It’s that time of year again. Halloween — the beloved American holiday that is slowly but surely infiltrating the rest of the world — is here, and young and old are donning costumes for parties and trick-or-treating.
Built around the intrigue evoked by the death mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), the musical “Tut Ankh Amon” unwittingly joined in Halloween festivities in its premier outside Austria at the Cairo Opera House this week.
The story goes horribly wrong with its ahistorical presentation of individualism, bourgeois marriage and the ethic of “love conquers all” as timeless and eternal values. Indeed, the musical engages its contemporary audience by superimposing their values, ideas and behavior on a shallow, consumerist version of Ancient Egypt.
The show’s high-flying symbolism simply fails to captivate, and the tired recycling of Pharaonic stereotypes spells the downfall of this overwrought and uninspiring show.
The man, myth, and mask
“The fascination for Tutankhamun is unbowed,” the showbill gushed hopefully. “Shrouded in mystery, Tutankhamun’s life and death captivate many people. When looking into the eyes of his death mask, one is intrigued to know more.”
For those of us suspecting that this millennia-old story has something to tell us about our own lives, this production is here to tell us that we’re in luck. The story of King Tut is said to reveal “profound human themes such as power, love and the quest for the meaning of life,” in an “enthralling, exotic and romantic story,” focused on exploring “existential issues like the great mysteries of eternal life and happiness.”
The show’s costumes, choreography and set contribute as much to its superficial nature as the storyline, affirming all that we already presume to know about this “mystical” time (including its mysticism).
Dancers’ hands move in a way that is recognizable in some Pharaonic reliefs but popularized by The Bangles’ hit song, “Walk like an Egyptian.” The dancers wear pristine white cotton (off-shoulder dresses for women, knee-length skirts for men) with gold decorations, gladiator sandals and blunt haircuts à la Cleopatra for the women. A Nubian (African!) princess appears dressed in a leopard skin dress, while her escorts resemble Masai warriors. (A glance at pesky historical records reveals Nubian dress to be very similar to that of Egyptians.)
Outfitted as such, Memphis is reincarnated as a song-and-dance routine, at once familiar and exotic. In short, anyone who imagines Ancient Egypt to resemble “Grease” in Halloween costumes will find the set familiar.
The heart of this soap opera is, of course, a love story which provides an exceptionally easy thread for the modern viewer to follow. Tutankhamun, separated from his childhood bride Ankhesenamun until they are teenagers, comes back into her life as a spoiled and womanizing brat who has let power go to his head.
That Ankhesenamun is both Tutankhamun’s wife and his half-sister adds just the right amount of exoticism and distance from the modern day. We still understand and identify with her as she lambasts him for his philandering language with timeless phrases like “You are not the guy I once knew, I cannot understand you. You don’t have the key to unlock my heart, you don’t even know where to start.”
His queen’s disapproval spouts a bout of soul-searching for Tutankhamun that leads him to reform himself and declare that Ankhesenamun is his one true love. Things get tricky when he must prove that he’ll do anything for love — even refusing to take the Nubian king’s daughter as a second wife in spite of significant political consequences.
Just as we would from any romantic comedy coming out of Hollywood, we learn that love conquers all, is ideally sacred, and is worth fighting for at all costs. This is especially evident in the song “Can You Feel Our Bond?” which resembles “A Whole New World” sans the magic carpet.
As it turns out, any efforts to convince oneself — against one’s better instincts — that this production is worth seeing are wasted. With the cheapest tickets selling for LE 75, any Cairene interested in diving into the fascinating world of ancient Egypt would be better served to use this money on a ticket to the Egyptian museum and a knowledgeable guide.
“Tut Ankh Amon: The Musical” is showing at the Alexandria Opera House on Nov. 1–2 at 8 pm.