Rereading Nefertiti

Nahed Nasr , Sunday 6 Aug 2023

Last Friday, at the Goethe-Institut in Cairo, Hany El-Metennawy’s theatre troupe El-Shanta (or ‘The Bag’), which he founded, staged the premiere of Nefertiti: Queen of the City of Light, a stage reading, written and directed by El-Metennawy.

File Photo: The Nefertiti bust is pictured during a press preview of the exhibition In The Light Of Amarna to mark the 100 years of the Nefertiti bust discovery at the Neues Museum (New Museum) in Berlin. AFP


It is based on the novel Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth by the iconic writer Naguib Mahfouz, which was published in Arabic three years before he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The stage reading is sponsored by the Shubbak El-Fann (The Art Window) initiative run by the Goethe-Institut.

With a cast of 12, El-Metennawy continues with his interactive style of developing his plays through a series of stage readings in pursuit of a complete theatrical performance. He also begins a new stage in a distinguished theatrical career by presenting stories from ancient Egypt with his own vision. The theatrical treatment of El-Metennawy for Mahfouz’s novel included Nefertiti becoming the focus of the work, not Akhenaten, as well as using Egyptian dialect interspersed with classical Arabic, and relying on a long process of research to build characters that included visits to Upper Egypt where Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived.

Delayed by Covid, the project was due for production a full three years ago, and he used this time to develop the text further. “The sublime, grand literary language of Naguib Mahfouz which is one of the strongest elements of his literature makes transforming it into theatrical dialogue a challenge,” he says.

It required sculpting the characters in a way that made their features, voices and body language reflect their backstory from his own perspective. One of his bolder steps in his interaction with Mahfouz’s text, he feels, is to convert the language of dialogue from classical to Egyptian Arabic. “I imagined how the characters would speak in a kind of sophisticated colloquial that suits their class and education, while I made Akhenaten speak a simple form of classical Arabic to distinguish him from the others, since he was in fact a philosopher and a poet who spoke in a language almost unintelligible to those around him.”

Back in 2008, El-Metennawy directed a play based on French-Belgian writer Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novel Oscar and the Lady in Pink. It was presented under the same name as a stage reading, but in a dazzling and unconventional style that combined reading and performance, with the addition of a projection screen in the background. Both audience and critics were impressed.

Part of El-Metennawy’s concept is to keep a theatrical work lively, interactive, and open to continuous development by presenting it in the simplest form, a stage reading, allowing it to be performed in various venues such as universities, schools, cafes on any budget, especially in light of challenging production conditions. A stage reading may go further into a full-fledged theatrical work, and it may remain as it is. “This is what El-Shanta was founded on. By ‘The Bag,’ I meant that the whole play, its lighting, decorations, and accessories can fit in a bag and be taken to any venue, transforming it into a theatre.”

That is the case with Nefertiti, since after developing the text, choosing the language of dialogue and building the characters, El-Metennawy decided to test his tools on the ground through a stage reading. He says the cast was chosen in accordance with the stage reading, with the actors’ voices and their ability to vocally impersonate the characters being one of the main criteria of selection. But there was another criterion, no less important: the ability to commit to putting together a work of art without having a production budget. “Theatre, especially independent theatre, lacks production support, except for limited opportunities, so the formation of the cast and crew took a long time.”

The cast features Mohamed Al-Saidi as Meriamun, Hany as his father, Mona Suleiman as Nefertiti, Nermin Habib as Nefertiti’s ghost, Ahmed Yahya as her father, the tutor of the the crown prince, Randa Abul-Dahab as Toya, the nanny, Yasmine Weam as Nefertiti’s sister and death, Karima Mansour as the Queen of Egypt, Essam Ahmed as Echaton, Fathi Ismail as Echaton’s father, King Amenophis III, Youssef Al-Nahhas as a priest, and Nael Ali as Haremheb the army commander.

El-Metennawy feels sure he is done with writing and ready to move to what he calls the sound-in-time stage. “The stage reading is the beginning of developing the theatrical form of the work, without taking away the element of entertainment that brings the audience closer to the characters, so that it is not just a static reading, but rather an engaging and entertaining performance.” He says he tried to make the stage reading as visually entertaining for the audience as possible, but in a minimalist way, through mise-en-scenes, lighting design, and some very simple sets such as a thin, transparent curtain which the actors are at various distances behind depending on their temporal location in the story: characters from the time of Akhenaten appear as ghosts or phantoms in a dream, but the narrators including Meriamun are clearer; and those who appear at two different times change locations.

This is because the play takes place in two different times, one of which is the real time of the story during the young scribe Meriamun’s journey in search for the truth about what happened during the reign of Akhenaten, meeting those who survive from that time; and the other is that of the Akhenaten era itself, as we travel back in time through the tales Meriamun listens to. “Now the written text has become audible, with some scenographic jurisprudence, but transforming the stage reading into a complete theatrical work is open to many options that all depend on the production.

It may turn into a minimalist contemporary work that plays on various stages, or to a realistic work with ancient costumes and sets to be shown, for example, at the Museum of Civilisation, which would necessitate a large-scale production.” El-Metennawy’s goal is not the form of the show, classic or contemporary. “My main goal is to tell the tale, to give Nefertiti presence so that she is a figure that we hear and talk about. Does it make sense that she should have lived in the conscience and memory of Upper Egyptians for 3500 years without being present in our literary or artistic works, or even our school curricula?”

To build vital characters, El-Metannawy complemented the literary text with real-life encounters: “I wandered around Upper Egypt, went to Tell Al-Amarna in Minya,” that is Akhenaten’s capital, and to Luxor to listen to the people there, and I discovered from their folk tales and legends how well loved and present Nefertiti remains despite her absence from education, media and art. It is a silent rebellion against the way our history is ignored.” Reading may help with historical events, but it is interpersonal contact that generates vital characters. “The ancient Egyptian has never been separated from the modern Egyptian, and the relation between them has never been interrupted, but it is not a relation you can trace in books and studies, only by talking to the owners of the story.”

It would be impossible to build a character from Upper Egypt without being aware of the weather there and how it affects behaviour. “When you have a character who lived in Upper Egypt 3,500 years ago, you need to be close to his descendants in the same place. This is what creates figures of flesh and blood. It is the kind of theatre I want to present, a theatre that contemplates reality and develops by researching reality and interacting with people who carry the story in their hearts from multiple angles. That is why I say that Nefertiti is a continuous project in stages involving reflection at each point.”

In Mahfouz’s Dweller in Truth Akhenaten is the main character, but here the emphasis shifts to his wife: “When we talk about Akhenaten as the sole leader of the Cultural Revolution at the time, we ignore the fact that he himself said he was but one half of that revolution, the other half being Nefertiti. The presence of women is important, but it is ignored. What I wanted to emphasise is that Akhenaten and Nefertiti are one. When we talk about one of them, we necessarily talk about the other. Respecting the presence of women is what made Egypt the first civilisation in the world.

That is the equation.” According to El-Metennawy, the importance of Akhenaten’s story lies in the fact that he was wronged, excommunicated, criminalised, and punished by death, even though he was a peaceful man and an artist: “He shouldn’t have been treated that way, and perhaps he shouldn’t have been so intransigent and stubborn in defending his beliefs either.”

The story of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, El-Metennawy adds, is not the only story that deserves to be told, as ancient Egyptian history is stacked with narrative treasures. “I want to tell these stories. I want the theatre to tell these stories. It is part of our awareness of who we are. I have to know my father so that I can find my compass. I believe in theatre that searches for the truth, that provokes curiosity, and I hope that curiosity can turn into an infection that spreads among audiences and artists.” It is in this spirit that he hopes to bring Nefertiti to universities and schools, to the Museum of Civilisation, to theatre halls, to Upper Egypt itself.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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