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Royal Buffoonery: King Lear at the National (2002)

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Surprisingly, the spirit of experimentation, which informed the Egyptian theatre in the 1960s left that stultifying Shakespearean cult quite untouched. Between 1963 and 1965, three consecutive National theatre productions of Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet (the first two starring Hamdi Gheith, the third, Karam Metaweh) flaunted the old grandiose, pseudo-classical mode in full opulence, with all the cliched paraphernalia. The audience loved them, and so did most of the critics; there was nothing there that ruffled the inherited expectations of either. The stereotypical view of Shakespeare initiated by George Abyad and his contemporaries seemed to have finally and irrevocably stuck to him like an ugly odor that all the perfumes of Arabia could neither sweeten nor dispel. When British director, Deborah Warner, arrived in Cairo, in 1987, with her Kick company, and presented King Lear at Al-Gomhoria theatre in the mode of a harsh black comedy (a la Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, popularized by Peter Brook), with a crippled female fool, doubling as Cordelia, almost completely naked actors, climbing and jumping off ladders and pouring buckets of water all over the stage in the storm scene, while the octogenarian king pranced around in his underwear, the production was dismissed as experimental horseplay. When she came back two years later, in 1989, with the British National Theatre company, with a more sedate production of the same play – this time, in a bare, ascetic, anti-emotional-identification style, reminiscent of Brecht’s epic theatre – the verdict was even more negative: the proverbial ‘English coldness’ was often trotted out to explain the sense of icy emptiness communicated by the production and many complained that they had looked very hard for the King Lear they know and love, but could not find him.

Warner’s two visits, however, despite the lukewarm reception and adverse criticism, did create a ripple. They showed some young directors here that there were ways of approaching Shakespeare other than those of the National. More significantly, they revealed to them that far from being a rigid, priggish, old-fashioned and extremely verbose pontiff (as the traditional productions or drama classes made him out to be), he was lively, highly theatrical, full of tricks, great fun, and insidiously subversive to boot. At last they had a Shakespeare they could love and play with. In 1991, a young director, Mohamed Abdel­Hadi, embarked on what could only be described as a thoroughly insane project – a production of King Lear at the small hall of El-Tali’ a (avant-garde) theatre, with only six actors, no sets (except a small round platform in the middle over which hangs a crown) and invasively, indeed defiantly, subtitled, “a grotesque, farcical travesty.”

The show was unlike any of the run-of-the-mill parodies of Shakespeare you come across in many countries. It was King Lear, but slightly shortened, more condensed, and projected from the point of view of the fool. With the help of simple, black cloaks, huge masks (with hoods attached) which grotesquely caricatured their real features, stylized movement patterns marked by exaggeration and distortion and significant vocal and gestural changes, the six actors – five men and one woman (Salwa Mohamed Ali who plays Regan in the National’s current production of the play) – doubled and trebled in all the parts, like most travelling troupes in Shakespeare’s day, and they did it with such amazing efficiency that it was difficult sometimes to guess which actor was playing which part under the mask. The constant fusing and splitting of the characters as the actors wore the horrible masks to enact the wicked characters, or took them off to impersonate the good ones, invested the whole performance with a deeply unsettling sense of fluidity, giving it a surrealistic quality, as if it was a nightmare experienced by the fool in the grave, long after the storm was over.

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