The Xchanges Festival (16 —18 May), held at Hamburg’s prestigious Kampnagel Theatre, is the culmination of four years of co-productions and collaborations between Germany and North Africa as well as Eastern Europe. The International Theatre Institute (represented by Andrea Zagorski, Sigrid Hilmer and Thomas Engel) created an impressive funding programme in cooperation with the Robert Bosch Foundation, in order to support German theatre’s changing landscape by creating inventive projects of transnational and transcultural theatre.
The programme was literally called “Change of Scene”. The surprise was that over 50 per cent of co-productions involved Egyptian artists. Shows like Icarus by Ahmed Ezzat Elalfy and Sabine Trõtschel (Theaterwerkstatt Hannover) are truly remarkable experiments that show great potential for the internationalisation of the Egyptian performing arts and for expansion and development opportunities for emerging Egyptian directors through collaborations and partnerships.
Icarus seems at first glance to revisit a text Trötschel had previously directed, written by Benedikt Neustein, Claus Overkamp and Christian Schidlowsky. But this perspective doesn’t do the new show justice. Performed by Mohamed El Hagrasy (in the role of the father) and Moustafa El Banna/Ahmed Ezzat Elalfy (in the role of the son or Icarus), the production can stand autonomously and without reference to previous productions.
Nonetheless, the general cultural, philosophical and symbolic references of the myth of Icarus cannot stop resonating whenever we watch a new production based on the myth. Those resonances are always a trace of the interweaving of performance histories, especially when artists are working with universal myths and legends that have been successfully appropriated and transformed from one performance culture to the next. Hamlet is one example of this process, Icarus another.
Categorised as a performance for children and youth, this Icarus seemed very simple and close to the heart. Icarus the son is always arguing with his father, an architect trying to convince him, sometimes terrorising him and chasing him to beat him up. Father and son reincarnate the universal dialectic between the older and the younger generation. The tactics of negotiation are almost beyond time and space.
The ongoing feeling of responsibility of the father is also intertwined with a strong sense of patriarchal power that can be felt by any spectator. This specific paradigm is the essence of the play: power and knowledge across generations. It could be applied to the relation of father and son, but it could also be applied to any relation that involves a hierarchy of power.
Father and son are trapped within a labyrinth. We do hear a long story about how the father himself had constructed this labyrinth, yet what has stayed with me of the story is how the father, who claims absolute knowledge, is also responsible for being trapped and lost. Icarus the son is trapped merely because of his father’s entrapment. It is as if we inherit entrapments and losses. Only this time, the father assumes full responsibility for saving his son and himself. Icarus the child misses his mother, who is separated from his father. He misses normal family life and the balance and warmth it provides.
The mother seems to be a possible alternative to the often cruel attitude of the macho father. He longs for her as if for another system of knowledge, or emotionality, or vision of the world beyond the labyrinth. One cannot ignore how the story indirectly tells us that the labyrinth was initially constructed out of male macho vengeance. It was fuelled by the drive to punish and eliminate. And now the person who constructed it is trapped inside it. Destiny plays its own pedagogical games in mythology.
The spectators are seated as if they are part of the labyrinth, in incomplete circles. This makes them either the insider witnesses of the labyrinth or its very substance. Both actors speak in Egyptian Arabic, while the two German actors — seated on the edge of the labyrinth — translate what they say into German. The German language is the original language of this production as it was previously directed by Trötschel, and the reversal of linguistic power this effects acts in favour of the live performance, the Arabic. It feels quite special to sit at a prominent German theatre like Kampnagel of Theaterwerkstatt, and witness the Arabic language sharing power with the local language, white language of the host country.
Something very unique happens at that moment even if we do not immediately grasp it. The colonised language comes to the fore, decolonises itself and liberates the stage from national supremacy. If there is one pressing question at this moment it is the question of identity. A question that will inevitably come up in the minds of the spectators while they redefine their spectatorship against the Arabic speaking performance. If there is one major achievement of the Change of Scene programme it is definitely this.
As the stage becomes a field of exchange, reversal of power hierarchies and liberation from national hegemony, we witness some special kind of transgression of borders within the performance, we participate in a performative act that cannot be disconnected from the political questions of today about homeland, racism, power and patriarchy. We are at the heart of a transnational/transcultural performance, the heart of the labyrinth.
Elhagrasy and Elalfy perform so well together that at some points we nearly believe they really are father and son. We can even believe that Elalfy, a fully grown adult man, is a child. The role of Icarus was played by Elalfy in Hamburg because the original actor was denied a visa to go enter Germany and so participate in the performance. The situation had already happened a few months ago before the production premiered in Hannover. Back then, Elalfy took over and played Icarus. In Hamburg he did the same. Yet Moustafa Farag El Banna played the role in Alexandria at Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
It seemed as if the initial Icarus was forbidden from flying, contrary to the story of the performance. Nevertheless Elalfy managed to integrate the real story of the absence of the actor within the performance. We saw his image projected on one of the walls via a Skype video call. The Icarus who was denied access to Germany managed to be virtually present and to connect his true story to the fictional story of the performance. Moustafa El Banna was on the wall of Kampnagel, witnessing his own absence from the performance, and reminding us that technology can provide a new imaginary wings with which to cross borders.
As the performance develops, we witness several interactions with the spectators. Elhagrasy and Elalfy move through the circles in which they are seated, they speak to them, and sometimes to the German actors who are gradually fused into the performance even as they remain seated on its borders, becoming an inherent echo of the Arabic speaking actors. The versatility of Elhagrasy manages to bring vitality to the performance, lifting up the most static moments. His physicality and powerful voice filled the huge space and provided a mythical dimension that is suitable to the story. While Elalfy held onto the child persona, he managed to trigger my own childhood dreams of flying.
The audience was a mixture of children and adults, and it felt like a community of togetherness where imagination is liberated and the dream of flying is resurrected. I was extremely enthusiastic when Icarus put on his wings. The father had finally succeeded in creating them and gluing them to his son’s body so that he could eventually fly out of the labyrinth.
Elhagrasy stood on a stool, held a rope, and kept spinning it horizontally in the air, like a magician. A moment of utter happiness. The father is letting the son go. He is finally recognising his son’s desire to leave, and even supporting his flight. It’s a feeling every child wishes for, that our parents should support our freedom and our personal choices, that they should recognise our autonomy. Icarus flew. The sound of the rope spinning was louder and louder. It sounded like a helicopter going higher and higher. The sound echoed in my heart. It echoed both fear and joy.
The fear is perhaps related to all the emotional and sensory memories of the sounds of helicopters flying low. And the joy is definitely connected to celebrating the possibility of a new beginning, of a disconnection with the memory of pain and trauma. Although one sits there in Hamburg, at Kampnagel, one still sees that kind of Icarus as an Egyptian. The performance’s sensory and emotional triggers are stronger than the spectators’ community of togetherness. But is healing possible?
Icarus flies and, as the myth says, he falls. He flies and falls. The wings melt when he goes close to the sun. Icarus disobeys his father’s instructions. He flies higher than he should. He goes into his ecstasy and forgets the rules. He identifies with the freedom and the air, and transgresses the authority of the father. He dies. As he dreams and surpasses the instructions given to him on land, he dies. The child in me cries, and revolts. The child weeps and screams in silence. Why does Icarus the child always die? Why do you always make him die? Can’t he rebel and live? Can’t he dream and forget everything and still fly? Why can’t he even symbolically win and not suffer death as a punishment? Why is the lesson always to stay low?
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Icarus, stay low
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