the weight of Egyptian theatre.
Nasser Abdel Moneim, head of the festival, commented to Ahram Online that "the festival gives us an opportunity to observe Egypt’s theatrical evolution. It is clear, however, that the level of the plays presented within the competition were not at the same level as last in the last year and we need to look deeper into the reasons behind the decline in the productions’ level."
As usual, the awards announced during the final ceremony sparked controversy. Obviously it is hard to please everyone and this is part of the game.
While some are happy with the jury’s choice, others found their decisions shocking and unfair.
El- Basaseen -- The Watchmen (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
However, the audience and the critics alike unanimously approve two choices of the jury: the best choreography awards given to Monadel Antar for El-Bassassin (The Watchmen) and Sherine Hegazy for Ya Sem.
Antar's choreography steps beyond movement. His work poses broad questions about the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, man and woman, good and evil, etc. With a high dosage of creative aesthetics, the dancers present on stage numerous emotions such as rivalry, violence, complicity, passion, seduction and rejection.
Antar builds his choreography one step at a time, in order to present the confusing relations which dominate the society overwhelmed and controlled customs and traditions. Where is freedom then, he seems to be asking in his performance.
As the play develops, the movements become more complex, more fluid and more diligent.
On the other hand, Ya Sem by Sherine Hegazy brings to our ears and eyes the cries of the female body, and their rejection of all kinds of aggression or harassment as well as limitations. The choreography translates those emotions through movement embedded in the oriental dance and rhythms produced on the tabla.
Each movement has its own meaning and the dancers depict the women’s rebellion against violence and the oppression they are subjected to in society.
Ya Sem (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
Rise of independent theatre troupes
It is clear that independent theatre has become an integral part of the Egyptian art scene.
During the festival, this kind of theatre has been well presented throughout the five plays.
While some of them struggled with their artistic delivery, two plays deserve the highlight: Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s An Angel Comes to Babylon, both prepared by the independent troupes formed by students at universities.
Directed by Youssef Mostafa, Endgame talks about the interdependent relation between the blind and unable-to-stand Hamm and his servant Clov, who is unable to sit.
The performance is a game well mastered by the actors. The scenography, accessories as well as lighting helped to create an interesting ambience despite the excess of many items on the stage that did not have any function in the play.
The philosophical comedy An Angel Comes to Babylon by Friedrich Durrenmatt and directed by Mahmoud Tantawi was yet another play that gave room to the well studied acting. The play was performed by an independent troupe from the faculty of Alsun joined by students from other faculties.
An Angel Comes to Babylon
The many surprises of university theatre
It is evident that the festival’s ninth edition was marked by a surprising rise of the university theatre. A number of performances unveiled the great potential and creativity of the young students, shedding light on an important artistic movement within Egyptian universities.
El-Qaa (At the Bottom), a play that won best light design award and El-Haadid (The Lower Depths), the winner of the best costumes award, are both plays staged by the students, the first from Ain Shams University and the latter from Cairo University.
Moreover, both troupes performed their adaptation of the same text, The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorki.
El-Qaa was based on the elaborated textual adaptation that showcases the great skills of two actors in the protagonists’ roles.
Even if in El-Haadid, the visible talent of the actors was soiled by some exaggerations, the scenography and lighting managed to create an interesting scenery that kept the audience engaged until the very end of the play.
El-Qaa (At the Bottom)
In its turn, Qawad Al-Asheq Al-Arabaoun (The Forty Rules of Love), based on Elif Shafak’s bestselling novel, a play for which the Mohamed Fouad won the Samir El-Adl award for the promising director, is among the university productions that sparked controversy.
In it, we find an exaggerated and sometimes even on the verge of being ridiculous ways of acting. Packing the play with all his knowledge, director Mohamed Fouad ended up staining it with an unnecessary creative excess.
The play takes us from one scene to another in a rapid manner, as we move swiftly across singing, music and choreography based on the poems, topped with the whirling dervishes. Throughout the play, the scenography creates a mystic and spiritual atmosphere.
The play provoked divisions between the audience, some satisfied and others disapointed with the theatrical adaptation of Shafak’s bestseller.
Yet the conflicting opinions aside, the play would have been strengthened significantly had the main Sufi protagonists, Shams Tabrizi and Rumi, been presented with a bigger artistic proficiency.
Students from the University of Tanta and University of Port Said attracted the audience’s attenton with their performances of El-Qoroush El-Salassa (The Threepenny Opera), and Onshoudat Ghoul Lusitania (Song of the Lusitanian Bogeyman), respectively.
Song of the Lusitanian Bogeyman
The Threepenny Opera brought El-Said Mansi the Kamal Yassine award for best director.
The play respects the musical component of Brecht original work. The actors sing, play their roles and make the audience laugh. The game is simple and humour is present. Isn’t it a good recipe to please the audience as well as the jury?
New musical theatre seems to have been attracting the attention during the festival, not only this year. Last year, Tamer Karam’s adaptation of Antigone, set the tragedy in a musical format, garnering award for the best play in the 8th National Theatre Festival.
Indeed, musical is not genre frequently staged in the Egyptian theatre since it requires special equipment and certainly entails a big budget. As such, shouldn’t we celebrate the revival of the shorter forms of the musical?
Song of the Lusitanian Bogeyman is yet another musical play which incorporates singing, a choir, and African rhythms. The performance becomes a show soaked in rhythm and collective body language.
A bird's eye view of the festival reveals the dynamism of the independent and particularly university theatre. Many of those suprised the audience and critics with interesting formats and an ability to make theatre with limited tools and budgets.
Nasser Abdel Moneim notices the inspiring developments of the university theatre saying that "it is booming and more and more makes its way to the front lines of the theatrical independent movement. Last year, the students of Ain Shams who performed Al-Ghareb's play won the second award for the best performance at the festival. This year, student theatre presented a lot of creativity. There is hope."
The Threepenny Opera
The Forty Rules of Love
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