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Dilemmas of Egypt's National Theatre

After six years of restoration and controversy, the National Theatre is due to re-open to the public in November

Nevine El-Aref, Sunday 2 Nov 2014
National Theatre
National Theatre in Cairo (Photo: Ahram archives)

The scene in the Al-Azbakiya area in Al-Ataba Square in downtown Cairo is not as it has been during the last six years. The street vendors that had spread throughout the area and encroached on the buildings in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution have been removed, and the honey-coloured edifice of the National Theatre is no longer hidden beneath iron scaffolding. Today, the building has been proudly revealed in all its neo-Mameluke splendour after six years of restoration.

In September 2008, the theatre was gutted by fire, leaving the building devastated. The main hall was sodden with the water of fire extinguishers, the curtain of the main stage had been totally destroyed, and the red velvet of the seats had been charred, as had the building as a whole. The wooden backdrops had gone up in flames, and the dome of the main auditorium, or George Abyad Theatre, named after the celebrated Lebanese actor, had a large hole in it, made by firefighters as they struggled to contain the blaze.

No injuries had been sustained as no one was on the premises, and investigations at the time revealed that an electrical short circuit had triggered an explosion in the air-conditioning system. Restoration work started two weeks after the disaster in an attempt to return the theatre to its authentic look of 1885.

The National Theatre was the first theatre to be built within the Al-Azbakiya Gardens in Cairo. Its history dates back to the 15th century when the gardens served as the pleasure grounds of Mameluke Cairo, a leisure zone that contained lavish palaces around a central lake. When the French expedition led by Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 the gardens became the site of a theatre, built to entertain the French army troops.

When Mohamed Ali Pasha became Egypt’s khedive, or viceroy, subsequent to the defeat of the French expedition he filled in the lake. During the later reign of the Khedive Ismail a theatre once again appeared on the site, at first a small venue on the southern side of the gardens that was used to stage performances by the famous Comedie Française during the celebrations that marked the inauguration of the Suez Canal.

In 1885 the theatre, known as the Al-Azbakiya Theatre, hosted its first performances by an Egyptian theatre group. It went on to become the home of the Abu Khalil Al-Qabani, Iskandar Farah and Al-Sheikh Salama Hegazi theatre troupes, named after their famous impresario directors. By 1935 the National Egyptian Group had been formed under the leadership of poet Khalil Motran, but this was disbanded in 1942, a result of its anti-British performances.

Following the 1952 Revolution the Al-Azbakiya Theatre became the National Theatre. It boasted two resident companies, the Egyptian National Group and the Modern Egyptian Theatre Group. Actors such as Samiha Ayoub, Ezzat Al-Alayli, Nour Al-Sherif, Hamdi Ahmed, the late Sanaa Gamil, Mohamed Al-Dafrawi, Karam Motawei, Tawfik Al-Deein and Hamdi and Abdullah Gheith bestrode its stage, and it premiered works by playwrights Saadeddin Wahba, Alfred Farag, Lotfi Al-Kholi, Noaman Ashour and Youssef Idris. 

In early 2000, the theatre was officially put on Egypt’s Heritage List for it unique architectural style and its more than 100-year-old building.

The theatre consists of two auditoriums, the main one bearing the name of the Lebanese actor George Abyad and the small one named after the famous Egyptian actor and director Abdel-Rehim Al-Zorkani. The complex also has a hall for rehearsals, a smaller building for actors’ dressing rooms, an administrative building, a youth theatre and spaces for the Puppet and Taliaa Theatres.

“Returning the theatre to its authentic look after such a destructive fire was really a challenge,” Ahmed Fouda, the engineer in charge of the restoration project commented, adding that the work had been carried out according to the latest technology and had been assisted by old documents of the theatre provided by the Ministry of Antiquities and photographs of plays taken in its heyday during the early 20th century.

“The restoration work has sought to return the theatre to what it was, such that it can remain a cultural beacon for all arts,” Fouda said, adding that the building contained a unique collection of antique sets, artefacts and paintings. “Among the valuable items is the huge crystal chandelier located at the theatre’s entrance, which weighs 720 kg, is five metres high and contains 80,000 pieces of crystal.”

Khaled Al-Zoheiri, busy with other workers putting the finishing touches to the chandelier, told the Weekly that it was not one of the theatre’s original furnishings but had been created in line with the historic atmosphere of the theatre. It was replacing an earlier chandelier, completely destroyed in the fire, and it added to the technical qualities of the building by being designed to absorb sound and thus help prevent extraneous sound interrupting theatre performances.

“The chandelier is four metres wide, which helps it to absorb any sound that could interfere with the performances,” he said. 

National Theatre
The National Theatre after the fire in 2008 (Photo: Ahram archives)

Fatouh Ahmed, head of the theatre, said that the delays in the restoration work since the 2008 fire had been caused by the 25 January Revolution, a change of directors and problems identifying a suitable budget. The lack of security that had spread in the country in the aftermath of the revolution had been the main reason for the delays, he said, while the ministry had also experienced several personnel changes.

Ahmed explains that the contractors responsible for the work, Hassan Allam and Sons, had not been able to continue with the restoration work in the absence of signatures from the ministry’s supervision committee that was led by the head of the theatre. However, in the immediate post-revolutionary period there had been no one able to sign, he said, since the budget had increased according to new prices for the required materials based on changing exchange rates with the US dollar.

“No one wanted to take the responsibility under conditions of uncertainty,” Ahmed pointed out, adding that when he had taken office last year he had not hesitated to sign the relevant papers. He said that as a result of the various delays it was only last year, after three years of pause, that restoration work had finally resumed. “Thanks to the former minister of culture who gave the go-ahead and the recent minister Gaber Asfour we were able to resume the work,” Ahmed said, also registering his recognition of the contribution made by Minister of Planning Ashraf Al-Arabi who had found the required budget.

The restored theatre would be handed over within days to the Ministry of Culture, he said, for thorough testing of the new sound and light systems. New productions of Bashir Al-Takadom (The Precursor of Development), which relates the life story of Refaa Al-Tahtawi, the Egyptian writer, teacher, and translator, by Noaman Ashour and directed by Essam Salem, and Ghaybouba (Coma), a black comedy with Ahmed Bedeir and Mohamed Heneidi and directed by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, were likely to mark the theatre’s re-opening.

However, the work has not all been plain sailing, and things are likely to be delayed by an administrative court investigation into the restoration. Last week Hazem Shebl, a former director of theatre at the American University in Cairo, wrote to Asfour criticising the restoration work and describing it as “inadequate and incorrect.” The letter was published in an Arabic newspaper.

Shebl accused the ministry of failing to improve the theatre’s stage and objected to the construction of a new glass façade for the administrative building adjacent to the theatre, saying that this impacted on the building’s historic value.

Similar reports have been published in other newspapers, claiming that the fire-fighting system has defects, that the budget was exaggerated, that the cost had got out of hand, rising from LE55 to LE104 million, and that authentic architectural elements had been damaged by the new glass façade, which was out of keeping with the building’s original style.

In response, the ministry has sent the allegations to the prosecutor-general for investigation and ordered an administrative investigation led by the ministry’s legal consultant to examine all the work that has been undertaken since 2008 on the theatre. According to statement of which the Weekly has seen a copy, the ministry has asked a committee from the Civil Engineering Research Centre at Cairo University headed by professor of construction Wahba Al-Tahan and professor of civil protection Osama Abdel-Aal at the Faculty of Engineering to review the work. All payments have been halted until the committee’s investigation is complete.

According to a report from the committee, the fire security system was built according to recognised engineering standards, however. Meanwhile, another committee, this time led by the Arts Academy in Cairo, has been investigating the work on the stage. This committee, led by professors Ramy Benjamin, Islam Al-Nagdi and Mahmoud Sami, has found that the accusations made are unfounded. It said in a statement that state-of-the-art techniques had been used in carrying out the work, and that the correct double curtain had been provided for the stage.

Asfour has also clarified the choice of the new glass façade. The committee that approved the architectural drawings for the building had been appointed by decisions taken by the ministry of culture in 2009, 2010 and 2013 and included representatives from the Ministry of Antiquities in order to take into consideration the historical design of the building, he said.

Samir Gharib, former head of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony, had accused the ministry of contravening law 144 of 2006 for the preservation of the country’s architectural heritage, he said, but this was unfounded. The restoration work had been carried out under Antiquities Law 117 of 1983 and amendments in 2010, which was why a representative from the Ministry of Antiquities had been on the restoration committee of the theatre.

National Theatre
A still from the film "Fael Kheir" (A Benevolent) that was used to help in renovating the theatre (Photo: Ahram archives)

The glass façade had been built according to drawings approved in October 2013 and aimed to mix a modern architectural style with the historical style of the National Theatre, something that was common practice worldwide, Asfour said. Mohamed Abu Saida, head of the Cultural Development Fund at the ministry, also told the Weekly that the restoration project for the theatre, started in 2009, had been unusual because it had followed special procedures.

The destruction of the theatre in the fire had caused former minister of culture Farouk Hosni to start the restoration project to consolidate the building immediately, since the building itself was at risk. Routine procedures had, however, then been followed, including the commissioning of an architect, the drawing up of terms of reference and the launching of tenders. After the approval of the prime minister, Hassan Allam and Sons, a leading company, had been selected to carry out the restoration work at the theatre.

When the restoration project contract was signed in 2008, Abu Saida continued, the initial budget was LE55 million. The work was started, but further investigation revealed many hidden costs. The dome of the theatre had been found to be unstable, for example, since the iron frame supporting it had buckled in the heat of the fire, and this meant that very extensive reconstruction work had had to be done. “Putting the edifice on Egypt’s Heritage List was another cause of the increase in the budget,” Abu Saida pointed out, since materials had had to be changed in order to meet antiquities preservation regulations.

The fire had a serve impact on the one-storey administrative building neighbouring the theatre. “The building was ramshackle,” he said, adding that the committee had decided that converting it into a museum to display the theatre’s treasured collection of photographs of old plays would be the best way of saving it for future generations. “This required the consolidation of the building, the construction of another floor on top of the first one, and covering the original façade with a new glass one,” Abu Saida said.

“All these issues led to the increase in the previously allocated budget,” he said, adding that the stopping of the work for three years after the revolution and the increase of the price of materials as a result of changes in the exchange rates had also led to budgetary increases.

As for complaints over the new glass façade, Abu Saida saw these as “unjustified architectural brouhaha.” There were no rights or wrongs in architecture, he said, where various visions were acceptable. Some people preferred traditional designs, he said, while others wanted to see modern or even post-modern designs. “There is a variety of acceptable architecture methods and designs,” Abu Saida said, adding that the mixing of the modern with the classic was a widespread feature of architectural design, seen, for example, at the Louvre Museum in Paris where a glass pyramid had been built within the ancient courtyard.

“This design aims to reflect the original building on the mirror glass façade of the new one in order to provide visitors with a new view of the old building,” he told the Weekly, adding that the design was in line with the development plan of the surroundings carried out by the National Organisation for Urban Harmony. According to this plan, the original entrance of the National Theatre on Al-Gomhouriya Street will be the new main entrance and the existing one on Al-Ataba Square will be closed. A “cultural path” will be built joining the National, Puppet and Taliaa Theatres, this containing an open-air theatre, a music kiosk and the water fountain that was removed several years ago.

“The project is one of the country’s new mega cultural projects, and it will not only rescue a historical site but also renew a very important cultural beacon that will help illuminate the coming generations,” Abu Saida said. Despite the controversy, the theatre is due to re-open to the public in November.

This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly


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