Snakes and Ladders: Daunting Egyptian bureaucracy unveiled on a theatre stage
May Sélim, Monday 23 May 2016
During its recent staging, director Khaled Galal looks into the Egyptian bureaucracy with the play El-Selim Wa El-Thaaban (Snakes and Ladders), performed by the students of the Future University in Egypt (FUE)

On 19 May, the play El-Selim Wa El-Thaaban (Snakes and Ladders) directed by Khaled Galal was performed by the students of the Future University in Egypt (FUE) at the main hall of the Cairo Opera House (National Cultural Centre.)

The performance was a culmination of a four-day Annual Cultural Festival organised by the FUE and launched on 15 May, on the occasion of celebrating the institution's 10-year anniversary. The events showcased a number of musical and performing arts activities prepared as cooperation between the students and the professional artists.

El-Selim Wa El-Thaaban (Snake and Ladders) is Moustafa Selim’s adaptation of the 1976 play The Suede Jacket by a Bulgarian playwright Stanislav Stratiev. Resorting to humour and satire, the play brings to light the problems of Egyptian society embodied in its daunting bureaucracy.


The story focuses on Ivan Antonov, a young intellectual and linguistics professor who buys a suede jacket. He discovers, however, that the jacket still has some sheep hair on it and decides to trim it. Wanting to avoid a public humiliation, Antonov decides to give the jacked a haircut.

The operation can be done by none other than the sheep shearer, yet according to the local law, once it is done, the jacket becomes an actual sheep according to the village records.

Moreover, according to the same law and following the absurd logic, now Antonov has to pay tax for owning a sheep.

Baffled by the absurdity of the situation, the protagonist finds himself in a vicious circle of the infernal bureaucratic system. Nothing that he says or does convinces the authorities that the jacket is not a sheep.


Though the play addresses the context of Europe in the 1970s, it equally rings a bell to Egyptian realities.

Moustafa Selim’s adaptation adopts a colloquial language, and infuses the play with satirical contexts close to Egyptian culture, allowing the young actors to personalise the intransigent and stubborn officials in an ironic and sarcastic way.

"I love this play and it’s been a long time that I have wanted to present it to Egyptian theatre,” director Khaled Galal revealed to Ahram Online.

"It was about time to talk about this phenomenon that daunts us all- the bureaucracy," he adds. And to address this issue, Galal creates an artistically dazzling performance.


Going deeper into Egyptian realities, the music of the play included Ahmed Yehia Tarek and Sherif Abdel Moneim’s arrangements of well known songs from the country’s traditional and cinematic repertoires.

The play transported us into the nostalgic mood with Doko El Shamasi, a song that Abdel Halim Hafez sings on the beaches in the film Abi Fouq El Shagara (My Father is Up On The Tree), 'Halakatak bergalatek', a traditional tune sung during the one week celebrations for the new born baby, also included in the 1974 film El-Hafid (The Grandson).

Adding their original touch to the arrangements, where the verses carry Moustapha Selim’s original lyrics which highlight the comic situations, they are also interspersed with the original lyrics from the songs' refrain.

The elaborate choreography by Magdi Saber sows a vivid air into the room creating a back and forth between the long scenes depicting bureaucracy and energetic dance.

In her well focused visual message, the costume designer Marwa Auda chose sober colours for the officials’ uniforms, contrasting them with clothing worn by Ivan and his companions.


In turn, the scenographer Hazem Shebl used 3D printed canvas to turn the upstage to a thoroughly stuffed tax administration offices and records.

The original and appealing ambiance was emphasised by the elements from the gigantic gears and seals alluding to the mechanism of a bureaucratic system.

This symbolism reminiscent of Kafkaesque endless frustrations is not static though. The gears rotate, revealing many different sides of the system.

The absurdity reigns, and to escape it, Ivan has to give in. Yet unlike the original play by Stratiev, where Antonov embraces the sheep concept and takes it to graze on the lawn, Selim's Ivan follows advice from one bureaucrat and he pretends that his jacket is a sheep, and to be exempt from taxes, he donates it during the celebrations held for the retirement of a tax administration official.

"The problem of sheep has been solved but the story has not ended," the fast paced final song lyrics intertwine black humour and all the truths of the play.

The play will be re-performed during the National Theatre Festival scheduled to take place in July. Definitely worth attending.






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