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From words to dance and vice versa: Hamlet through contemporary Egyptian eyes

Directed and choreographed by Monadel Antar, the contemporary dance performance Hamlet revisits the iconic Shakespearean play through body movement

Mary Aravanis, Monday 25 Jan 2016
Rehearsal of Hamlet, director Monadel Antar (Photo: courtesy of Monadel Antar)

Cast members going over lines in one corner, others going over blocking in another, while the costume designer calls the actors in one by one for their fittings. The air is electric and energy is booming across the room as we all wait in anticipation for the general rehearsal to begin. 

“All my life I’ve had this obsession to do theatre… I think a movement director thinks of the theatre from a different perspective – and that’s what’s happening with this Hamlet,” director and choreographer Monadel Antar tells Ahram Online.

Antar is close to placing the final touches on his latest project, an interesting take on a theatrical performance of William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy Hamlet, in which he integrates movement and dance with the text. The performance will be staged on 28 and 29 January at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

After winning a theatre grant – specifically to do Shakespeare  from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Antar spent quite some time deciding on which of the Bard’s plays to produce.

“I’m quite a dark person... so the two works that I felt closest to were Macbeth and Hamlet,” he said.

Antar eventually found himself drawn more towards the tragedies of the prince of Denmark. "[Hamlet] has a lot of universal questions… I found, after I was done reading both Hamlet and Macbeth, that I related to Hamlet more," said Antar, "I like working on projects that have a personal meaning to me."

Mainly known for his movement-based performance pieces and choreography (Mawlana, The Blue Elephant), Antar chose to nose-dive into directing not only what would be one of his first full-fledged theatrical productions, but also one of the most famous and most performed pieces of theatre in the world.

It comes as no surprise, however, that he would choose to combine his main area of expertise (dance, movement) into his interpretation.

Rehearsal of Hamlet, director Monadel Antar (Photo: courtesy of Monadel Antar)

Travelling through time and culture

Hamlet has had a stage performance history of about 400 years, yet it was only around 1893 when it was first performed in Egypt. Even still, it undoubtedly left a mark as Hamlet is probably the most performed Shakespearean play in Egyptian theatre history.

Hamlet, however, not only left a mark in Egypt, but also the rest of the Arab world. So much so that American scholar Margaret Litvin wrote her doctoral dissertation about Hamlet's presence in Arab culture, entitled Hamlet's Arab Journey: Adventures in Political Culture and Drama.

The beginning of the 20th century already saw various translations of Shakespeare’s texts in the Arab world. With that grew a list of notable Egyptian actors throughout history who coveted, most especially, the complex and challenging role of Hamlet.

Youssef Wahbi performed Hamlet in the 1920’s, Mahmoud Yassin also gave a memorable performance in the 1970’s, while many actors to this day still talk about Mohamed Sobhy’s rendition of the tragic prince in the 1978 theatrical production of Hamlet.

This strong presence of Hamlet is omnipresent across time and culture. Throughout the history of theatre, and to this day, it is almost a fact that every director wants to direct Hamlet, and every actor wants to play Hamlet.

Having said that, it is no wonder that throughout centuries of analysis and dissections of the text and characters, theatre-makers always try to find new ways to present Hamlet to audiences – causing layer upon layer to be added to this already multi-layered tragedy.

Hamlet is who we see him to be

Plainly and essentially, Hamlet is whoever the director makes him out to be.

For Antar, something that clearly stood out to him – and what he is basing his entire production on – is that Hamlet has Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). Antar, more specifically, identifies two personalities to Hamlet.

“I dealt with Hamlet from the perspective of psychologists, and how they view him,” Antar explained, “I noticed how Hamlet plays on the role of insanity – he says things that have double meaning. So, when I analyzed him more, I realized – from my perspective, at least – that Hamlet could have a split personality. So that was my direction… I have two Hamlets.”

Having established that he would need two different actors to play the role of Hamlet, Antar decided on 30-year-old actor Taha Khalifa and 14-year-old Karim Raafat.

According to Khalifa, the age difference between the two Hamlets acts upon the idea that the older Hamlet is more mature, he is more philosophical, constantly thinking and asking the bigger, universal questions… such as what the point would be if Hamlet actually killed Claudius.

The younger Hamlet, on the other hand, is more emotional and is driven by the need to avenge his father.

Although Antar’s interpretation is undoubtedly an interesting one, it is not the first time someone has reached the conclusion that Hamlet had MPD.

Just last year, director Ahmed El-Dessouki showcased his theatrical production of Hamlet at the Om Kolthoum Theatre at Al Mansoura’s Cultural Centre, in which his Hamlet was split into three different personalities, and therefore played by three different actors.

Rehearsal of Hamlet, director Monadel Antar (Photo: Aml Mostafa, courtesy of Monadel Antar)

Hamlet, Prince of Egypt

"I have an obsession with Muslim and African culture… so, I always think of global or international works from that perspective,” said Antar proudly as he explained how he usually approaches his work. “I think, ‘What if Hamlet was Egyptian?’… so the whole idea, to me, is how I could bring it closer and have it relate to [Egyptian] audiences," he continued.

After reading various Arabic translations and versions of Hamlet, one particularly stood out to Antar. "The piece that I liked the most was Afkar Magnoona men Daftar Yawmeyat Hamlet (Crazy Thoughts from Hamlet’s Diary) by Naguib Sorour – I read it more than five times," Antar said.

He therefore decided to include both parts of that text as well as the original in his production, in attempts to have this production relate to the audience to the best of his abilities.

Watching the rehearsal, it was also particularly interesting to note the sudden shifts between dialects. The actors would sometimes be in the middle of reciting a part of the text in Modern Standard Arabic, and then suddenly shift into a more colloquial form of Arabic, causing them to jump in and out of thought.

The rehearsal also revealed how particular areas of text or particular characters were somewhat altered and tailored to suit Egyptian audiences, such as the use of the famous Egyptian proverb ‘Man Tazawg Omi Yasbah A’mi’ (Whoever Marries my Mother, Becomes my Uncle).

Suiting the Words to the Action, and the Action to the Words “It would have been easier to make the whole thing purely theatrical without dance, but I don’t think about it that way… there’s a scene, for example, in which Hamlet and Ophelia are together and he holds her and they don’t say a word – that’s movement, there’s no need to say anything verbally… in such a case, the movement is more important,” explained Antar when asked on how he plans to combine the use of dance and movement with the text.

In fact, there are a number of noteworthy scenes, such as the play within the play and when Ophelia goes mad, that Antar chose to depict through dance. Antar feels as though such scenes or events that unfold on stage can be communicated a lot more effectively through body movement rather than spoken word.

Surely, the idea of knowing your body and knowing how to move on stage is vital for any actor. Certain gestures when performed on stage can speak multitudes about who a character is or a certain character’s intentions.

"From my perspective, the movement of the body could be a lot stronger than spoken word,” said Khalifa, "We're trying to introduce this new idea in (Egyptian) theatre – the idea of an actor as a dancer… and this is the norm, it’s not an extraordinary idea."

While it is certainly an asset to have actors who can dance and who are aware of their bodies taking part in theatrical productions on stage, it was quite clear while watching the general rehearsal, that some of the performers stood out as better actors than dancers, while others were better dancers than actors.

However, this comes as no surprise seeing as how Antar knowingly cast dancers who have never acted before (such as Ophelia) and actors who may have little experience dancing, in the production. Be it as it may, it is still interesting to watch the performers feed off each other’s knowledge or expertise.

In his ambitious production, Antar brings to the table some of the novel ideas, including some interesting techniques to be used in the set alongside his long-time collaborator and scenographer Amr al Ashraf who could possibly shed light on his interpretation.

Not to mention that the beautiful relationships and comradery, as well as mutual passion for the project, that is evident amongst the cast and crew, could be what lifts this production of its legs.

Monadel Antar’s Hamlet will be performed on 28 and 29 January at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Arts Center in Alexandria, at 7pm. 

Rehearsal of Hamlet, director Monadel Antar (Photo: courtesy of Monadel Antar)

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