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The Ship and the Villains: vibrant, simple, entertaining

An Arabic remake by Islam Imman of Nobel laureate Dario Fo’s stage play, Isabella, Three Tall Ships and a Con-Artist, is great fun, with profound humour

Wael Eskandar, Monday 3 Oct 2011
Photo by Sherif Sonbol

El-Safina Wel Wehsheen (The Ship and the Villains) is a play about an actor condemned to death for quoting Shakespeare, using the term "gods" and declared an apostate. He persuades his condemners to give him a chance to live. They decide that he should act out a play. If it’s good they’ll let him live, if not, they’ll put him to death. The play he chooses to perform re-enacts the life of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who discovered the Americas.

The stage performance is an Arabisation of the play Isabella, Three Tall Ships and a Con-Artist. The play was written in 1962 by Italian playwright Dario Fo who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997. The play was subject to violent attacks at the time by fascist groups in Rome.

In recent times it has been a challenge not just to find a decent stage production by motivated young people, but to find one where you don’t want to either storm out or sink in your chair hoping it swallows you from boredom. The Ship manages to keep its viewers engaged.

The life of Christopher Columbus (Hamza El-Ayli) is presented with satire as he encounters numerous bureaucratic obstacles preventing him from discovering a new route to India. He finds little support from King Fernando (Rami El-Tombary) who is too busy waging wars on neighbouring countries but manages to win the favors of Queen Isabella (Nefertari). The events of the play highlight the bureaucracy and corruption in governments, even for a great explorer like Columbus.

The play is directed by Islam Imam, winner of the State Prize for Creativity in 2005 for his work Zel El-Homar (The Donkey’s Shadow). Imam has been an admirer of Fo’s works ever since their translation to Arabic following his Nobel Prize win in 1997.

“Any stage show must be first and foremost entertaining,” points out Imam. “However, if it is not capable of being received on numerous levels, it could be counted as shallow.”

Imam has attempted to provide a multi-dimensional performance that can be enjoyed by simple viewers, but that carries depth for those willing to read into it. The play talks about power, corruption and issues relating to modern day Egypt and manages to remain lively and simple.

“I have changed the first part of the play from Fo’s original play to relate to our current climate of religious sensitivity,” points out Imam.

The choreography is noteworthy with all areas of the stage busy with one thing or another. The actors use sound effects and vocals to create an entertaining audio experience. One of the keys to stage plays is high energy, and in that regard The Ship and the Villains has not been found lacking. The show maintains a great energy throughout and proves highly entertaining. The cast comprised of young actors maintains a quick pace throughout. Since the play was originally written to be performed as a street play, much of the performance relies on the actor’s physical and vocal abilities rather than stage sets and audio.

The opening and closing scenes are perhaps the most astounding part of the play where all the performers congregate around the protagonist and remain still with violent demonic expressions to mimic a medieval painting. The music plays and the characters move nothing but their mouths, as if cartoon characters; as the music shifts they shift their position very quickly to form another pose for another medieval painting. The wonderful choice of music with the absolute stillness of the actors provides a surreal striking visual that will linger after the show.

Some of the jokes are funny and pertinent, others are entertaining to watch but do not draw full out laughter necessarily. The actors maintain a playful mood even though the subject matter may be categorised as black comedy.  

The one drawback is that play tends to be a little too boisterous at times, relentless with its quick pace and would have done well with a few breathers. However, all in all, with a running time of under an hour and a half, the play proves to be a simple and entertaining experience, particularly for non theatre buffs.

Starring: Rami El-Tombary, Hamza El -Ayli, Nefertari

Directed by: Islam Imam

Entry Fee: 10-20LE

Showings: The play was first shown 10 August 2011 and is performed all nights until 25 October on the Floating Theatre in Manial at 9pm, except Mondays. It will be performed in Alexandria in Eid El-Fitr at Elysees El-Horreya stage for 15 days, after which it will be shown again in Manial, Cairo.

Photos by: Sherif Sonbol 

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