I am the one intrigued by the impossible/ I see the moon and jump high into the sky/ Whether I catch it or not should not matter/ As my heart is already filled with joy.
This famous quartet summarizes the philosophy of Salah Jahin, one of Egypt’s most brilliant minds of the 20th century. This creative genius left an indelible mark on every field he tackled as a poet, political cartoonist, songwriter, scriptwriter and children theater creator. He imprinted the modern Egyptian psyche with his philosophy, expressed succinctly through his renowned quartets. He revolutionized popular songwriting with his unique phrasings, adding charming new words and delightful expressions to the colloquial Egyptian vocabulary.
The new production of Al-Ghad Theater, “Suktom Buktom (Silence, Not a Word) is based on one of Jahin’s most memorable creations: the 1960 children puppets operetta “El-Laila El-Kebira (The Big Night). Directed by Salah El-Saqqa, the famous operetta represented a rare collaboration between the legendary writer and another legend: music composer Sayed Mekkawy.
In it, the activities of the main evening of a Moulid are distilled in quick sketches that immortalized a myriad of characters, now engraved in the Egyptian popular heritage.
Doaa’ Te’eema, the dramaturge and director, grew up loving Jahin’s works. Years later, she decided to pay tribute to the Egyptian bard, and present some of his work in performance. In “Suktom Buktom, she uses some of the “Big Night’s staple characters such as the generous café owner and his quick-witted waiter, the big-voiced folk singer, the blind sheikh, the impostor, the naïve village mayor and the belly dancer.
These characters, along with number of child performers, exchange lines from the famous operetta that have been infused with other Jahin’s works: film dialogue, popular songs, cartoon commentary, shadow puppets, and off course the Quartets, some recited by the voice of Jahin himself.
There is nothing subtle about this performance. The folk characters are made even more vivid through the colorful costumes, designed by Mona Hamed. Ahmad Amin’s vibrant set design adds to the feel of festivity with his bright colors, and multi-layered childlike houses. Unfortunately, this visual feast is not matched by enough dramatic weight.
The performance exerts a lot of effort distancing itself from the “Big Night, yet try as it may; it eventually succumbs to the artistic weight of the original operetta. With no dramatic structure, the dramaturge’s attempts to create dramatic arcs with some development result in empty encounters and conversations between caricature characters that do not evolve into any meaningful interactions to push the drama forward.
The staccato attempts are nonetheless humorous; the songs and dance numbers are entertaining, and the new spins on parts of dialogue are engaging, especially to audience members familiar with the original operetta.
The performance features several young talents with powerful stage presence and lots of potential. Among them are Ahmad Baseem who added wit and humor to the roles of the lion trainer and singer Hanteera. May Hamdi, as his wife, superbly embody the essence of the village woman with an expressive singing voice. Mahmoud Hafez elicits both laughter and compassion as the naïve mayor. Also worthy of note is child performer Fady Yousry, who acts, sings and plays music.
The director and most of the performers are students at the Egyptian Higher institute of Theater Arts. The lot formed a theater group called “El-Gerab (The Sack) and presented two independent shows, “Yama Fel Gerab (The Sack is Full of Tricks) and “Shaklaha Bazet (Looks Like It’s Not Working), before winning a grant by The National Company for Heritage Performances to present their current production Al-Ghad Theater.
In her third directorial attempt, Te’eema seemed humble about her effort to take on Jahin’s works. The young dramaturge and director sifted through the large body of work he left behind, selecting parts that could fit together into one performance. She ended up with a very long collage of his work, and had to condense it to fit the 80 minute show.
Te’eema told Daily News Egypt that there was nothing she could’ve added to Jahin’s flawless works. She essentially aspired that, in addition to conceiving an entertaining performance for the young and not so young alike, she could shed light on some of the popular songs that Egyptians know by heart, but are not associated with their author, Jahin.
It seems somewhat ironic to name a performance “Silence, Not a Word that pays a tribute to the man who encouraged people to “Talk. Words are grand and essential/Talk, those who don’t talk are full of worries. The silence thus might indirectly be referring to the void Jahin had left behind.
Te’eema sets out to reach “the impossible. the fact that her performance “Suktom Buktom falls short of catching the moon does not matter much, as Jahin’s quartet advises, because the entertaining evening “fills the heart with joy thanks to the festive atmosphere and the nostalgia induced from Jahin’s immortal legacy.
“Suktom Buktom is performed daily at Al-Ghad Theater, Agouza, 10 pm.