Theatre festival breathes new life into Egypt’s cultural scene

Sunday 21/08/2016
A scene from one of the shows participating in Egypt’s annual National Theatre Festival

Cairo - Egypt’s annual National Theatre Festival drew patrons to theatres na­tionwide, renewing hopes for reviving the country’s cultural life while giving playwrights, directors and actors the chance to present shows with­out censorship for the first time in years.
“I am very optimistic about the effect the festival will have on cul­tural life. It is also a unique oppor­tunity for theatre professionals to demonstrate their skills and show their talent to the public,” festi­val director Nasser Abdel Moneim said.
The festival, first organised in 2009, has been regarded as the main theatre event in Egypt, draw­ing playwrights, directors, actors and dance and costume designers.
Apart from offering profession­als opportunities to showcase their skills, the annual event gives thea­tre lovers relief from the commer­cial shows that dominate the scene the rest of the year.
Organisers have usually stuck strictly to the rules, selecting only shows that demonstrate a commit­ment to long-established artistic and literary measures. This year’s event, however, allowed experi­mental and non-traditional theat­rical shows to be presented.
“The organising committee de­cided for this year’s edition to put some of the rules aside and offer young, innovative and untradi­tional theatre talents the chance to make an unfettered expression of their skills,” Abdel Moneim said.
“The result has been more than wonderful. We are seeing theatri­cal genres that are totally new to the public in this country.”
Among the new genres of shows is one that focused on dancing to deliver messages. Because this is new in Egypt, writers and dance designers included songs within the dances to make it easier for viewers to grasp the themes of the performances.
Competing for the top awards in the three-week festival, which wrapped up August 9th, were more than 40 shows, including Arabic adaptations of international theatrical works such as Shake­speare’s plays, in 15 theatres in the Cairo area. Winning the top prize was Three Sharks, which was writ­ten and acted by a group of univer­sity students. The Kind Man show came in second and Paul’s Song show was third.
Despite controversial and deli­cate topics raised by some shows, authorities refrained from censor­ing or blocking any of the works, diverging from an official trend lately of interfering in the content of some art productions, according to organisers.
Some of the shows dwelled on social inequalities, rampant pov­erty and religious extremism. Others criticised Egypt’s religious establishment for controlling and manipulating citizens’ lives.
The diversity of themes and the freedom given to playwrights, di­rectors and actors to express them­selves gave veteran art critic Amr Dawara hope that this year’s festi­val would “open the door for the birth of a new generation of theatre professionals who will bring about Egypt’s next artistic conquest of the Arab world”.
“We have been culturally absent from the Arab world for a long time now,” Dawara said. “Based on what I have seen so far, I can easily say that Egypt is coming back to the Arab cultural stage and very pow­erfully at that.”
Despite Egypt’s tough economic conditions, the government has al­located $123,000 for the festival, including $36,000 in prize money for the top three productions.
Some artists participating in the event said it was less about money and more about unprecedented exposure and a chance to demon­strate their artistic abilities.
“I am very happy that my work is being presented on stage for the first time,” said Ahmed Abu Khangar, a playwright from Ha­layeb, on the border with Sudan. “This is a real chance in all mean­ing of the word.”
Focusing on marriage traditions in southern Egypt, Abu Khangar’s play would have never been al­lowed into the festival’s earlier edi­tions but was accepted this year af­ter rules were relaxed. Titled Night of Richness and Gold, the play looks at marriage in a comic, yet decent, way. It was awarded a certificate of recognition from the festival jury.
“Theatre will thrive when free­doms are expanded. We must not fear theatre. It is an expression of the moment and as such will be po­litical in nature. We need to protect that and encourage youth to ex­press themselves,” Abdel Moneim was quoted as saying in comments to Egypt’s Ahramonline website.
The festival also honoured a number of artists, including prom­inent Egyptian actor Nour el-Sher­if, who died last year.