Prior to the 25 January Revolution, Egyptian theatre productions were totally isolated and distanced from the social and political situation in the country. Theatre did not hear the social voices calling for democracy. On the contrary, all social needs were silenced as a result of direct censorship placed on the theatre by the Ministry of Culture.
Limitations and rigid censorship was among the many reasons that stopped the theatre from giving rein to free expression. Many people considered the theatre as an important professional means of art, but could not transfer their theatrical visions of today and tomorrow and were unable to implement a large number of theatrical practices.
Censorship is one of the main reasons behind the limitations of contemporary theatre in Egypt. On the one hand, governmental censorship and on the other hand, religious censorship (such as that imposed by Al Azhar) put a red line through many essential themes which needed to be tackled in all artistic expressions, including theatre. These limitations were obstructing topics extremely close to social needs, such as religion itself.
There was an obvious “secret deal” between the government and religious influences, which was controlling the realisation of many artistic and cultural productions. During the last decades, theatre was presenting works in a very conservative manner, while many productions had mainly entertaining angles and carried poor esthetical and artistic values, whilst the contents of those presentations were negated.
And even if, in some cases, directors tried to tackle “sensitive topics” or were reaching for important literary texts which related to social needs, due to a series of strict limitations and several other factors, their execution of the themes usually turned into theatrical fiascos.
The last time sensitive censorship issues were tackled openly and with full artistic realisation was in the 1960s, in works by renowned Egyptian playwrights. Selected theatre plays from this era tried to break or go face-to-face with social needs, such as Alfred Farag’s The Barber of Baghdad, Salah Abdel-Sabour’s Layla wal-Majnoun (Layla and the Madman) and Al -Amira tantazer (The Princess is waiting), Abdel Rahman el Sharkawi’s Al Hussein Tha’eran (Hussein [the Prophet’s grandson] rebellion) and Al Hussein Shaheedan (Hussein the martyr), among several other plays.
These and many other texts coming from this era, as well as some written later, called openly for real democracy and freedom. However this does not mean that in the last decades they could reach their on-stage realisation, due to harsh censorship. And even though in recent years, the Hanaguer Theatre, with Hoda Wasfi as its director, gave stage to a number of young directors and texts expressing some of the social needs, their voices were still limited and could not emerge with sufficient efficacy.
This situation became stagnant for the past 30 years and even longer. Over 30 years of Egyptian theatre history is lost but this is the time for a new beginning, which will respond to, as well as make an impact on, a new reality.
Today, Egyptian theatre needs crucial changes and it needs to parallel two of the main claims of the 25 January Revolution: democracy and freedom. With the theatre’s years of status quo, there are an enormous number of accumulated obstacles, which can be overcome only with some drastic but necessary procedures.
There is no need to repeat that today’s theatre needs freedom of expression. All sorts of censorship placed on the theatrical arts and other art forms alike must be removed. There should be freedom of choice of texts as well as freedom of their interpretation based on the artistic vision of a theatre creator. However it is also the responsibility of theatre creators to make convincing choices.
Years of stagnation has resulted in a need for equally radical changes in theatre as an institution and the mentalities of people working in it. The management of many theatres in Cairo and other Egyptian cities is in dire need of new minds and approaches to the theatrical arts. On the other hand, audiences need to open up to new forms and ideologies in these arts.
Over the past two decades, Cairo has held an annual festival: Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater (CIFET). Established by the former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, the festival claimed to be one of the most successful initiatives of the former ministry. The festival invited a lot of international companies and offered a large number of theatrical and visual propositions. But most of those experiments do not relate to Egyptian creators, especially the young ones. The festival served as a recipe for theatre, offering possibly new propositions, but still many of them do not represent the newest forms present in the world of theatre, and their standards can be questioned.
At the same time those theatrical productions presented at the CIFET do not go in parallel with Egyptian theatre, which does not offer a solid and clear repertoire. As such, ten days of the festival is just an injection to deal with the effects of the theatre problems, but it does not cure the state of the theatre in Egypt as a whole. There is no dialogue. A festival for the sake of a festival has no reason except as propaganda for the ministry.
A change in attitude is a crucial aspect of today’s theatre revolution. The theatre scene in Egypt needs new people and new ways of thinking. Looking for new theatre directors and new creators doesn’t necessary mean reaching to young people only. Art does not have age limits. The theatre needs new outlooks, and people open to new trends and forms, it needs a vibrant pulse, while in parallel it has to honestly respond to audience’s needs.
There are a great number of theatres in Cairo (and other cities) and it is important for each theatre and each troupe to define their character and specialisation. Each company must have its own identity. Their roles should be clearly defined. As such the “National Theatre” troupe (Masrah el Qawmi) can reach into valuable Egyptian theatre literature, it can invite young talented playwrights to have their works performed – something that the theatre was not practicing sufficiently. Likewise, “Avant-Garde Theatre” (Masrah Al Taliya) should reach for texts appropriate to its initial mission. “Modern Theatre” in Kasr El Aini Street (Masrah Al Hadith, known as Masrah Al Salam) has the role of presenting modern theatre, but instead over the past years, it has staged mostly classics.
Not only theatrical identities are lost but also theatre choice parameters have favoured comedy works. With commercial theatre having a sweeping popularity among an immense chunk of Egyptian audiences, serious theatre was in a way trying to imitate standards imposed by the commercial productions. Theatre plays filled with bad jokes and nonsensical farce turned out to be a pitiful imitation of this bad commercialism.
The problem will not be solved easily. Theatres have their own actors, their own troupes. Of course their wages are very small; therefore actors look for work in television or cinema and through them get chances on commercial theatre stages. This concept damages the idea of a theatre company and the unity of people employed by a specific theatre.
At the same time, theatre is not about television and cinema stars. This is not the function of any theatre. Stars performing on stage get huge wages, often their salary takes up to half of the theatrical production budget. A substantial part of the budget is also spent on rich décor, often in poor esthetical taste, with no function in the play, but serving only to impress the audience.
With such an accumulation of problems, the theatre definitely needs its own revolution. The theatre in Egypt needs to find its identity and start considering this profession seriously. This should include the education of theatre directors, young and old. The High Institute of the Theatrical Arts in Cairo is not succeeding in this role and this is one of the major catastrophes in the field. There are many interesting professors teaching in the institute but many of them adapt methodologies which they acquired 40 years ago. Not only theatrical art needs new interpretation, but also new methodologies, known to the whole world, need to enter this institution. Professors need to be up-to-date and willing to implement them. In parallel, there needs to be a vivid exchange with the international theatre scene and Egyptian young theatre producers must have more opportunities to gain experience and knowledge outside Egypt, as used to be practiced in the 1960s.
Hanaa Abdel Fattah is a theatre director and a Professor of Theatrical Arts at the High Institute of Theatrical Arts (in Cairo) where he was also the Head of the Acting and Directing department in the early 2000s.
As a translator, Abdel Fattah has translated tens of dramaturgical and works on the theory of theatre from Polish to Arabic. He is a theatre critic and has published hundreds of articles on the theatrical arts in renowned art and theatre publications in Egypt and the Arab world