Arab theatre faces increased challenges in reaching the public

Egyptian playwright Sherif Saleh said theatre “is going through the same survival experiences as other traditional media, such as film, television and radio.”
Saturday 31/08/2019
Art with a message. A scene from “King Lear” shows actor Yehya el-Fakharany (C) performing on stage.(Al Arab)
Art with a message. A scene from “King Lear” shows actor Yehya el-Fakharany (C) performing on stage.(Al Arab)

CAIRO - As a distinguished novelist, playwright, critic and academic, Egyptian intellectual Sherif Saleh has a profound and multifaceted relationship with artistic creation.

Saleh, in an interview with The Arab Weekly, spoke of his experience as a creative artist and critic, especially in the theatre, about contemporary Arab theatre, the relationship of theatre with freedom and democracy, the general climate and the future of theatre with experiments by young artists.

Saleh gave special importance to the arts and literature. He said he sees them as beacons of hope for humanity despite the domination of modern media and commercial work. He said he believes it is important to salvage Arab theatre from its intractable and demoralising problems — in bureaucracy and censorship — that led to the near-death of the theatrical movement and to its elitism and isolation.

Saleh’s plays have been performed in Kuwait, where he was awarded the prize as best playwright by Kuwait’s Theatre Days Festival. His work also earned an award in Sharjah.

Saleh said the “the real dilemma lies in playwriting. Also, live performances have become so rare, almost secret because almost no one is paying attention to theatre performances any more since social media has dominated the scene, redefined the traditional performance media and integrated them into different tracks.”

“Theatre has long been at the forefront of the media that raised awareness and nourished dreams of change and reintroduced concepts such as freedom, human dignity and justice,” Saleh said, “but it is no longer alone in the field of influence and communication and it is going through the same survival experiences as other traditional media, such as film, television and radio.”

Saleh explained that “any YouTuber today can act out a sketch in front of his phone’s camera and broadcast it live on Facebook and followers can see it instantaneously.

“It is also not far-fetched that, very soon spectators in Egypt and the Gulf will be able to watch live through holographic technology a show on Broadway.”

Social media have not only replaced traditional arts in attracting and influencing the wider public, they have also redefined and radically changed the arts. Saleh said he rejected the notion that theatre would become extinct but added he believes it will undergo a significant transformation under the influence of the digital revolution.

It is also likely that it will benefit from fast-evolving technology in developing its tools and in its ability to reach a wider audience, whether on social media platforms, out on the street or via smartphones, he said.

Saleh said there is a gap between the theatre and its audience, pointing to the existence of two types of theatre. One is a relatively popular commercial theatre that is widespread. Examples include performances in Egypt by Masrah Misr and in Kuwait by Tariq Ali. It is aimed at generating a profit and entertaining the audience.

The other type of theatre is confined to elite audiences that attend performances during theatre festivals. The festivals have become “intensive care rooms to keep Arab theatre alive,” Saleh said.

Another aspect to the theatre crisis in the Arab world is the negative effect of the bureaucracy and strict Arab censorship causing theatre to become isolated and separated from its audiences, he added.

The theatre is the art of the “here and now,” the art of direct live interaction, and is, therefore, the most democratic and free form of art, he said. This is why it is constantly harassed and considered dangerous.

Saleh explained that his stay in Kuwait allowed him to watch performances of plays from various Arab countries that included many experiments worthy of consideration.

“I don’t want to sound pessimistic,” he quickly added, “but, in my assessment, the era when the theatre was the number one entertainment medium is forever gone.”

The playwright pointed out that the lights of the theatres at Emad Eddin in Cairo were extinguished long ago and Egypt’s National Theatre is but a shadow of what it was in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Still, Saleh said: “There are, nevertheless, from time to time remarkable works shown, such as ‘King Lear’ by Yehya el-Fakharany and some very advanced experiments by young artists. It is in the hands of the new generation that hope and the possibility of renewal and overcoming the crisis reside.”

Another problem limiting the growth of Arab theatre is the fluctuation between classical and colloquial Arabic. The latter gives important creative characteristics to every piece of work but becomes risky when the work is taken to an audience outside the boundaries of the local dialect. Egyptian audiences, for example, may find it difficult to understand and react to performances from Morocco or Sudan, while the problem may not exist with performances from the Palestinian Territories or Syria.

Saleh said he has no idea about how to solve that problem. He is definitely a proponent of the vernacular in the theatre because it expresses very precisely one’s identity and cultural specificities but he also realises that it may become a barrier to communication.

“The solution may require bringing the language of the performances to the level of simplified standard Arabic or to give body language a bigger role than the dialogue so that the spectator can understand,” he said.