INTERVIEW: Egyptian director Tarek El-Dewiri talks about zombies, physical theatre and politics

Amina Abdel-Halim, Saturday 30 Jul 2016

Tarek El-Dewiri's Zombie And The Ten Sins, which was performed in Cairo last week, is one of many works where the director embeds politics in physical theatre

Zombie and the Ten Sins
(Photo: still from Zombie and the Ten Sins' trailer posted on YouTube)

Following studiying theatre at Helwan University, Tarek El-Dewiri has been continuously involved in Egypt's theatre scene, working first as an actor, and then director, with troupes performing at the Hanager Arts Centre on a stage that in the 1990s was among the first spaces to embrace many young independent theatre makers.

It is in Hanager that El-Dewiry made his directorial debut with Zaman Al-Taoon (Time Of The Plague), an adaptation of Brecht's The Life of Galileo. The play brought him the National Encouragement Award in 2003. El-Deweiry then continued his creative journey, directing an array of important plays, including Al-Muhakma (The Trial), a play that earned five prizes at the 2014 National Theatre Festival.

Most recently, El-Dewiri directed Al-Zombie Wa Al-Khataya Al-Ashra (Zombie and The Ten Sins), which is one of the plays participating in the ongoing 9th National Theatre Festival.

Ahram Online talked to El-Deweiry about his latest play and discussed his artistic journey and creative choices.

Ahram Online (AO): In Zombie and The Ten Sins, you choose physical theatre rather than something classical that relies mainly on dialogue. Why so?

Tarek El-Deweiry (TD): Our first trial was originally based on 1984 by George Orwell, and other works, but 1984 was the basis of our work. It was hard for us to use dialogue; we wanted to experiment outside of dialogue. Getting the story across doesn't have to be done orally, it can be done through an image with all of its details, through cinematography, movement, dancing. That can have an even greater impact than a simple conversation.

AO: Besides 1984, the play is also based on the novels Farenheit 451 and Brave New World. What different elements of these works did you incorporate into your production?

TD: In 1984, the people in control were coercive and used violence, in Farenheit 451 they burned books, thus suppressing people's ideas and replacing them with glamour, publicity, television and what not, and in Brave New World they created a model of happiness for people to aspire to: material happiness from the consumption of their products. It's like capitalism in a way, which gives us a model for happiness, a model for beauty, etc. There are three tools of control often used in the world: fear, consumption in materialistic societies, and religion in societies like ours.

AO: What do the giant white figures seen on stage represent?

TD: They are people controlling the world, like unlimited businesses and capitalists who control the world's wealth because they determine economic policies and what societies should aspire to, how people should be born, the way they should look, and what color they should be. They determine what is right and what is wrong. And around the world you'll find different ideals. In the West, the ideal is material happiness. Here, there's the use of violence and religion, as well as consumerism. So we have a mix of all those tools of control.

AO: What message stands behind Zombie and the Ten Sins (Al-Zombie Wa Al-Khataya Al-Ashra)?

TD: It's not really a message. We need to find out where we are and where we're going as a society. This is the general meaning of the play. There are several levels of understanding. One way of understanding it that is specific to our society is what happened with the revolution, its violent consequences, and the imagery plays a big part in that. There's a connection between what happened during the revolution and what is happening in the rest of the world. We're definitely in the age of the zombie. The age of many sins, not just 10.

AO: Politics is among the dominant themes returning in the plays you direct or those you play in. Besides Zombie and the Ten Sins, we can give examples of Al-Muhakma (The Trial), and Hafalat Al Tawakuf Aan Al Ghunaa (Stop Singing Parties) which is about the torture of political prisoners or Nora Amin's Ado Al Shaab (2013) in which you acted and which is also a very political play. Why those choices?

TD: Whether we like it or not, politics is part of our lives. We talk about water, air, food and drink with politics. Everything we do and talk about is, whether we like it or not, affected by the material, economic reality that surrounds us.

AO: Your previous play, Al-Muhakma was supposed to premiere during the year when the Muslim Brotherhood was still in power, and it was very relevant to those times. What was the reason behind mounting this play and during this time?

TD: Al-Muhakma is an adaptation of Inherit The Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. The country went through a revolution, then came the military council, then the Islamist movement took over. I thought that we needed to look into the freedom of expression.

AO: But then the play was delayed for about a year ...

TD: True, but this was due to many administrative reshufflings that paralleled the political changes. The Ministry of Culture went through a lot of changes as well; each few months we had a new theatre committee and new directors.

Nasser Abdel Moneim was the first to give blessing to my project but he left the committee chair before its implementation. People were coming and going. Without quoting names and recalling a different situation, what is important now is that it finally saw daylight and earned several awards at the 2014 National Theatre Festival.

AO: But with Al-Muhakma you also faced some criticism with people objecting to the ideas presented in it, correct? This also brings us to the question of censorship, and whether you’ve experienced it before.

TD: Many people wanted to make clear divisions based on a concept that if you were against the military, you were with Morsi, and if you were against Morsi, you were with the military. And the truth is, the revolution, which I supported, never chose Morsi nor Shafiq; it neither asked for the army nor the Muslim Brotherhood.

As for censorship, I think government censorship at the time of Morsi wasn't too preoccupied with culture. Morsi focused on other fields, such as mass media, the police, the military. Censorship was indirectly involved in 2006, at the time of the regime crackdown, when, for example, my play Hafalat Al-Tawakuf Aan Al-Ghunaa was coming out, at times when the director of Al-Hanager Arts Centre was Hoda Wasfi.

State Security told her the play was making fun of them and the system. So she told them the play could very well be interpreted as something about Guantanamo. In the end, it was not included in the National Theatre Festival.

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