Politics a key theme at Sharm El-Sheikh's youth theatre festival

May Selim, Friday 22 Jan 2016

The newly established International Festival for Youth Theatre run in Sharm El-Sheikh between 7 and 15 January brought 20 theatre troupes from around the world

Play from Egypt (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Located in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm El-Sheikh is almost empty at present. In the evening, despite the dazzling lights and decorations marking the end of the New Year celebrations, the atmosphere is dull. Faced by the lack of tourists, is the once-popular touristic resort losing its charm?

The main reason behind the launch of the International Festival for Youth Theatre -- which runs between 7 and 15 January -- was to revive the resort, but time will show whether it did indeed manage to restore the city's radiance in a few days.

"The idea of ​​the festival has been on my mind for three years now. I wanted it to be a youth event, welcoming talented students from the art academies as well as professionals. When choosing I pay attention to presenting works of value, and also I put in mind the need to attract a wide audience and achieve some palpable gain. At this stage, the festival allowed us to make things happen, to animate the ghost town, to infuse some life to the places. On the other hand, theatre has never played any role in this touristic city," said Mazen El-Gharabawy, president of the festival.

Each day during the festival week the spaces around Naama Bay resort -- Sharm El-Sheih's main tourist hub -- saw an increased artistic commotion, particularly after 6pm. Small buses transported the festival audience to the luxury area, where a total of over 20 plays were staged. 

Play from Syria (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

The original plan was to spread the performances across the city; however, on 8 January three men attacked and injured tourists at a hotel in Hurghada, another touristic spot, leading to a decision to hold all the shows within one area.

"The jury and spectators could attend three or four shows a day, each on one of the three stages erected around the same area. This was very convenient from the security point of view," El-Gharabawy explains, adding that only the opening and closing ceremonies spread from the Merkato Hotel area towards the Roman Theatre.

"The festival was to be held in April, but following the crash of the Russian plane [in October] and the tourist vacuum, the minister of culture decided to hold the event earlier. Timing was definitely very tight, which created some organisational challenges. However, we will make sure to avoid all such flaws in the festival's upcoming editions. It will get better, step by step," El-Gharabawy explained.

Despite the cold weather, the festival guests and inhabitants of Sharm El-Sheikh showed interest in the events. 

"Is the Syrian show tonight?" wondered one Egyptian who had just arrived at the hotel and noticed the festival posters in the streets and at the reception.

Play from Tunisia (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Reflections of war and violence

The tension was felt on the streets, as well as on the stage where several shows echoed the region's political turmoil. 

Some performances denounced war and violence in all its forms, as was the case with the Serbian play Karakondûule 99, staged by Marina Dimitrijevic and Aleksandra Manasijevic.

In the play, the actors appeal for peace. It is a classical story of an evil that kills the people, with evil symbolising men of power who do not hesitate to wage wars for their own interests.

On another stage, the troupe from the Academy of Moscow was preparing the play The Diary of a Madman, based on a farcical short story by Nikolai Gogol. 

The text presents a man who is slave to routine; he goes mad when disarray takes over his life. The Russian performance was very well-received by the audience, who expressed their solidarity with the victims of the Russian airliner that crashed in Sinai in 2015.

Play from Serbia (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

The sensation of confusion was felt in the Syrian play Hysteria, written and directed by Gehad Saad, with actors taken from the students of the Higher Institute of Theatre in Damascus. On stage, the protagonists try to flee the shelling and violence that prevails throughout their country. 

The play touches on topics such as love lost in the war, which one of the characters finds completely absurd. With a hint of humour, the play aimed to portray an image of the atrocious reality of Syria today.

The same tone was found in the Iranian performance Admasez, which denounced war since the dawn of time. The play pointed the finger at television which, in the countries trapped in conflicts, only adds fuel to the fire.

The Jordanian play Adam's Silk was set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and focused on problems of sexual harassment as a tool of repression against women.

Play from Libya (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

The Scaffold was a performance from Libya in which a group of workers representing different segments of society discussed the lack of freedom in the Arab world. The scaffold on stage became the workers-protagonists' virtual prison, a place where they are all sentenced to death.

For their turn, a Tunisian troupe, the Medina Theatre Association from Jemna, found inspiration in the vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and composer Sheikh Imam, the famed duo closely linked to protest songs and the student movement in Egypt in the 1970s.

In their play titled Light Deprived Cells, written by Ben Omar, the characters wore black masks while discussing or mocking the current events, triggering the audience's laughter. 

"We wanted to pay homage to these two leftist militants who inspired the Arab world and continue to do so," said director Hafez Khalifa.

The performance borrowed a lot from comedia dell'arte, bringing a seemingly light comic element to the play, which created close links between the duo and the current political events in the Arab world. 

Play from Russia (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

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