More than any other Egyptian art form, the state of the theater has sharply divided critics and theatergoers alike. Apart from very few efforts, commercial theater – one of the towering entertainment designations in the past – has now hit rock bottom.
Underground and experimental theater, on the other hand, continues to astonish and provoke a wide array of regular audiences along with a growing breed of new ones. The national theater, though, remains in a bewildering state of limbo.
Amid all the economic, social and cultural changes, National Theater still managed to subsist despite the declining rate of attendance. Several remarkable efforts can always be singled out each season and the minor cultural renaissance that started to slowly surface in the past few years encouraged the audiences to return to the theater.
Yet the majority of the annual crop remains, pretty much, mediocre. El Eskafy Malekan (The Shoemaker s a King), one of the most hyped and publicized plays of the current season that kicked off last week, is an almost accurate embodiment of everything that s wrong with current Egyptian theater.
The Shoemaker opens with the legendary Persian character Shahrazad from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights pleading with the frowning king Shahryar to spare her from being beheaded by telling him another tale about a shoemaker whose kindness, compassion and generosity propels him far beyond his humble life.
As soon she begins the story, the word cut is blurted out loud while Shahryar changes his costume and the props are turned aside.
The exchanges between Shahryar (Maged El Kedwany) and Shahrazad (Noha Lotfy), along with the actual story of the shoemaker, are a film within the play.
The story of The Shoemaker revolves around the poor shoemaker Maaroof who, despite his underprivileged circumstances and the constant nagging of his needy, wife, is content and thankful.
Maaroof s enviable contentment drives Anzooh, the wealthiest merchant in town, to frame him in a robbery after the former refuses to sell him his small store.
Before being taken to prison, a fairy princess who fell in love with the shoemaker after secretly observing him for a year, comes to the rescue. The princess lands Maaroof in an island called El Na as (The Sleeping Island); a place where joy, colors and dance are forbidden.
The princess s act causes turmoil in the goblin kingdom after she broke the rules and fell in love with a human. To avoid death, the princess makes a bet with her father the king of goblins: If Maaroof succeeds in changing the Sleeping Island and purges it from the control of the Goblins, the pair will be allowed to marry. If he fails, the princess shall be forced to marry the devious, malicious minister of the kingdom.
The Shoemaker is a multilayered large production about tyranny and the necessity of confronting stifling ideologies and fighting for the basic freedom of leading any path a man chooses in life.
The story written by Yousri El Guindy blends folk tales with contemporary themes and struggles. The entire parable of the shoemaker functions, in the context of the play, as a covert lesson for Shahryar to acknowledge his own personal brutality.
These two storylines are perfectly synchronized. The third storyline however, seems dispensable to the plot, even though it’s the most interesting, subtle and imaginative part of the entire work.
The leading star of the film is a man who believes in real art but seems to have compromised extensively and sold out as a result of his accumulating economical and familial responsibilities. These pieces of information are primarily based on inferences and not on tangible facts director Khaled Galal gives away.
There are several moments when the lead actor looks silently at his trailer mirror with eyes filled with regret and melancholy. The Shoemaker is his proper role in years and he knows that this might be the last chance for him in quite some time to create a work of genuine artistic merit. El Kedwany brilliantly shines in those brief scenes, exhibiting strong potential for a good character actor.
Galal doesn t offer any closure to this plotline which appears, in the end, as if the director forgot to end it.
The main shortcoming of The Shoemaker is that it s quite bland. The possibilities offered through the film storyline of the original comedy are endless, yet the outcome on stage is mostly uninspired.
The choreography and music numbers are tepid and indistinguishable from the numerous songs performed before in other plays. Even the elaborate, grand set lacks a much-needed sense of individuality. There s not much to look forward to in the performances, apart from Yousef Fawzy who plays the king of the goblins like a rock star. Fawzy is having a blast with his role and his limited stint breaks the dull mould whenever he s on stage.
The Shoemaker s a King isn t a bad play, just an exceedingly average one. Galal s ambition is deeply buried under many layers of ordinariness spawning a three-hour performance that fails to entertain.