Tracing Shakespeare: A brief look at a century of Bard's presence in Egypt's theatres

May Sélim, Saturday 30 Apr 2016

As the world marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death last week, Ahram Online looks at the influence Shakespeare has had on generations of Egyptian cultural figures and audiences alike

Bibliotheca Alexandrina
A bench placed at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's plaza during the 'Shakespeare 400: Forever and a Day' festival, Alexandria, April 2016 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Last week, the fourth centenary of the death of Shakespeare was marked all over the world.

The celebrations extended to Egypt where, throughout recent decades, the 17th century English playwright and poet has remained very present on the country's theatre stages. The Bard continues to inspire Egyptian theatre creators while actors work to present his most challenging characters.

Suffice to look at state and independent theatres, students and professionals, performances in cities and in the governorates to realise how many attempts there have been — and continue to be — of presenting Shakespeare's plays to Egyptian audiences.

During the 2015-2016 season so far, Egyptian troupes have performed Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear, among others.

And naturally, Shakespeare peaked in the past two years, which marked celebrations of the playwright's 450th birth anniversary (2014) and commemorations of the 400th anniversary of his death (2016).

Creators and cultural players in Cairo and Alexandria focused on Shakespeare in particular, and their efforts were additionally intensified last week. Cairo held a few seminars on Shakespeare, while the Bibliotheca Alexandrina organised the "Shakespeare 400: Forever and a Day" festival that gave an indepth look at the poet through many mediums. 

King Lear
Yehia El Fakharani in King Lear directed by Ahmed Abdel Halim at the National Theatre in 2002 (Photo: Mohamed Wassim)

The never ending reservoire of universality

According to renowned theatre critics, the universality of the Shakespearean plays and their topics places them outside any specific spatio-temporal moment. As such, the Bard’s tragedies and comedies alike touch human minds at any time and at any place.

"Shakespeare is the humanist playwright,” said Mohamed Enani, professor of English literature and a translator who opened a symposium that was held last week at the premises of the Supreme Council of Culture in Cairo.

Since 1964, Enani translated 25 of Shakespeare’s dramatic texts and 37 works about the Bard.

When speaking to Ahram Hebdo about the playwright’s influence on Egyptian theatre, Enani moved back to the early 20th century, to 1916, when the world celebrated poet’s 300th death anniversary.

"In those days. Great Britain invited the Egyptian poet Hafez Ibrahim to Stratford, Shakespeare's birthplace. Ibrahim read a poem he wrote especially for the occasion. At the time, Egypt was still under the British Mandate and everyone criticised Hafez for participating in an event organised by the occupying forces. Ibrahim defended himself saying that Shakespeare is the humanist poet," Enani said.

In his book Shakespeare fi Masr (Shakespeare in Egypt), published in 1985, the historian and critic Ramses Awad talks about Egyptian theatre in the years between 1915 and 1930, stressing its burlesque character. Awad explains that this theatre was often criticised for the "light content" it was offering to audiences.

According to the author, in order to remedy this problem, the Ministry of Education considered founding the Institute of Dramatic Arts, an institution that would train actors and other professionals working in theatre. A special selection committee was formed with the aim of researching international texts and chosing the works that would add value to the world of performing arts in Egypt.

The committee included a number of renowned intellectuals – among them Egyptian poet and dramatist Ahmed Shawqi (1868-1932), Egyptian-Lebanese poet and journalist Khalil Mutran (1872-1949), pioneer of the Egyptian theatre George Abyad (1880-1959) and actor and director Zaki Tolyamat (1894-1982). The first texts selected were those of Shakespeare. Since then, the English poet’s influence remained significant in Egypt.

Enani underlines also that "in 1900, Mohamed Effat is known to have provided a first important translation of Macbeth to Arabic. Later on, Mutran, who was appointed director of Cairo’s National Theatre, also translated Shakespeare," Enani says.

In an article published in Al-Ahram Weekly in 2006, Enani elaborated that "It was not until the 1930s that serious translation work started in earnest. Khalil Mutran, the great Lebanese-Egyptian poet, produced prose translations, possibly from French, of some of Shakespeare's plays." 

The success of those translations influenced other poets, such as Shawqi and Salah Abdel Sabour (1931-1981) who began following the Shakespearean model in their own dramatic works.

"Shawqi even incorporated extracts from Shakespearean dialogues into his works. The literature professor Ahmed Etman (1945-2013) has even proven that Shawqi wrote Cleopatra and Antony as a response to Shakespeare’s tragedy. In his text, Shawqi obviously sympathised with the Egyptian queen," explains critic and professor of theatrical arts Nehad Selaiha.

I Am Hamlet
I Am Hamlet, 2009 (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

The experimental Shakespeare

In the 1960s, supported by the newly founded Ministry of Culture, Egyptian theatre began flourishing and stagings of Shakespeare’s plays were in abundance in Cairo and outside the capital. But it didn’t take long for this "serious theatre" to lose it’s alure and be replaced by private commercial theatre productions.

"The 1980s, however, brings to our mind the play The Merry Wives of Windsor translated by Dr. Enany into colloquial Arabic and staged at the state 'Al-Talia' theatre. The performance was set in Mamluk Egypt," recalls Selaiha.

The emergence of independent theatre swiftly followed and newly born young troupes began providing new and often experimental adaptations of Shakespeare.

With the new millennium – especially in the early 2000s – Shakespeare became highly fashionable.

For example, state theatres witnessed runs of King Lear (2002), directed by Ahmed Abdel Halim and starring Yehia El-Fakharani. Performed in a classical format, the play remained successful for three consecutive seasons.

On the one hand, El-Fakharani’s name attracted audiences to the National Theatre once again. On the other, however, the director managed to remold the Shakespeare’s text written in 1606 and into an accessible performance for a contemporary audience.

On the thematic level, the director decided to stress the social dimension of the play, shedding light on the themes of family crisis and children’s ingratitude. To boost the rhythm of the language the director leaned on the works of vernacular poet Ahmad Fouad Negm (1929-2013).

Selaiha recalls yet another memorable performance, that of Julius Caesar which "was a brilliant work coming from a young director, Sameh Bassiouni. The show was a big success, despite it’s classical angle. Bassiouni shed light on the acting of the characters while incorporating an interesting choreography by Atef Awad," Selaiha explains.

Hamlet, directed and choreographed by Monadel Antar, 2016 (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Daring Shakespeare

Other creators went even further in their on-stage takes on Shakespeare, often confronting in a surprising way both the classical and tragic features of Shakesperean texts. Some opted for stressing the burlesque, or comic, element.

"This new trend was mainly initiated by the director Khaled Galal who had already staged a number of the Bard’s plays before embarking on a performance titled Shakespeare One, Two (1998), in which he made a parody of Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth," Selaiha says. The Creativity Centre then staged other burlesque takes on Shakespeare with The Hamlet Junction (1999) and A Mid-August Night’s Dream (2002).

It is in this context that Galal used laughter, improvisation and disguise to dilute the tension and darkness hidden in those plays.

Furthermore, the three successive performances of Galal’s Creativity Studio also aimed at approaching Shakespeare differently, bringing to audiences new concepts of King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

"Sometimes parody or any short adaptation can serve to reveal the director’s unique talent. For instance Mac and Ly, a musical adaptation of Macbeth by Marwa Radwan, offered a comic and feminist take on the original work. All those experimentations work as long as they do not fall into the cheap laughter category," comments Selaiha.

Past years also offered a memorable play titled Ana Hamlet (I am Hamlet) directed by Hani Afifi. 

The director approached the protagonist from the perspective of a young Egyptian citizen who takes the subway everyday to go to work. With the characters reminding us of regular Egyptians, this staging broke many taboos associated with Shakespeare's form and meanings.

On the other hand, the same protagonist found his way to the contemporary dance performance titled Hamlet (2016), directed and choreographed by Monadel Antar.

Those are the only a few of dozens of examples of how Egyptian culture creators from all generations are inspired by Shakespeare, exploring his timeless themes, adapting them to their changing reality, and pulling from them new meanings time and again. 

Mac, Beth Mubashir
Mac, Beth Mubashir (Macbeth, Live Broadcast), adapted and directed by Ahmed Foad, Creativity Centre, July 2014 (Photo: Al Ahram)

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