OBITUARY: Mohamed Abul-Seoud, an enduring icon of Egyptian theatre

Nora Amin, Sunday 10 Feb 2019

A true embodiment of the artist, Abul-Seoud (1971-2019) was a theatre director, playwright, scenographer, painter, translator and filmmaker

Mohamed Abul-Seoud
Mohamed Abul-Seoud

I have never thought I would one day write about Mohamed Abul-Seoud in the past tense. Even as I speak of his past achievements, I cannot say “he was”, only “he is”. Then again, everything he did in the past is present and necessary at the present moment.

Abul-Seoud is not only a theatre director and a playwright, he is also a scenographer, a painter, a translator and a filmmaker, a true embodiment of the Artist.

Born in 1971, Abul-Seoud passed away on 2 February. At the age of 47, he has already created a legacy that makes him an enduring icon of Egyptian theatre, although he was never interested in glory or self-serving gestures. Abul-Seoud constructed his legacy the hard way. A self-taught artist who graduated from the department of philosophy at the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University in 1992, he had the philosophical mind and poetic imagination to write his own texts for theatre.

He pursued his love or writing and theatre among his circle of friends and colleagues, which included some of the most prominent poets and artists of what was to be labelled the Nineties Generation. His directorial debut was The Covent of the Bird’s Mountain, at the theatre festival of the Faculty of Arts, featuring Sarah Enany and Mohamed Metwaly, among others.

It later became his first fully professional production, presented at the Hanager Arts Centre under the leadership of Hoda Wasfy, who along with Nehad Selaiha was to be his main supporter for the best part of his career. From that moment on, Abul-Seoud’s philosophical and poetic streaks begin to interweave into a signature theatrical fusion of the highly literary and textual with the genuinely visual and scenographic.

For Abul-Seoud the mind and the heart are one, visual and verbal constructions are organic twin aspects of the same metaphor, the same message. Such constructions were undoubtedly pioneering in the history of Egyptian theatre. One can comfortably say that Abul-Seoud’s work pushed Egyptian theatre towards a new level of intellectual discourse and aesthetics.

He is indeed one of the innovators, embodying the nineties spirit of a generation that aimed for change and freedom by launching an independent movement in the arts, whether in cinema or theatre or literature. The artistic imagery of his theatre productions cannot be separated from his intellectual discourse and his poetic approach to life. He is a true poet of the stage, and a true revolutionary of theatre.

Abul-Seoud’s main topics include power and oppression in their diverse forms. Whether directly written by him or adapted from previous texts, his theatre productions had a clear line of political and social criticism. In Apasadia (Night’s Left Foot), based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he criticised fanaticism and the oppression of the mind. As early as 1997, Abul-Seoud’s notion of freedom was beyond any simplistic interpretation. He tackled the theme of freedom of thought as the foundation for any other form of freedom and practice head-on.

This was the time when the great thinker Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid was persecuted for his opinions and interpretations. The McCarthyism Miller had criticised was not yet over in our part of the world. But the 1990s were an era of brave cultural leadership – for which Hoda Wasfy is one model – and of independent theatre as a movement of intellectual, social and political criticism, a movement towards change.

In Edward Bond’s Lear, Abul-Seoud tackled the notion of the state and political alliances, which was just as important as the story of the father and his daughters. He directed the legendary Khaled Saleh as Lear in what was probably the role that triggered his career in film. Khaled Saleh filled the stage with an extraordinary power and sensitivity that only a director like Abul-Seoud knew how to support and advance.

He was known for providing a foundation of freedom of embodiment for his actors, beyond limitations and traditional craft restrictions. His imagination was contagious, so was his rebellious attitude towards the relation between the stage and the society, and between acting and truth. For Abul-Seoud the stage was no place for pedagogic messages, nor for an ethical reconstruction of the outside world. The stage was the world. It was not an alternative world, it was the World. For him acting was not about pretending, it was about being, living and breathing the character.

His company The Shrapnel was a model for creating such a life. In collaboration with Hany El-Metennawy and Mohamed Farouk as well as Ehab Abdel-Latif, Abul-Seoud constructed a revolutionary theatre that deserves to be taught at the Higher Institute of Theatre in Egypt. As a playwright, he is comparable to Mikhail Roman; as a theatre thinker he is comparable to Antonin Artaud; and as a scenographer he has the talent of Yannis Kokos and of the world’s masters in stage design. The only talent he had absolutely none of was that of hypocrisy, sadly the ruling vice in so many circles.

From the criticism of religious power, to the criticism of social taboos, dictatorship and fanaticism, Abul-Seoud never made compromises. He paved the road for hundreds of theatre artists to experience a different and innovative kind of theatre, one that makes prgress towards instrumentalising art, and towards the stage that only voices power’s ideology. He pioneered a theatre where the image and the imaginary are equally present as the text, and where poetry can be felt in every moment, in the image, in the voice and the breath.

Dozens of actresses and actors trained in his company and contributed to his work, yet he never presented himself as a teacher or pedagogue. He presented himself as a creator of art, and above all as a friend: a free soul that defies all the narratives of power, and constructs its own world of freedom and imagination; a free soul that refuses servitude and manipulation; a free soul that fights against restriction and oppression. Many of us in the theatre field are connected to this free soul and to its journey, we are Abul-Seoud’s voluntary siblings, infected by the dream. And we will keep his soul alive, making sure that, whatever else happens, the revolutionary stays.

In 2016, Nehad Selaiha reviewed the celebration of the 25th anniversary of independent theatre in Al-Ahram Weekly. Hers is still the most significant and concise description of what happened between 1991 and today, what happened to Abul-Seoud’s generation and collective artistic revolution:

“In December 1991, the second Free Theatre Festival invaded the stronghold of the National and overran Al-Taliaa state theatre, taking for its central theme the works of Youssef Idris who died that year. That second encounter was a crucial milestone in the development of the movement, it brought the ‘free’ troupes not only critical acclaim and wider publicity, but also official recognition in the form of government awards to the tune of ten thousand pounds. New groups joined the movement, swelling the number to twenty-three and some of those newcomers proved valuable assets.

Soon afterwards, the newly opened Al-Hanager Centre attracted these groups who eventually discarded the epithet ‘free’ as somewhat romantic, preferring to call themselves ‘independent’. Though itself a state institution, Al-Hanager acted from the start and for the next eighteen years as a meeting point between the state and the independent groups, adopting a collaborative policy which guaranteed state funding for them and spaces for rehearsals and performance without interference in their work or erosion of their individual artistic identities and names.

However, Al-Hanager could not accommodate the ever swelling number of independent troupes and was itself closed down in 2007 purportedly for renovation. It did not officially reopen until January 2012, but had sometimes put on events and shows during its official closure in defiance of the authorities.

“In an article entitled ‘Nothing can defeat her’, published in the Weekly in 2008, I said that Al-Hanager was not a building: ‘it was people, a living idea, a set of values and shared beliefs, and a mode of operating based on sharing, nurturing and mutual support’. That was why it kept alive and active long after it was deprived of its theatre, gallery, offices and cafeteria. When the building was closed, its artistic director, Hoda Wasfi, insisted that artists keep on working under its umbrella and patronage, helping them to squeeze money out of the government and to find alternative rehearsal spaces and venues.

The first Season for Independent Theatre at Al-Hanager was launched at Rawabet on 18 February, 2008, but on 20 March the following year, Wasfi opened the second Season at the Centre’s closed theatre where it ran until June 22, offering 10 new productions, totalling 80 performances. Writing on this page at the time I said: ‘the fact that this second season, unlike the first one, which was hosted at Rawabet last year, will take place at Al-Hanager’s own headquarters, in defiance of officialdom and its suspicious and quite unwarranted insistence on keeping it closed, is in itself a significant political act of protest and has drawn to the opening hordes of angry young artists and sympathetic supporters.

“As the independent theatre movement continued to grow, the official cultural bodies that could support it — like Al-Hanager and the Cultural Development Fund that set up in 1995 a short-lived ‘committee for the promotion of independent theatre in Egypt’ — could not cope with the needs and demands of the old groups, let alone of those rapidly mushrooming all over the country. In a famous document entitled ‘Now or Never’, drawn up by a number of the movement’s core groups and submitted to the minister of culture ten years after the first Free Theatre Encounter, they asserted that; “Loose and random collaborations with official bodies do not provide the minimum requirements for the groups to develop at a rate commensurate with their ambitions and artistic abilities, nor do the current working conditions and existing laws allow them to become professional, non-profit theatre companies entitled to legal/financial status.”

The document also complained of “the scarcity of adequate performance spaces to accommodate the volume of theatrical activity in Egypt today and the prohibitive costs of rending such spaces as are available and deplored the existence of a bureaucracy that effectively deters independent groups from using state theatre spaces when not in use and of restrictive laws that prohibit the use of non-traditional performance spaces.”

The following year, I reviewed the last production that Abul-Seoud wrote and directed before his death, Mother Africa (produced and presented at Hanager Arts Centre in 2017):

“The Hanager Arts Centre is reclaiming its history of independent theatre, it is again welcoming the generation that founded Hanager hand-in-hand with Hoda Wasfi in order to fuse the gap between past and present. Needless to say such an endeavour requires full financial support which is still lacking due to the traditional bureaucracy. Mother Africa could have been better served had it been released earlier with the necessary technical requirements.

As it is ongoing budget cuts for productions at Hanager can be seen as the gradual slaughtering of the artistic excellence of productions, and the element of pressure restricting the imagination of artists and theatre-makers. It can almost be considered a parallel or equivalent narrative to the exploitation of Africa in the performance: a case of world dynamics manipulating Egypt’s economy in such a way as to change state policy towards funding the arts.

“The vicious circle is the same everywhere, and everything is connected. Globalisation is destroying our forests in order to construct railways to carry the weapons of our own destruction. World corporations are destroying our culture and restricting our artistic production. Our continent is fighting back, our art at Hanager embodies the story as a fable because it is too painful to portray otherwise.

“Let us salute Abul-Seoud and his wonderful team for trying to pay tribute to the collective popular imagination in reference to Africa. This is as important for the revival of the African imagination and its visual and poetic imagery as it is for the revival of Mohamed Abul-Seoud’s legacy and the whole journey of independent theatre at the Hanager Arts Centre.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 February 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Mohamed Abul-Seoud (1971-2019) The revolutionary
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