Experimental Theater Festival challenges boundaries

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

Groups come from all around the world to participate and sample other cultures’ theater

The set erected at the entrance to the Dar El-Opera complex gives a flavor of what this year’s Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater hopes to achieve. In the sedate setting of the complex’s modern buildings, the façade of an utterly destroyed house, complete with a car crashing through its side, forces the passer-by to stop and investigate. “Fairouz, did you shed a tear? reads a panel set up next to the wreckage. “The events of the family who return to this house will be played out here on the 15th and 16th September at 9 p.m.

The first full day’s performances turned out to be just as bold in nature.

First up was the Austrian company Theater Tanto performing their piece “Underground, which takes as a starting point the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo metro in 1995. The script takes a secondary role in the performance to dance and music. For example, to convey the monotonous rhythm of life in Tokyo and other modern industrial cities, the performers stride purposefully around the stage clutching briefcases, their footsteps creating a heavy, almost military, beat.

Susanna Tabaka-Pillhofer, actress and artistic director of the troupe, said after the performance, “I had a good feeling from the audience tonight. We always learn a lot from showing the same play to audiences from different cultures.

Was the choice of the play a political one? “Of course, something like this will have a strong political resonance in this day and age. But our primary concern was actually exploring the social context. We wanted to highlight the paradoxes of a society like Japan where work is more important than human interaction, said Tabaka-Pillhofer, whose group is performing at the festival for the third time.

Sami Abbas, a member of a theater group from Bahrain who came to watch the Austrian show, said that he enjoyed the performance and thought that the group had worked very hard. He was disappointed however, by the lack of translation – the projectors that were meant to provide it during the performance weren’t working.

Meanwhile, at the Arayes Theater near Midan Ataba, preparations were being made for the Experimental Group of the National Theater from Armenia to take the stage to put on their production of “4.48 Psychosis by the late British playwright Sarah Kane. The play deals with Kane’s experience of the pain of mental illness and the troupe represents the conflicted personality of the central character by using six different actors to read the dialogue. The performance is punctuated by loud, jarring sound effects that cut through the text. Lighting effects are used in a similar fashion; one of the actors twists a mirror, reflecting sharp beams of light out into the audience, whilst another dressed as a doctor shines a torch into the viewers’ eyes.

The interpretation clearly struck a chord with the audience; the team received a standing ovation at the end of the performance. The director of the group, Suren Shahverdyar, said that he was very happy with the performance and the festival’s organization, despite some minor technical hitches. So why did his team come to Cairo? “We wanted to come here because we had heard that it was a very popular festival and because we are keen to know the audience’s reaction. He, like Tabaka-Pillhofer, also mentioned the desire to make international contacts with other theater groups, a desire that was mentioned repeatedly as a reason for coming.

The second day’s offerings included the Jordanian National Theater staging a striking-sounding re-interpretation of Shakespeare: “King Lear as a Sufi. The performance itself supplements, and in part replaces, the original text with Sufi chanting and dancing. However, while some of the direction was truly inspired, some of these new elements in the show dissipated the tension of the original play.

Actors from the Dutch Modern Theater Company had come along to see the play before their own show started later this week. While opinions were divided about whether the Jordanian troupe had managed to succeed in their daring blend of East and West, the actors had no doubts about the usefulness of the festival as a whole.

“Seeing work from other cultures makes you aware of what you’re used to, of the fact that you’ve been working in a certain tradition. After seeing these pieces, I’m more confused about what theater is and what acting is, it’s great, said Camilla, one of the actors.

Their director, Rasoul Saghir, is originally from Iraq, and one of his main aims in participating in the festival is to “keep the lines of communication open between Europe and the Arab world.

Cultural exchange is clearly a vital function of the festival in the current climate. As Martha Coigney, head of the festival’s viewing committee, pointed out, “At this time when people tend to withdraw behind their national boundaries, watching theater together becomes in itself a political act.

While it is encouraging to see the theaters full of fellow actors sampling talent from other countries, one hopes that more Cairenes will also be taking the opportunity to do so as the festival continues.

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