Though somewhat overshadowed by a glut of cultural events in the second half of 2021, with many facelifts in its 28th round the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET, 14-19 December) made a strong comeback.
Undeniably the most important theatrical event in Egypt, fusing the many axes of contemporary international practice, in its three-decade history CIFET has had resounding successes and faced major challenges. Launched in 1988 by the then Culture Minister Farouk Hosny with the aim of placing Egypt on the international theatre map, it reflected and, however partially or gradually, recognised the growing independent theatre movement. The launch involved the late actor-scholar Saad Ardash (1924-2008), also a founder of Egypt’s Free Theatre, through which he aimed to introduce both traditional and experimental forms.
Starting with its second round in 1989, the event was presided over by the later scholar-writer Fawzy Fahmy, the former president of the Academy of Arts, who retained this post until 2010. Before he passed away in October 2021, Fahmy was named honorary president of the 27th CIFET, which took place in 2020. The present round bears his name. Also honoured were stage directors Essam El-Sayed and Hassan El Geretly (Egypt), Khalid Al-Tarifi (Jordan) and Naji Al-Hay (UAE), as well as scenographer and costume designer Jean-Guy Lecat (France).
The festival was interrupted for five years after the January Revolution in 2011, coming back in 2016 with Sameh Mahran as president. In that round it was renamed the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET) and, limiting its programme, dropped its competitive character. In a 2016 interview by Nahed Nasr, on this page, Mahran explained the change in this way: “Internationally speaking, the term ‘experimental theatre’ is no longer used. It reflected experimentation as a unique feature of theatrical productions that emerged during a specific time — the era of science that is based on observation and experimentation. Today, this kind of experimentation became a fundamental feature in all theatrical practices. In previous years, there was a need to emphasise this “experimental” concept. Now it has become a matter of fact.”
The name was changed back in 2020, when Alaa Abdel Aziz took over, and the competition too was reinstated though, due to Covid-19, the international shows took place online.
After a decade dogged by budgetary and organisational limitations, CIFET’s 28th round was the first to hold true hope of resuming former glories. With a new president, Gamal Yakout, and two artistic directors, Mohamed Abdel-Rahman El-Shafei and Saeed Kabeel, it was held at an unusual time of year (it normally takes place over the first 10 days of September), but the new dates were selected to accommodate the post-pandemic international theatre calendar and, in the context of Yakout’s attempt to create a dynamic regional network, to avoid conflict with the Carthage Theatre Days in Tunis. It has already been announced that the next round will be held at the usual time (1-10 September).
Yakout has also restructured the awards system, with prizes now going to specific components rather than being bundled into the usual categories (best play, best actress, best actor, best director, and best scenography). In an interview published on this page in July 2021, Yakout commented, “During the festival, we might be surprised by amazing theatrical solutions that deserve an award but do not fall under the traditional award protocols. I’d rather set up a number of awards to be given depending on what we see.” The festival allocated LE 500,000 as well as five awards amounting LE 100,000 each, distributed to chosen segments.
The Ukranian play Caligula scooped three awards (best performance, best director and best actor), while the best actress award went to the Kuwaiti actress Hala Omran for her role in I Medea (Kuwait), the best scenography award to The Last Comedy (UAE), and the best dancer award to a performer from Deals with God (Germany). The closing ceremony also announced the winner of the Experimental Theatre Club, a new initiative launched by Yakout which included Egyptian performances produced by troupes in numerous governorates. The award worth LE 30,000 was divided between two winners: The Mask, a play from Port Said and Still Here by the actors of the Beni Suef Cultural Palace.
All in all the official competition, opening with Deals with God, featured 12 performances, one each from Ukraine, Greece, Tunisia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Indonesia, and two from Egypt: Défilé 19 and Gemini. The fringe programme included Lovetronics, an Egyptian play based on video mapping, and The Guaranteed Way to Get Rid of Stains, also from Egypt. The guest performance was Jane the Brave (Switzerland), an internationally celebrated clown play by Gardi Hutter.
Directed by Kovshun Oleksandr, Caligula – an undeniably great work of art based on the classic text by Albert Camus – capitalises on elements of absurdity in its psych ward setting, with the bloodthirsty emperor becoming a symbol not only of power and psychosis but also ambition and lethargy. Surrounded by madmen, Caligula’s nonsense, distorted perceptions and behaviour are so sensitively and aesthetically tackled that they solicit the audience’s sympathy on numerous occasions. Classically staged, the play experiments with the use of space and the approach to language, with the director challenging preconceptions of the character.
Défilé 19 was definitely a surprise from director-choreographer Walid Aouni, whose previous works are usually characterised by depth of research and tackle historical figures. Here, wrapping up decades of contemporary dance practice, Aouni reveals his sense of humour of a showman, creating a performance filled with the artistic grotesque and entertainment.
Different plays approached the experimental component in different ways, using contemporary technology, playing with the scenography or taking on the new communication tools (social media, zoom calls etc.). The question of theatrical experimentation is definitely a huge one inviting all kinds of artistic solutions, and CIFET offered a range from work that stresses the connection between theatre and technology (the Greek play 'Antigone, a Hubris' and Kuwaiti 'I Medea') to more traditional performances using innovative scenography (The Last Comedy) or work that draws on dance and body expression (Défilé 19, Gemini and Deals with God).
In numerous works, the artists used the tools that surround them, speaking in present-day language even when they dealt with such characters as Medea, Antigone or Caligula, and default to the speedy rhythms of modern life. Still, some modes of experimentation can only be taken with a sceptical pinch of salt, with shows proving unconvincing or not living up to the creative claims they make. Taking this into account, some have questioned the festival’s selection process, and there are definitely lessons to be learned here.
It is worth celebrating the stars of the non-competitive programme. The Egyptian performance Lovetronics, directed and choreographed by Ezzat Ismail Ezzat, presents an avalanche of technological connections and our growing loneliness as we are trapped in ever-evolving virtual communications.
Based on video mapping, Lovetronics was staged once prior to CIFET, during its premiere at Goethe-Institut’s Shubbak El-Fann. Its depth of thought, the correlation that it maintains between stage art and contemporary world, and the precision of execution definitely qualify this play for the competition or at least a show outside the out-of-the-way downtown Metropol Theatre.
One of Europe’s pioneering woman clowns, the internationally renowned, multi-award winning artist, author and actress Gardi Hutter has staged Jane the Brave over 1,300 times all across the world. Her two performances at the Cairo Opera’s Small Hall were a huge success, preceded by a two-day clowning workshop to Egyptian participants. Considering the creative weight and expertise represented by the Swiss artist, there should have been better promotion of her participation to attract larger numbers of wanna-be-actors and already practicing theatre artists in general to the workshop.
Hutter’s workshop was but one of a multitude of events - seminars, discussions and workshops - bringing together theatre practitioners and people from all walks of life. It would be impossible to enumerate all the activities, let alone explain their value.
The festival also featured a remarkable Cairo International Exhibition of Unconventional Avant-Garde Stage Design, which ran throughout the CIFET’s days and presented scenography from 20 countries around the world. The brainchild of a set and light designer Hazem Shebl, this was the first such exhibition to be incorporated into the CIFET programme. The jury announced its winners: Egyptian set designer Heba El-Koumy, Palestinian designer Esmail Dahlan, Lee Chien-Hsien from Taiwan and two designers from China, Haiyong Liu and Kedong Liu.
CIFET achieved a lot this year, but it also generated great expectations. Taking into account an especially bumpy decade, the 28th CIFET has definitely paved the way to a more solid presence on the map of Arab and international theatre. Many plans were carried out to the letter, many dreams realised, and of course there were also many bumps on the road and disappointments on the part of artists and aficionados, whether relating to organisational or artistic aspects. They all become lessons for future rounds. It is now up to the management team headed by theatre professionals – Yakout, El-Shafei and Kabeel – to assess the 28th edition in order to present an even more powerful event in September 2022.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.