Egypt’s National Theatre Festival: Working against the text

Dalia Basiouny, Tuesday 15 Sep 2015

Ahram Online continues to report from the National Theatre Festival, this time looking into a work by Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannus and Khaled Galal’s take on Hamlet

Egypt’s National Theatre Festival
(Photo: Dalia Basiouny)

Many theatre directors choose to present classical texts believing that their texts are a way to guarantee powerful stage productions.

The most ambitious directors, while leaning on the solid work of well known playwrights, try to shed light on a specific angle in the play, through highlighting or eliminating aspects of scenes in order to foreground what they deem relevant to their contemporary audiences, or the current socio-political situation.

A number of the plays featuring in this year’s Egyptian National Theatre Festival are retakes of well-known plays, from Arab and international playwrights. Unfortunately some of them fail miserably in preserving the essence of the original plays.

Wannus’ Rituals of Signs and Transformation

It is always thrilling to see works by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannus. His early plays questioned the prevailing political atmosphere, and his late plays are gems from a powerful writer who knew of his eminent death, and had nothing to fear and was willing to challenge the status quo head on.

Toqous Al Isharaat Wal Tahawoulat (Rituals of Signs and Transformation) is one of Wannus’ exceptional late plays that confronts many of the taboos of Arab societies. It exposes the power relationships between politics and religion, explores new aspects of women’s sexuality, and presents the first respectable gay love in Arabic theatre.

Director and dramaturge Tarek Ezzat of the independent theatre company Modern Teatro was ambitious in his reading of the text, hinting that Islamists are behind the scenes of the corruption, conspiracies and deceit that the play reveals.

Unfortunately Ezzat was not lucky with the actors who did not manage to translate his vision onto stage. Maha Omran did not understand the depth and breadth of the character she plays: Momena who later turned to Almasa, one of the best female roles ever written for the Arabic stage. Her vocal and physical interpretation of the character limited her to a sex worker, rather than a woman confronting society through liberating her body from the limitations imposed upon it.

The role of Abdallah was too big for Mohamed Ashraf, who tried his best to capture the downfall of this prominent figure, and his turn toward the Sufi path to find inner peace. On the other hand, Mohamed Adel ruined the role of El Mofty, incompetently opting for cheap jokes rather than building the complex inner life of the character.

Equally, Abdallah Shaher and Mohamed Ibrahim were not able to capture the beauty that Wannus created in the gay love. And the performance as whole missed it mark. Instead of celebrating all kinds of love and acceptance, this version of rituals seemed to make fun of homosexuality, especially in the scenes between Semsem and the governor.

Hamlet Al Million

But more painful than the limited production values of Tarek Ezzat’s play was the poor vision of the lavish production of Hamlet by Future University.

The director Khaled Galal became a household name following the success for his improvised play Ahwa Sada (Black Coffee) at the Creativity Center that he manages. Galal has created his own style of theatre that is based on improvised comedic vignettes, vibrant colours, sparkle, moving lights and a large number of performers.

His work style is encapsulated by the lyrics of a song in the popular musical and film Chicago “Razzle Dazzle ‘em” summarising the logic of the twisted lawyer in the musical: “Razzle Dazzle ‘em! Razzle Dazzle ‘em! How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”

Galal’s take on classical Shakespeare -- and arguably the most well known play of all time -- was full of glitter, sparkle and… a lot of bizarre choices.

Galal and dramaturge Mostafa Selim chose a contemporary story to present the famous tragedy about the Prince of Denmark. They created a game show based on the television programme Who wants to be a Millionaire?

They dismembered the original play, dividing it into thinly sliced scenes, each presented in a different format, according to the vision of one of the contestants.

The audience was able to see ten scenes from the iconic play, each soaked in a different style: a Turkish soap opera dubbed in Syrian accents, a classical play, an Indian film, a marionette performance, a film in popular cinema style, and as a serious cinema (that looked like a historic TV series), a modern dance, a scene performed in an Upper Egyptian accent, in addition to a version for children fashioned after the Lion King, as well as a singing version in the style of the musical Evita.

Galal, considered by some to be the most important director of his generation, is a show biz' man galore. He knows how to package and present his work, in flashy costumes, and colourful lights. But even the most frivolous in show biz' and the entertainment industry pays attention to details, and should not be limited to showy costumes and dancing lights, which though they razzle 'n' dazzle, they do not hold a play together.

The international game show, and its Arabic version Man Sayarbah Al Millioon is based on the accumulative score of contestants who win a number of successive rounds. In Galal’s play, the ten participants fight for one winning position, which is decided by caller’s voting for their favourite scene! This watered down theatrical version of the game show is just a phony excuse to dissect Hamlet, not trusting that the original play works on its own without so many additives.

The missed targets

The text of Hamlet itself has so much of what Khaled Galal wanted to express in his production. He and Mostafa Selim unfortunately missed many opportunities by replacing these sections of the play, with over-acted, melodramatic, phony wailing scenes and meaningless songs and dances.

What’s more powerful than a play that starts with the impactful and famed line “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark”? Yet, this did not find its place in the current production.

The dramaturge and the director also ignored Hamlet’s speech to the performers who were going to present a small play in court, in which the protagonist reveals the truth about the murder of the late king. This speech is considered the first manifesto for actors advising them to be subtle, not to over act, or needlessly move their arms, and so on. Watching the over-acting, and forced comedy of the young performers, one wonders why did they remove that lecture from the text.

One major flop is ignoring the powerful ending of the original play. After all, the court members are dead, some killed in the duel, others by poison, the enemy enters the court, taking over the State of Denmark. A different director would have used that compelling scene, instead of writing a series of wailing lines and noisy exchanges about the current state of affairs.

This extravagant university performance of Hamlet pays lip service to principles that the play's choices refute. Toward the end the actors say “we should preserve our art. We do not want others to erase our wonderful Egyptian tradition,” while the bulk of the performance celebrates the opposite in their different renditions of Hamlet.

As the director who works the most from his generation, Galal has a lot of experience in running large groups of performers on stage. In this case, he was able to create some nice visuals with the help of set designer Hazem Shebl but he was not successful in creating a performance with a sense of integrity that respects the text or the audience.

Galal has another chance to impress the National Festival audience with Baad El Leel, (After the Night) his second entry to the festival, showing at the Creativity Center on 19 and 20 September.

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