Awakening exhausted in the morning, Ahmed El Bohy wasn’t sure where he was. He had forgotten not only the hotel’s name but the country he was in. Panic gripped him. Had he suddenly lost his memory or fallen victim to Alzheimer’s?
Thankfully, he only needed to calm down a little to remember that he was in Paris, on a business mission for his technology company. For a while he had been flying up to three times a week all over the world, deprived not only of his small children and his home but even of his sense of self. It was then that he made the decision to return to his true passion, which had brought him so much happiness in his university years, abandoning his engineering career for theatre.
That was how El Bohy embarked on Charlie Chaplin, the musical which had a remarkable run in Riyadh before becoming the opening performance of the 30th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (1-8 September). The choice not only established the play’s success, it also emphasised its many experimental aspects, inspiring theatre makers to embrace innovation.
According to El Bohy, “Charlie Chaplin was preceded by months of preparation, research, gathering information, and an economic feasibility study, along with numerous auditions for dancers and rehearsals with the enthusiastic cast and crew, including actors, scriptwriters, musicians, set designers, choreographers, and costume designers. It was our production company that showed extraordinary courage in supporting this kind of music theatre with a generous and spectacular production that ensured visual wonder and enjoyment.”
Asked about the lack of laughter in a play named after an actor who, when introduced at the Oscars, was called the man who made more people laugh than anyone else in the world, El Bohy said he never promised anyone laughter, pointing out that his aim was to tell the sad tale of Chaplin’s life.
One salient quote about Chaplin (from the American press) is this: “Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it. All you need is courage, imagination, and a little bit of money.” Whether the young Egyptian actor Mohammed Fahim was aware of that quote when he embarked on the play or not, it had been ten years since he started imagining himself as the lead in a work that tells Charlie Chaplin’s story.
In the meantime, with a picture of Chaplin on his bedroom wall, Fahim prepared himself for the feat. He played the Islamst ideologue Sayed Qotb in Al Jama’a (The Group), a hit television series. He appeared on the stage of El Sawy Culturewheel to perform the “monologues” – humorous, though often sad songs – of the great comedian-singer Ismail Yassine. He even tried his hand at youth-oriented music videos on YouTube. His foray into cinema, Socrates and Nabila, was less successful, but he recorded songs inspired by Joker (2019) and sent them to Joaquin Phoenix by way of a tribute. Charlie Chaplin thus serves as the first major climax in Fahim’s career, his dream come true.
Likewise Emad Ismail surprises with his wit, charm and sheer presence in the role of Sidney, Charlie’s half-brother and his clever manager who handles all the details of his projects, negotiations with producers, tours, promotions, and artistic contracts. Many audience members commended Ismail’s performance by telling him he reminded them of the great 1940s film star Anwar Wagdy.
Playwright and poet Medhat Al-Adl excelled in formulating his ideas and presenting the characters eloquently with impactful lyrics, especially when it comes to the mother’s character, filled with angelic qualities. His image of the press through the character of a megalomaniac journalist who, colluding with an FBI agent who threatens her with a file filled with misdemeanours and misconduct, does what she is told – and attempts to blackmail Chaplin.
The journalist in the play, Heda Hopper, is Al-Adl’s creation, inspired by FBI and US Department of Justice records, and she is an affront to the profession. Al-Adl takes issue with the press for hunting down celebrities, exposing Chaplin’s private life and his affairs with younger actors. The commendable aspect of the journalist’s role is the skillful performance of Dalia El Gendy, which infuses the overriding evil with a sense of joy.
As for the role of the FBI agent, Edgar Hoover, portrayed by Ayman El Shawy, it was brilliant and engaging and accurately reflected the psyche and thinking of those who dislike the arts or oppose free thought and expression: an ideological enmity that has its own logic while simultaneously being a deeply ingrained, chronic hostility, and it’s clear in Al-Adl’s words:
“I understand everyone correctly, I have no other choice, I’m like the transparent pot, any big shot in your country is helpless before me. He turns into a coward. I’m the god on earth. Anyone who thinks of opposing me – their fate is hell, like an infidel or sinner.”
Visually, the show is so compelling that every scene is a photographic work of art: the colour, the costumes, the light, the composition, and the movement. El Bohy is after all a visual artist also, and the approach of costume designer Reem Al Adl – dreamlike, carnivalesque, by turns delicate and striking – makes for just the right kind of circus.
Ihab Abdel Wahid’s music is simple and powerful but it is a deeply Egyptian sound, unrelated to the scores of actual Charlie Chaplin films – the famous Smile, for example, sung by Michael Jackson among others – which ends up being somewhat jarring despite its beauty. Amr Patrick’s sets, by contrast, resonate deeply with the visual language of the films.
“A day without laughter is a day wasted,” Chaplin reportedly said. There is no laughter here, but there is more than enough delight to justify the LE300 ticket price. After its Egypt premiere at the festival, the play is expected to tour Dubai, Kuwait, and Lebanon; it has even been suggested that it should tour the English-speaking world for the benefit of Arab audiences there or, in an English version, for Chaplin lovers who might be interested in the Egyptian take on this towering figure’s life. Kudos is especially due to the production company, C Cinema, led by Hany Naguib and Ahmed Fahmi, which showed the kind of courage and dedication without which art cannot develop.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly